Holi: Everything to Know About the Festival of Colors

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To picture India is to envision a dazzling array of colors: fluorescent fuchsia silk saris, emerald green hills, red stone fortresses, and golden yellow curries. In a vibrant country, no occasion is more multicolored than Holi (also known as the “Festival of Colors”), the Hindu festival that draws revelers from around the world. Whether you plan a trip to India to experience the event in person, celebrate at a local Holi festival, or just enjoy looking at pictures (and maybe indulging with Indian food), here are some things you’ll want to know about this amazing celebration.

Time of Year

Happy celebrants with smart phones dancing during the color Holi Festival.
Credit: fotojog/ iStock

Although Holi is celebrated for a full two weeks in some parts of India, the traditional holiday begins on the evening of the Purnima (day of the full moon) during the Hindu month of Phalguna, and continues into the following day. In the Western Gregorian calendar, this evening usually falls in the month of March. The first night is known as Holika Dahan, when bonfires are lit and grains, legumes, and coconut are thrown into the flames. The day after is known most commonly as Holi. In 2021, Holi begins on the eve of Sunday, March 28.

Religious Significance

Sacred flowers are taken for worship on hand at River Ganges in Varanasi, India.
Credit: AAGGraphics/ iStock

The earliest references to Holi date back to the fourth century B.C. According to Hindu tradition, Holi celebrates the god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Krisha triumphed over the evil King Hiranyakashipu and his demoness sister, Holika, who was destroyed in a fire while trying to kill her nephew Prahlada. The holiday commemorates the victory of good over evil. In addition to Hindus, Holi is also observed by Jains, Sikhs, and many Buddhists. Holi was widely celebrated during the Mughal Empire in India, and many modern Muslims observe the holiday in non-religious ways.

Cultural Significance

Holi Celebration in Mathura Temple, India.
Credit: Instants/ iStock

Regardless of religious beliefs, some people around the globe celebrate Holi to mark the end of winter, welcome the herald of spring, and appeal for bountiful harvests in the growing season. Holi is also a fun and playful time for repairing relationships, forgiving grudges, and celebrating romantic love and the renewal of life.

A Riot of Color

People celebrating the Holi Festival of Colors in India.
Credit: Kristin F. Ruhs/ Shutterstock

After the first night’s bonfires, the day of Holi itself is a riot of color. People of all ages flood the streets, giddily covering friends, neighbors, and strangers with a riotous rainbow of dyed powders and drenching passersby with colored water — a favored prank of a mischievous Lord Krishna when he was young. There are also temple services, processions of idols, musical performances, and dancing.

Meaning Behind Each Color

Colorful piles of powdered dyes used for Holi festival in India.
Credit: mazzzur/ iStock

The vibrant colors of Holi also carry symbolic meanings. Blue is the color of the gods, and indigo dye itself, which is believed to be the world’s oldest dye, literally means “from India,” where it was produced. As in many cultures, red is the color of love, and traditional wedding saris are a fiery shade of scarlet. Yellow, often obtained from turmeric, reflects the warm rays of the sun. In Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu is said to have woven the rays to fashion a resplendent yellow garment for himself.

Time to Feast

Traditional Indian sweet and salty foods, flowers and powder colors for the Holi celebration.
Credit: StockImageFactory.com/ Shutterstock

Except for periods of fasting, people around the globe typically celebrate holidays with food, and the Festival of Colors is no exception. India has a love for sweets , and no feast is complete without dessert — and lots of it. Try ras malai (dough balls stuffed with cheese curds often flavored with cardamom, saffron, lemon, and almonds), malpua (banana-and-coconut pancakes drenched in syrup), or barfi (dense, fudge-like treat made of sweetened condensed milk and ground nuts). Savory offerings include crispy, deep-fried pakora fritters featuring onion, spinach, or meat and chana masala, a hearty dish of chickpeas simmered with a variety of spices.

Ceremonial Drink

The popular drink lassi, a traditional Indian yogurt drink.
Credit: al_la/ iStock

Holi can get extremely rowdy — particularly when there’s bhang lassi. This traditional drink combines yogurt, rose water, spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, and even cannabis. As one of the oldest preparations of the herb, the drink is consumed with abandon during Holi. While marijuana and hash can land you a jail sentence in India, bhang lassi is — mostly — legal.

How to Participate

Colorful hands at the Holy Week in Barsana, India.
Credit: xavierarnau/ iStock

Travelers lucky enough to be in India should definitely take part in this colorful festival, but a few tips will make for a more enjoyable outing. First, Holi is not the time for finery. Wear your oldest clothes and prepare to pitch them after the festivities — that color is not coming out in the wash. Closed-toe shoes are also a good idea to protect your toes from exuberant crowds. You’ll want a bag for that camera too, since powdered paint dust and water aren’t easy on electronics. And sadly, while the spirit of Holi is peaceful and playful, make sure you’re wary of strangers in close proximity and pickpockets. Be safe and have a wonderful holi-day!

Closer to Home

Participants celebrating the Holi Color Festival in Brooklyn, New York
Credit: ozgurdonmaz/ iStock

Holi is celebrated by the Hindu diaspora around the world, so India isn’t the only place to partake in the festivities. New York City has a large Indian population and often hosts a few smaller celebrations. Believe it or not, the city of Spanish Fork, Utah, also hosts an enormous gathering of up to 70,000 people — courtesy of Hare Krishnas who settled in the area to proselytize to Mormon students at Brigham Young University. Melbourne, Berlin, and Cape Town are also great places to get your paint on.

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