It was a few years ago when I started to see Instagram photos of people covered in colourful powders in India. I didn’t know what they were celebrating then, but it looked really fun. Over the years I learned that this celebration was called Holi and I am certain that these Instagram photos have drawn many people to India in recent years.
Fast forward to this year when I realized that our trip to India would coincide with Holi. What could be more fun than throwing colourful powder at others and having water fights with total strangers? The adults were excited, the kids were excited, but I had lots of questions. In this post, we hope to help you plan how to celebrate Holi with kids in India and share our experience. Holi makes for spectacularly engaging photos and there will be lots of photos of the fun as well.
We love incorporating local holidays and festivals into our travel plans to further our cultural learning. On our first visit to India, we were lucky enough to be in Kerala for the Onam festival, a Hindu harvest festival.
What is Holi?
To Westerners, Holi might just seem like a fun excuse to throw colourful powder at people. But, Holi is actually a Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of Spring. It is meant to be a festive day to celebrate with friends and family, repair relationships and create new beginnings.
When is Holi?
Holi is celebrated at the end of winter, on the day after the full moon in March each year. The colourful part of Holi is celebrated on one day, with the eve of Holi celebrated with bonfires to burn evil spirits.
- 2020 dates: Monday, March 9
- 2021 dates: Monday, March 29
- 2022 dates: Tuesday, March 8
What to Expect on Holika Dahan (Holi Eve)
Like any religious holiday or festival, there is variation on how it is celebrated across India. I had a good idea of what to expect on Holi, but was not familiar with Holika Dahan, Holi eve, until we experienced it.
While Holi day itself does not have any religious rituals, Holika Dahan, is the more serious part of Holi celebrations. After it is done, the fun can begin. We were in Udaipur, Rajasthan for Holi so our experience is based there.
On the night of Holika Dahan bonfires are lit to symbolize the burning of evil. According to Hindu text, King Hiranyakashyap wanted his evil sister Holika to burn his son Prahlad because he worshiped Lord Vishnu. Holika tricked Prahlad into sitting on a pyre with her. It was thought that she wouldn’t be harmed because of her special powers. Instead Holika burned and Prahlad survived, apparently because of his devotion to Vishnu.
On the day before Holi, you will see pyres being set up in courtyards, in front of temples, parks and open spaces. Neighbours work together to collect wood and materials to build the pyre, and an effigy on the top. The ground around the pyres were decorated with colourful pigments and there was a festive mood in the air. It was shocking to see these huge pryes setup in narrow streets with hydro wires overhead.
We were lucky enough to have a pyre set up in the square our guest house was located on. I loved being able to see Holika Dahan celebrated in a completely authentic way without tourists. While they were happy for us to observe the festivities, there was no effort made to include us, which was just fine by us. The local children were very interested in us, especially the children and we had fun chatting with them and learning more about Holi.
One of the luxury hotels near us had a special Holika Dahan for their employees and guests, that we got swept right up into. We danced with the drummers and enjoyed some traditional snacks, before wandering back to our guesthouse.
Around 9 pm, neighbours came out from their homes and gathered around the pyre, separating by gender. The women were dressed in fancy red, yellow and white saris. Pujas (prayers) was performed by the women and then they lit the pyre, which went up quickly.
The next thing we observed was all baby’s under one were walked around the pyre seven times by their father. I couldn’t find much information on this online, so perhaps this is a more local ritual. The babies wore elaborate outfits in the Holika Dahan colours with a woven crown and kohl-lined eyes.
Afterwards neighbours brought out traditional home-made snacks, soda and even whiskey. There were some fireworks, lots of socializing and then things quieted down by 11pm.
What to Expect on Holi
We woke up on the day of Holi to a pretty quiet Udaipur. We were prepared to “play” Holi with our new white clothes, but it wasn’t until 10 am that we started to notice action in the streets. More below about how to prepare for Holi.
Essentially to play Holi, you throw and rub coloured powders on every one you come across, while chanting “Happy Holi”. You can also expect to get squirted with water guns and buckets of water dumped on your from roof tops. Generally powder is rubbed on the face or neck of the recipient and it is often followed by a hug.
Every one is happy and you will encounter roaming drummers, looking for tips, loud Bollywood music and a party like atmosphere. People were especially happy to see the children out and as is typical in India, they got lots of attention. Expect to be asked numerous times for selfies with locals.
We spent a couple of hours roaming around the streets of Udaipur exchanging colours and getting covered in brightly coloured pigment. We danced, we visited some temples and posed for so many selfies. By the end of those few hours, our previously white clothes were now coloured and we were happy to return to our hotel to shower.
Where to Celebrate Holi in India with Kids
While Holi is celebrated throughout India and Nepal, there are some places that are well known for foreigners to celebrate. Barsana, Mathura, Mumbai, Jaipur and Delhi are a few. We considered adjusting our route through India to be in one of these, but instead opted to keep our original route which would see us be in Udaipur for Holi. North India does do Holi better, so I would suggest celebrating in the north.
I am so glad we didn’t change our original plans. I truly felt like we got to experience Holi authentically in Udaipur, as opposed to the tourist orchestrated celebrations in many of the places mentioned above. We didn’t want one big party full of other tourists loaded up on bhang lassi (a marijuana drink), and not a local in sight.
Preparing for Holi
- Your clothes will get ruined – bring white clothes from home or buy a cheap kurta top in India.
- Rubber flip flops are the perfect footwear.
- Sunglasses will protect your eyes from the powder.
- Most of the pigment is synthetic and will stain not only your clothes, but your skin. Cover your skin and hair with coconut oil or Vaseline to prevent staining.
- Try to find a local neighborhood to celebrate in – one that will offer an authentic and family-oriented experience. Ask at your guesthouse or hotel for recommendations.
- If you have an expensive camera, find a away to protect it. We use these waterproof cases for our phones. A GoPro is the perfect way to document your Holi adventure.
- Powder is available for sale everywhere both before and during Holi. Buy some to get you started, preferably natural ones. Powder costs 10-20 rupees for a bag.
- Tradition is to take powder and rub on each other’s cheek/neck, sometimes hug after and say “Happy Holi”. Since most of the locals celebrating Holi are young men, I often said “no” to the hug part. Don’t be afraid to say no to things that make you uncomfortable.
- It was suggested to me that I wear a sports bra since groping in large crowds can be a problem for foreign women in India. Luckily I didn’t have any problems with this.
- Don’t bring valuables or lots of cash out with you.
Tips for Celebrating Holi
- Go out earlier, before things start to get really rowdy.
- Expect lots of loud trance-like music and drumming.
- Get ready for lots of selfies. If you aren’t comfortable with it, politely decline.
- No need to buy lots of powder in advance. It is available everywhere.
- The wandering drummers can be persistent in asking tourists for money. Don’t feel obliged to give a huge amount – 50 rupees is plenty.
- Holi etiquette dictates you don’t play Holi with those not already coloured or with the dogs and cows on the street. Most Indians will keep their cows home for Holi, but we saw lots of colourful cows for weeks afterwards.
- Clean up after yourself – keep and dispose of the plastic powder bags properly.
- Don’t celebrate Holi alone, especially as a female. Every year there are lots of reports of harassment.
- Don’t be intimated, be prepared. We met a couple that were told by their hotel that it is too risky to go out and celebrate Holi. We found this to be completely untrue and were sad that they missed out on this special experience in India.
Holi in Udaipur
We stayed at the Panorama Guesthouse, which was one of our favourite places to stay in Rajasthan. In addition to having cute budget rooms and a great rooftop restaurant with views of the lake, it is located in a local area with Holika Dahan celebrated right on your doorstep.
It was just a coincidence that we were in Udaipur for Holi, but it turned out to be an amazing place to celebrate. Udaipur is a royal city where the royal family actively participates in Holi events. On the day before Holi, we visited the City Palace and were able to see them setting up the elaborate party and pyre. You have to be on the VIP list to get invited, but there is a procession throughout the nearby area on Holika Dahan and fireworks for all to enjoy.
On Holi day, we found that the celebration got started around 10 am and was mostly wrapped up by 2 pm. The main locations where we found people gathered was Jagdish Temple and down by Lake Pichola at Gangaur Ghat. Both of these sights had blasting music, constant drumming and tons of powder thrown up in the air, creating an unbelievably fun atmosphere. There were quite a few bands of roaming drummers looking for tips and they seemed to latch onto foreigners. We sometimes gave them a small tip, but often ignored them.
Udaipur had a good mix of locals and foreigners celebrating Holi together. Almost all of the locals celebrating in the busy areas were young men. That being said, Holi wasn’t just contained to these busier locations. You walk down any street and you can expect to have powder thrown on you and water squirted or dumped on you. We even saw police officers brightly decorated while working. As foreigners, you will get lots of attention, particularly children. Most shops were closed, although guesthouse restaurants were open. Even our lovely and dedicated guesthouse staff managed to get out and celebrate and worked the rest of the day in their brightly coloured clothes.
Is Holi Safe for Families?
While I had heard lots of great things about Holi, I had also heard lots of negative things about it from foreigners, particularly females.
I can’t say if Holi with kids is safe, but I can tell you that we felt perfectly safe celebrating Holi on the streets of Udaipur. We talked to our kids about what to expect and listened to them when they were done with it and wanted to go back to the guesthouse. It can be very intense for kids with the powder, loud noises, and constant requests for selfies. Each child will respond to it differently, but our kids loved the experience.
At almost 12, I did talk to Ella specifically about boundaries and reminded her that no one should be touching her in crowds and that she should let me know if anything like that occurred. Again, luckily we had no problems at all.
Holi was definitely one of the most memorable days of our time in India and we were so glad that our trip coincided with it. Our kids’ ages and temperaments were a great fit for Holi and it truly was just as much fun as the photos show.
Another awesome adventure we had in India was our camel safari in the Thar desert. Check out that experience from a kid’s perspective.
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