It is soon time for Holi: that mad spring festival that gets the whole of India throwing colour on each other and on unsuspecting tourists. Holi is celebrated most energetically in North India and although you might see some celebrations in the South, they are not on the same scale.
Originally a festival of fertility and harvest, Holi also celebrates the legend of Holika (the sister of demon king Hiranyakashyap) and Pralahad (the king’s son and devotee of Vishnu). But of all the Indian festivals Holi is the least religious.
Huge bonfires are lit on the eve of Holi and sometimes effigies of Holika are burned in the fires. On the actual day of Holi the main celebrations involve throwing colourful powders, or a mix of powder and water, at anyone within reach. The colours are called gulal and come in all shades of the rainbow.
If you’re out and about on Holi, wear old clothes that you don’t mind having to throw away after getting soaked and powdered. Tourists are always targets for attacks with colours and paints and this paint does not always come off clothes so easily. Guidebooks often warn about the chemicals used in Holi colours and the powders can sometimes be mixed with dangerous materials you don’t want on your skin or especially in your eyes. The dyes definitely have not been tested for safety, but in the recent years natural colours, such as mehandi (henna) have become more and more popular.
The problem for Western female travellers during Holi is the combination of large crowds of men in a very festive mood, lots of alcohol and bhang (marijuana, mixed into a drink). It is not a pleasant experience for a Western woman to find herself lost in a Holi crowd and it may not be safe either. If you’re travelling alone, you might want to watch the festivities from your hotel room’s window; in some parts of India Holi can get out of control.
Holi 2011 is celebrated on Sunday 20 March.
Photo: Flickr user Judepics