Holi is a Hindu festival of colours, love and spring which is celebrated according to the lunar calendar. As soon as we found out that Holi was just over a week after the wedding we were attending in India it made deciding our travel dates an awful lot easier. We’d both heard of Holi and had seen pictures of the colourful festival, so naturally we were keen to explore it ourselves. It didn’t disappoint, and will certainly be an experience to stay with me for a long time.
Holi is celebrated over two days, something I hadn’t realised until we were in India. When Holi is celebrated is dictated by the lunar calendar and when the full moon falls but there was some additional confusion this year as the full moon was over two nights. Whilst most of India celebrated on the 8th March (which was also the date Google had given us)), Rajasthan (the state we were in) was celebrating the colours on the 7th, a day earlier.
Holika Dahan is held the night before the colour festival. This is where big bonfires are set up to mark the burning of Holika, following the legend of Holika and Prahalad. Fires are lit on street corners to cleanse the air of evil spirits, ready for the arrival of Spring the following day. Whilst there was a small bonfire on the street we were staying on, we went to Jaipur’s city palace to see the big bonfire which belongs to the royal family. It was lit shortly after sunset and then a lot of men with big sticks went in to light their sticks from the bonfire. They came rushing out and got onto the backs of motorbikes (!!!) to light bonfires elsewhere in the city. This was all quite fast and loud, with lots of motorbikes revving and backfiring. After this had happened or was safe for the rest of the crowd to make their way forward and we were allowed into the gates to be closer to the bonfire, and the royal family.
The second day of Holi is very bright! If you’re in India in the lead up to the celebration then you’ll see plenty of stalls selling the Gulal powder, and water pistols. It’s worth noting that some Gulal powder is made from toxic chemicals so we tried to make sure we bought Herbal Gulal which is free from chemicals and non-toxic. We bought it from a stall that seemed to be quite popular, and checked with the other customers that it was herbal. Of course, this doesn’t control what other people are putting on you, but it helped us feel better.
What are the options to celebrate Holi in Jaipur?
If you’re in Jaipur to celebrate Holi as a tourist then you should find plenty of options to do so. I was a little concerned that most people would be with family and friends and therefore there wouldn’t really be a way for us to be involved, but it was very inclusive and as a tourist we found most people were very keen to ‘play Holi’ with us. We’d barely left our hotel when we got our first colour dumping from a group of young men on the back of motorbikes.
If you’re a bit concerned about where to go then Rajasthan tourism run an event just for tourists which is advertised across the city in advance. You can get free colours, buy snacks, see cultural demonstrations and take part in it all in an environment designed to be safe. This is really nice of them, and we popped out heads in but the event itself felt inauthentic and disappointing. It was a little like being in an Ibiza club at 11am, but filled with a mix of gap year teenagers and retirees. Some hotels and hostels run their own events too so it’s worth checking with where you are staying in case there’s something smaller and more intimate you can take part in.
We decided to head out and celebrate with the locals, so we back to the City Palace in Jaipur and headed to the Hindu temple. It was very busy and quite intense! Colours being thrown around, people were pushing to be at the front, and we found ourselves to be very popular with people wanting to exchange colours and take photos with us!
What should I be aware of before visiting a Hindu temple?
It’s important to remember that you need to remove your shoes before entering the temple, but you’ll find shoe racks at the gate or piles of abandoned footwear just at the side of the walkways. You should also make sure you are dressed respectfully and modestly, with shoulders and knees covered. You should also make sure you aren’t wearing any animal products. Many people will make offerings to the gods inside, which you could choose to do as well. Generally people circulate through a Hindu temple in a clockwise manner.
Some top tips for celebrating Holi as a tourist
Don’t wear clothes that you want to be able to wear again. White colours are encouraged but won’t be white again – right through to your underwear. The colours also seem to react to sweat, becoming darker where you sweat but also making it stain the skin for several days. I had a slightly red shoulder and orange stomach for just under a week but was reassured to see other people in the same position. Apparently massaging body oil into the skin before ‘playing Holi ‘ can help stop the colours sticking so much.
Wear sunglasses. It definitely won’t stop all the powder (and sadly mine got broken) but it’s a good way of trying to protect your eyes.
If you’re a woman be careful, sadly I did experience a couple of groping incidents and I think this would have been worse if I’d been alone or not travelling with my husband. Some people clearly take advantage of the fact it’s a day you’re encouraged to touch other people but they were in the minority.
Be aware that as it’s a holiday, pretty much everything will be closed and there’s likely to only be so long you can tolerate being in such a busy environment. I needed to come out of the temple after a while as I was finding it difficult to breathe due to the amount of powder in the air. It’s also advisable to keep moving, otherwise you’ll be stuck in the same place whilst you’re bombarded with people wanting photos. After visiting the palace area we ended up walking through some of the city parks before returning to our hotel for a shower, a rest and some dinner.
Go where you feel most comfortable and if you don’t feel comfortable at any point remove yourself from the situation. It’s a fun and exciting and vibrant festival, but like most things in India is also pretty intense and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Would I go to India specifically for Holi? Possibly not, but I knew I was going to visit at that time of year or the days worked out with anything else planned, it’s definitely worth taking part in. I felt like Jaipur was a great place to celebrate Holi as it’s quite a colourful city anyway, and is clearly set up for tourists taking part. A lot of people we met were planning to head to Pushkar, which is a pilgrimage site and a city with lots of temples.
Have you celebrated Holi in India? Do you have any tips?