Holi: India’s Fine Mess

Steve English March 27, 2013 4

Bright, bold and boisterous, India’s Holi celebrations
always leave their mark.

Where I come from (Canada), the end of winter is typically celebrated with a premature rush to the basement to dig out the shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. Sure, the temperature may still be in the single digits, but after months of twilight, sleet and runny noses, that first hint of spring…. Well, it drives you a little mad.

A blank slate. A pre-festivities G Adventures group on the Delhi to Kathmandu Adventure.
Photo courtesy CEO Binu Thomas.

Maybe it’s the feeling of renewal or the freedom that comes from the ritual casting off of heavy coats, but spring-induced delirium is a universal thing. The craziest celebration of all has to be the Hindu festival of Holi, a welcoming party for spring that begins on the last full moon of the lunar month Phalguna, typically falling in February or March.

Full-contact finger-painting on the Delhi to Kathmandu Adventure.
Photo courtesy CEO Binu Thomas.

Celebrated primarily in northern India and Nepal, the “Festival of Colours” is essentially a messy three-day street party-slash-water balloon fight. In cities and villages across the region, participants fill the streets and public squares armed with buckets, balloons and syringes filled with dyed water (some just skip the receptacles entirely and chuck whole fistfuls of coloured gulal powder) and basically just have at each other in a riotous spectacle of colour-flinging mayhem.

Behold! A masterpiece! Just before hitting the showers on the Delhi to Kathmandu Adventure.
Photo courtesy CEO Binu Thomas.

I know what you’re thinking: “This looks like a total blast and all, but what in the world does it all mean?” Good question. Holi has its origins in a tale from Hindu mythology, in which the demon king Hiranyakashipu gets his comeuppance. According to legend, Hiranyakashipu made a deal with Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, to become immortal as thanks for being a devoted servant. As you might expect, immortality went to Hiranyakashipu’s head and he started causing a lot of trouble, telling everyone which gods they should worship and whatnot. His son, Prahlada, was not amused and opposed his father, which only annoyed Hiranyakashipu further. After failing to kill his son in a number of horrible ways, Hiranyakashipu set Prahlada on a pyre with his sister Holika, a demon who was supposedly immune to fire. Prahlada prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe, and once the fire was lit, he survived while his sister burned. (The bonfires set the night before the big paint-throwing parties are symbolic of Prahlada’s triumph over evil.)

So where does the paint come in?

According to tradition, devotees of Vaishnavism—the dominant branch of Hinduism in northern India—will rub red dye on their temple’s Krishna icons and then apply it to their family and friends. The red is symbolic of Krishna’s significance as the god of passion. Over time, the ritual has expanded into the crazy mess we see today.

Holi is great fun, but like any good party, preparation is advised. G Adventures’ own Dan Bergquist got swept up in Holi in Goa a few years ago and lived to tell the tale. Here’s how he did it:

Dan’s Holi survival tips

  1. If you want to stay clean, stay home
  2. “Locals love to involve foreigners in the celebrations. If you look like you’re not from the area, you will become a target. Don’t fight it!”
  3. Dress accordingly
  4. “Participants are encouraged to use dye that doesn’t stain, but not everyone does. Expect the clothes you’re in to be completely ruined. We went to a nearby market and bought ourselves all-white outfits so we’d have a blank canvas to fill in.”
  5. Get used to looking weird
  6. “The dye doesn’t wash off easily, so expect to be very colourful for a few days. Most people will be in the same condition as you, so don’t worry about fitting in!”
  7. Bring a waterproof camera
  8. “Holi is messy and quite wet. If you plan on taking pictures, make sure your equipment can stand up to the challenge.”

Holi around the web

Check out this great post from Ben and Jenna on their blog — they joined us on our Golden Triangle adventure over Holi last season. They share their favorite moments and impressions along the way, along with some great videos. Check it out.

Getting there

G Adventures runs over 25 small group trips in India, encompassing a wide range of destinations, departure dates, and trip styles to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you India as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to India here.


  1. Jenna March 28, 2013 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Nice run down, and thanks for sharing our articles! I concur with all the tips, and wanted to share just one tiny addendum: I didn’t have a waterproof camera, and was able to use it to my advantage. Whenever I’d grow tired of the barrage of water bombs being hurled at me, I’d pick up my camera from its hiding place, snap some pictures, and point to it woefully whenever anyone looked in my direction. Risky, yes. But it was also my salvation :)

  2. Chuttimakers April 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    Nice article on Holi. It is one of the most famous and colourful festival of India. This fetival spread colours in not only on people’s face but also in there life’s

  3. shikha May 9, 2013 at 6:42 am - Reply

    Hi..very well written blog but there is another popular legend behind Holi is,that the naughty and mischievous Lord Krishna started the trend of playing colours. He applied colour on her beloved Radha to make her like him.

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