Backpackers’ Guide to Holi Festival in India

Written by: Macca Sherifi

Holi, also known as the Festival of Colours, may not be the biggest religious festival in the world, but it is without a doubt one of the best. The first thing that springs to mind when you think of it is people coloured in paint and powdered dye flying through the air, but what is Holi Festival?

Holi is mainly celebrated in India and Nepal with the millions of Hindus coming together on the last full moon day of the lunar month (February / March).

The history of Holi is fascinating. The main reason people celebrate it is to bring in the new season, Spring (hence the colours), but there is a darker undertone it all. Hindus believe it is the one day of the year that the Gods look away, the one day of the year where they can rid themselves of their evil demons before starting anew. The colour is supposed to signify the sins, and with it being washed off at the end of the day you are reborn clean.

Holi lowers the strictness of social norms in Indians; gaps between age, gender and status are thrown aside. Together, men and women, the rich and the poor, enjoy each other’s company in a truly hedonistic day. With the gods turning a blind eye you see a libertas in Indians that is rare. They really open themselves up and it’s good to see a different side to them. Expect booze, bhang, and maybe the occasional chillum; after all, that is what Holi Festival is really like.

What is Holi Festival?

Holi hey

I celebrated Holi Festival in 2009 with a couple of friends and it was one of the craziest days I had on my travels. I was in Varanasi, one of the holiest Hindu cities in India and home to the burning ghats, and I couldn’t imagine a better place to celebrate it.

We arrived a couple of days before Holi to see what it was like on ground level and to see the build-up to the festival. The city was already teeming with people making their preparations and hundreds of thousands seemed to be arriving every day. One of the things you have to get used to with India is sharing any experience with a least a million others.

The day before Holi we felt like we had a good understanding of the dos and don’ts and we had a detailed plan of attack. That day we went down to the ghats to help some locals and to play cricket. This was our reconnaissance mission; we wanted to know the area inside out before we went to battle.

Next we bought some supplies. These consisted of:

  • Water pistols
  • Water bombs
  • Coloured dye

That evening we spent all night in the bathroom making water bombs and perfecting our water pistol technique. We knew that this was one festival not to be under prepared and we wanted to make our mark. Literally.

The morning came and we were up bright and early at 7am. The partying starts early at Holi Festival and we didn’t want to miss a second of it.

After a quick breakfast, we stepped gingerly out on the streets not to sure what to expect. At first it was quiet; no one was to be seen, but if we had any doubts about the craziness of Holi they were quickly dispelled as we rounded a corner. Four kids screamed at us, running towards us with water pistols at the ready like some sort of war re-enactment (imagine the slow mo scene from Blackadded Goes Forth). Slow to the draw, we got absolutely covered in coloured water. Holi had started.

A bonfire on the street at Varanasi

The further and further we got into the streets of Varanasi the more insane is seemed to become. Kids were hanging off roof tops pelting anyone who walked past with water bombs; sadhus, Indian holy men, were smoking chillums overlooking the River Ganges contemplating everything going on around them; and locals were partying like it was the end of the world down at the ghats.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give to anyone going to Holi Festival, it’s to dive in at the deep end and to embrace it all with open arms. Like most things in India, if you go into it with an open mind you’ll have the time of your life.

Holi Festival ended with the three of us dancing to some deep techno beats sharing a bottle of whiskey with the locals. We then followed the parade through the streets of Varanasi ending up near the burning ghat by the Ganges.

The partying continued long into the night and it was sureal experience. All in all, there aren’t words that can describe or do it justice; it just one of those things you have to experience for yourself…

Further Information

If you’re thinking of heading to India for Holi Festival then check out our India country section for advice and information on the other things to see and do while you’re there.

Also, if you’re looking for some other hedonistic parties then check out our article on the top 5 celebrations around the world.

And finally, don’t forget to jump on the message boards to chat to some other gappers going to India.

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