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Holi festival in India: History and celebrations

Holi is a riot of colours
Image courtesy: ©Flickr/Steven Gerner/CC BY-SA 2.0

When you think of Holi what comes to mind is a riot of colours with unabashed, raucous fun. With a historical significance steeped in a relatively sober theme, the contemporary version of Holi spells laughter, colours and inimitable joy. It’s as if the entire country joins in to welcome spring. For travellers, incredible photo opportunities and a peek into India’s most fun festival awaits.

History behind the festival

True to most Indian festivals, Holi’s lineage can be traced to a number of legends. The most well-known one is that of the demon King Hiranyakashyap and his son Prahlad, who was an ardent follower of Lord Vishnu. When Prahlad refused to concede to his father’s wrongdoings, the King tried to kill him. After several attempts, Hiranyakashyap decided to make young Prahlad sit on his sister’s lap and burn them both. It is said that Holika, Hiranyakashyap’s sister, immediately immolated, while not a flame touched Prahlad. With this legend, Holi represents the victory of good over evil. The day also commemorates the arrival of spring. It is said that Lord Krishna is also associated with the festival, as he often teased the Gopis with water and dry colour. This practice is still prevalent in all parts that celebrate the festival.

Where to head for Holi

The top cities for celebrating Holi are in the northern belt of the country. Mathura, Varanasi, Vrindavan, Shantiniketan and Delhi are most popular destinations for a slice of Holi – Delhi for its contemporary avataar and the rest for historical significance. Of the destinations, Holi of Mathura is most well known. Here, the adjoining villages become the hot spot for Lath Maar Holi, a style where women of Barsana beat up men from Nandgaon with sticks. This is unique only to these villages. In other places like Varanasi and Vrindavan, the celebrations are more sedate with the lathis replaced by plenty of colour, song and dance. Bhaang is an essential ingredient in the merriment and is often served in homes as well. Delhi gets slathered in a more contemporary shade with parties organised for merrymakers. One such successful plug in the calendar is the Holi Cow party held every year (

Top Tips

  1. Holi is also the time, when a traveller’s safety might be compromised in the chaos. Ensure that you have a reliable local resource to accompany you, especially if you are planning on joining in with the locals to play Holi.
  2. Bhaang is commonly served in the form of a drink or ladoos in parties, in homes as well local sweet shops in all key cities on Holi. It can be potent and palatable to everyone. Refuse vociferously if you have to.
  3. Book your accommodation and tickets early to get confirmed rooms and to avoid high fares.

AUTHOR'S BIO: With a penchant for travelling ‘ungoogled’, Supriya has willingly got lost a number of times in the most obscure places of India for the last 8 years. She lives on a healthy diet of anecdotes and tea with auto drivers, co-passengers and locals! Supriya currently runs a Bangalore based travel-photography outfit called Photography Onthemove and writes regular features for India and International travel publications. More on: