There is more to India’s famous festival of colours than the colours themselves! Holi is about celebrating brotherhood, the divine love of his devotees to the Hindu deity Krishna, the onset of spring and India’s varied and spectacular cultural heritage.
So dig out some old clothes (for they will get irreversibly colored) and most adventurous side, and celebrate Holi like the locals do with these five insider tips:
1. Marvel at an awe-inspiring display of ancient martial arts
A rare glimpse of the Sikh warrior heritage marks the annual carnival of Hola Mohalla in Punjab, four hours from the home of the golden temple. Men and boys in colorful turbans and traditional costumes put on a fascinating display of sword fights, mock battles, military antics and acrobatics.
Dating back over three centuries, this visual feast encapsulates the infallible spirit of Punjab, and is supplemented by the warm hospitality of its people. Expect delicious and elaborate meals in a communal langar, and poetry that will transport you to the days of yore.
Where? Anandpur Sahib, Punjab
2. Throw sweets and beat men with sticks
Celebrations during the birth state of Lord Krishna start up to ten days before the countrywide festivities – with a whimsical shower of homemade sweets aka Laddoo Holi! Women gather in traditional colourful sarees and throw sweets while singing folk tunes about Hindu mythology.
The revelries that follow involve women taking to the streets with sticks (“Lathmar Holi”) and beating men with makeshift shields, in a playful procession of music and dancing through neighboring villages. The festival culminates on Holi day at the famous Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan, in a crowded, wild extravaganza of colours.
Where? Barsana, Uttar Pradesh
3. Revel in the folk music of the mighty Himalayas
The Kumaon region of the lower Himalayas, and especially the ancient town of Almora, offers a more peaceful and less crowded Holi experience, celebrating the arrival of spring after a frosty winter and rejoicing in the region’s folk traditions.
The month-long festivities begin with Baithaki Holi, a reenactment of the musical gatherings of the royal era, where tales from the life of Lord Krishna are sung to the tune of classical instruments. This is followed by ethnic Kumaoni music in Khadi Holi (“standing” Holi) and Mahila Holi (“women’s Holi”). The melodious affair culminates befittingly with people covering each other in “abeer”, the ubiquitous pigment derived from flowers most commonly associated with Holi.
Where? Almora, Uttarakhand
4. Dance under the full moon
For those who crave to go off the beaten path, the northeastern state of Manipur combines a traditional harvest festival called Yaoshang with the colourful celebrations of Holi. The festivities begin when the full moon appears in the sky on the nights leading up to Holi, with the older generation retelling folk legends and singing native tunes to modern instruments, and the younger generation competing in neighborhood sporting events.
On Holi Day, small thatched huts are built and burnt in bonfires, colours are thrown and devotional songs are sung in street processions and local temples – an intimate affair that marks the beginning of a colourful spring.
Where? Imphal, Manipur
5. Celebrate like royalty
Travel back in time to India’s royal era in the royal state of Rajasthan, where the descendants of the Mewar clan still keep up their family tradition with an ostentatious procession through the old cobblestoned streets of Udaipur. Think adorned half-bred stallions and men marching in ceremonious attire, led by a local band mixing Holi’s folk songs with stately tunes! Locals line up in the streets from the royal residence to the City Palace to sneak a peek at the procession and light spring-cleaning bonfires to ward off all that’s evil.
Tip: Take a local friend or guide with you to know where to go, what to do and how to stay safe on the streets during Holi celebrations!
Where? Udaipur, Rajasthan
Shivya Nath quit her corporate job for a nomadic life, seeking adventures where few have been before. Join her travels on her award-winning travel blog – The Shooting Star – and on Twitter @shivya.