Nowhere in India celebrates the Holi Festival with more spirit than Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna.
Holi Festival in India
We were traveling in Punjab before Holi started, but took a very long detour to Mathura where we hooked up with our friends Rebecca and Julian from Toronto to experience India’s most colourful festival. Becca has wanted to see Holi since she was 12 and Julian, being a huge history buff, explained the story of Krishna, the history of the temples that we visited, and the meaning of Holi Festival in great detail.
The Ultimate Holi Celebration is in Mathura
Holi is an exciting time to be in India. The entire country is alive with energy. Julian and Becca hadn't been in India for very long before Holi when compared to our two months of full time travel, so their energy and interest in the celebration gave us new pep in our India travels. We foolishly arrived in Mathura with no plans or hotel and were stuck in a $4 per night hovel that left me not even wanting to use the toilet. But it didn't matter, we were celebrating Holi in India, man! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The celebrations were in full swing when we arrived. Holi is really meant to take place over just one or two days, but it has grown to be a week-long celebration, especially in Mathura. We wandered aimlessly through the streets of Mathura because we weren't sure where we should start. There were crowds building along the sidewalks, but we weren't quite sure where the epicentre of Holi took place. Luckily, we stumbled across a small courtyard where a man caught our attention. He beckoned us to join the festivities inside. Never being ones to refuse an invitation, we accepted. Everyone welcomed us with open arms and smears of colour.
The four of us became mini celebrities. Television cameras for all of India were covering the energetic dances in the courtyard and we were all encouraged to join in. We were even stopped to give our views and comments on Holi. We were filled with joy and praised the festival as one of the best and most unique we've ever seen. And we weren't joking! If you celebrate the Holi Festival in India, you will have one of the most memorable travel experiences of your life!
The camera operators followed each of us as we did everything from dancing and spinning to drumming and singing. We were interviewed on live TV and asked to explain the essence of Holi for all of India to hear. Luckily, we had Julian along who had explained it all to us the day before. Before that, Dave and I admittedly didn't know much about Holi besides the fact that colourful powders are thrown through the air.
Holi Festival Explained
Holi Festival happens in India each spring to celebrate the arrival of spring and to signify the victory of good over evil. It is also a time to bring everyone together as one. It doesn't matter what your caste, creed, or religion is: Holi evens the playing field. Everyone looks the same while covered in hues of pink, green, and yellow.
The Holi Head of the Temple we were celebrating with in Mathura told us that Holi is a time in India for all people to let go of prejudices, creeds, castes, and discrimination.
Everyone can come together under the colours of Lord Krishna. The vibrant colours of Holi represent love.
We certainly felt the love with Holi
Women took turns dancing with Becca and I, swinging us around one after another. It was exhausting yet exhilarating all at once! Everyone wanted to dance with us. As the only westerners in the temple, we were somewhat of a novelty, but the people of India are genuinely welcoming and friendly. I believe they wanted us to have the best time possible.
The men loved holding Julian and Dave’s hands high in the air as they danced and laughed in a circle, and children and adults alike threw handfuls of coloured powder overhead. During this festival, the men and women didn't hold hands; they instead kept the touching to the same sex, making sure that everyone had the utmost respect.
The feeling was jubilant. Holi falls on the full moon at the end of February; it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Holi Festival in India is like Spring Cleaning
Holi Festival in Mathura is probably the most famous place to celebrate. Fires are lit to burn away the Witch of Winter on the eve of Holi. The following day people throw colourful powders all morning long. However, don't be surprised if powders are being thrown days in advance. During our time at Holi in India, the coloured powders were being spread in full force four days in advance. On the day before the actual Holi Festival, parades happen in the street with dancing and music blaring from loudspeakers. Everyone has taken to celebrating Holi for days!
What to Watch for at Holi
Everyone dances with each other and are thrilled when some purple and green foreigners enter their circle to dance. The events of Holi can get a little hairy at times, and you have to keep an eye out for one another. It's easy to get lost. Everybody starts to look the same and it is easy to become separated. I just held on to Dave's hand with all my might when weaving my way through the thick crowds.
As a foreigner you are sometimes targeted by overzealous festival goers. They can be a little too aggressive, and some men can cross the line and grab and touch women a little too aggressively. I am sad to report that women are often groped and that men can be aggressive when throwing foam or powder in your face, so be on your guard. But for the most part, the Holi Festival is a wonderful and fulfilling experience.
The Essence of Holi Festival
Everyone looks the same when Holi is in full swing. You cannot tell if someone is dark skinned or light skinned, blonde or brunette.
Never does the essence of Holi ring more true than at this time.
Colour, class, and religion are wiped away by the colours of Holi.
For this moment, all people are equal. This is especially important for India, which still follows the caste system, so the Holi Festival is a day to break free from your caste.
Celebrations Winding Down
Holi goes on for hours on end, and it eventually caught up to us as we had been the centre of attention for more than 6 hours straight. Happy be in the moment, we rarely refused a dance with the women and gents, but in time we were exhausted and needed to get back to our guesthouse to wash up.
The sun is hot and the mix of coloured foam, water, and thick powders has baked on our skin. It is not a fun process cleaning up after Holi. The mixture of powder and water stained our skin and hair, and we have to scrub until our skin is raw to eventually look close to normal.
It takes over an hour to clean ourselves up with the bucket and scoop bath and the four of us never quite make it to back to our former selves.
Becca got it bad when an overzealous fan sprayed a can of red foam all over her face, and she remained red for days to come. My hair was pink for weeks, and our feet? Well, our feet never did recover from Holi.
It is worth every moment though. The Holi Festival of India is the most exciting and unique celebration in the world. It is a once in a life time experience to take part in Holi, and enjoying with great friends is something that we will never forget!
Tips for Holi Festival in India
Mathura is where we celebrated Holi, but no matter where you are in India, it will be celebrated. Go to local parks and residential neighbourhoods, or ask at your guest house.
Don't wear anything that you want to keep. Every piece of clothing will be ruined.
Wear long pants and long sleeved shirts so as to have minimal skin exposed.
Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes, but buy cheap ones that you don't mind throwing away afterwards.
Take off all watches and jewelry. (as you can see, I didn't and my watch was trashed)
Ladies, wear your hair back.
Use only waterproof camera gear: Holi is messy. It's not just water, but thick powder. It can ruin cameras so keep them in waterproof dry bags and only bring them out when necessary. Even GoPro housings can get ruined.
Don't carry any valuables.