Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors, is one of the most celebrated Indian festivals and is both amazingly fun and colorful, as well as rooted in ancient traditions and mythology. This celebration is undoubtedly a must-see – at least once in a lifetime. As such, my article intends to orientate you on the why, what, where, when, and how to simply enjoy the experience or to photograph this amazing festival. As I ended up fully painted, barefoot, with no bag, papers, or money, with only my (expensive) camera on hand, in the middle of a human tide of very engaged devotees playing with colored water, my purpose is to share my ten little tips, so that you see the beautiful Holi colors… but not inside your fancy camera gears!
What is Holi and why should you go celebrate it?
Holi is deeply rooted in the amazing Hindu mythology, with several different legends being linked to this festival
The main one is the story of Prahlada, a devotee to the Hindu god Vishnu. His father, Hiranyakashipu, and his aunt, Holika (so his father’s sister, please pay attention), ordered him to stop adoring Vishnu, but Prahlada refused. So, his friendly aunt and father decided to kill him for this
To make a long (but beautiful) story short, Holika protected herself with a special shawl and dragged Prahlada into a fire with her, believing she’d get out untouched. Due to his adoration of Vishnu, Prahlada emerged safely from the fire, while Holika perished after her shawl flew away from her.
Reality TV shows are really boring compared to this, aren’t they?
The night before Holi, the symbolic of the lighting of bonfires represents the burning of Holika and the triumph of good over evil. Beyond this, Holi also celebrates the arrival of a good spring harvest season and the blossoming of love.
This tradition, which has now spread far beyond India, finds its roots in the northern part of India, around the 4th century CE. In our time, it is a fantastic, festive day during which devotees throw colored powder and water balloons, use water guns or come up with creative alternatives (my camera and I even faced an efficiently repurposed fire hose…).
Regardless of whether you are a photographer or just a traveler enjoying the world’s cultural diversity, the Holi is seriously a must-see event.
- It is one of the most vivid and celebrated Indian festivals, across many beautiful Indian locations.
- It is a very different way to experience Indian culture and be a part of this inclusive event (sometimes a bit too inclusive, but you’ll find out for yourself…).
- If you’re a photographer, the festival is a photography hell (the water and powders) that turns into heaven, if well-managed, with colors everywhere and countless opportunities for amazing shots and portraits.
- Last but not least, if you can pass the point of stress for your material – see the few tips below – or put the camera aside, it’s also really fun!
Now that you are – hopefully – convinced, where and when should you go?
Different regions of India celebrate the Holi festival in different ways and many places can give you an unforgettable experience. After much research, I celebrated Holi in Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, and these are the locations I recommend to you, as:
- This is the heart of the traditional Holi in the north of India and the festival there is extremely famous throughout the country.
- Mathura is the believed birthplace of Lord Krishna and Vrindavan is the place where he spent his childhood.
- It is an important pilgrimage place for the Hindus and one of the seven sacred cities in India.
- Holi is celebrated for several days there, and even for a whole week in the Banke Bihary Temple in Vrindavan.
As such, Mathura is, in my opinion, the place to be. Great alternatives exist if don’t trust my judgment (a shocking idea) and if you still want to experience a Holi festival rooted in ancient and special traditions. Other options are:
- Barsana, also in Uttar Pradesh, which includes women chasing men and hitting them with sticks (Lathmar Holi).
- Jaipur in the amazing Rajasthan, with an elephant festival happening at the same time, or Udaipur Rajasthan for a royal Holi.
- Anandpur in Punjab, to see the warrior Holi.
Of course, many other options like Shantiniketan, Dehli (more of a musical Holi), Mumbai, or even Goa can be considered… when I return for Holi (hopefully in March 2022), Jaipur will most likely be my choice for a different experience after unforgettable memories in Mathura and Vrindavan.
Holi starts every year on the evening of the Purnima, the full moon night of the Phalguna month in the Hindu calendar –
so, in Gregorian calendar terms, this is sometime in March every year.
Holi Festival will, therefore, be March 28-29 in 2021 and March 16-17 in 2022,
so don’t wait too long and start planning for it!
What to see and to expect when celebrating the Holi in Mathura and Vrindavan?
Independently from the Holi celebrations, there are countless landmarks and dozens of temples to explore in these wonderful cities. As this is not the purpose of this article, I will just focus on a few spots that you should not miss during Holi, both in order to photograph them and to celebrate:
The Banke Bihari Mandir in Vrindavan is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, where the devotion and the intensity of the Holi reach unbelievable peaks that are difficult to describe.
An amazingly large crowd gathers around and inside the temple, creating a constantly renewed human tide of devotees packed inside.
The priest plays Holi with the Lord Krishna statue and then blesses the ecstatic devotees to literally tons of powders and colored water. Some people consume bhang (a mixture of milk and marijuana), which helps the trance to the tune of the music.
The best place to shoot this amazing event is from the roof of the temple, which requires some preparation and organization (see below).
The Sri Radha Vallabh Lal temple in Vrindavan, near the Banke Bihari Temple, is also a great place to see the Holi celebrations. The beauty of the interior of the temple itself, as well as the rays of light-colored by the Holi powder flying around, give an incredible and mystic touch to the devotees singing, praying, and playing in the temple. Don’t pick one, go see both!
The banks of the Yamuna River in Mathura are also an amazing place to see and shoot during Holi. This is one of the most sacred rivers in India and is believed to be turned pure as it flows from Mathura and Vrindavan. Families and devotees perform the ritual purification bath among colorful boats. A great and peaceful place for a quieter shooting and interaction with locals. Don’t hesitate to take one of the boats and get across the river for a different perspective on the beautiful and colorful city of ancient houses.
Simply playing and photographing Holi across the entire city is what it’s all about!
Assuming you have protected your camera well (see tips below), you should by then be (very) colorful, (very) wet, but very happy and still taking pictures like crazy.
Make sure to meet locals, and, if you want a different experience, create connections with those on the rooftops above the streets (yes, that guy, for example, who just threw a bucket of pink water at you from the 4th floor…).
With a bit of luck and convincing talk, they will invite you to come up and you can make both new friends and have a safer spot for your camera, as well as, most importantly, a strategically stronger place to play Holi and take your kind but firm and well-deserved revenge!
If you are looking to take a break, the iconic Kusum Sarovar on the holy Govardhan Hill is a beautiful and quiet place to visit, 15 miles away from Mathura. This historical sandstone monument from the 18th century, with a large pond in front, is gorgeous. A great family-friendly place with kids enjoying the pool!
Beyond the few images on this post, here are some more from my portfolio link to shotplanet collection Mathura India
A wonderful but tricky photography experience… so here are ten tips for you to prepare…
Celebrating and photographing the Holi festival in its place of origin is, again, an amazing experience. However, it takes some preparation for this great day and to ensure that your fancy camera will survive as well…
So, ten practical operational tips for you:
- Organize your trip in advance and select an agency or guide who can articulate clearly where they will bring you, especially if you want to do things like Banke Bihari and access the rooftop for shooting.
- Before you go, protect your camera with a layer of tape like mine in the picture. Don’t laugh, I was happy to have it like this when I saw the color of the tape after the event…
- Buy yourself a proper camera rain cover, such as one of the Think Tank ones or something similar. Additionally, get a few basic plastic shopping bags, they’ll come in handy, trust me…
- 99%+ of the people are genuinely just playing and having fun, so it is a safe event to attend. However, with thousands of people in small streets and close spaces and the excitement of the event, potentially for some, the bhang mixture and other stuff, it is important to stay alert and careful of the mass movements.
- Obviously, in the current pandemic context, one will have to see what state the planet will be in early next year.
- For the event, get clothes that you’ll be happy to throw away when you’re done because you’ll almost certainly have to…
- You can’t access temples with shoes on and leaving them at the door like a usual temple visit may not work with thousands of people packed there. So, start with old shoes, keep them as long as you can… and then continue barefoot like most people. It shouldn’t take more than a week for the sexy colors under your feet to finally disappear after ten rather energetic showers.
- You can’t access some temples with a backpack or a camera bag (changing lenses there is not a smart idea, anyway). Just go with your camera, a single lens, and nothing else. A flexible 70-200 lens is a good choice, in my opinion, but it depends on your style and preference.
- Take a photocopy of your passport, a few rupees, the address of your hotel, and there you go! Yes, you can survive a day without your cell phone, fancy connected watch, etc… and yes, you can shoot without 15kg of photo materials and lenses…
- Make sure you’re dirty and colorful – if not, you’ll be a target. Make sure you’re not the dirtiest – if not, you’ll be a target (as it can’t get much worse, so they can play with you). Either way, get ready to be a target…
I hope you’ll find these tips helpful, and, most importantly, that they have transmitted to you a bit of my passion for this amazing and beautiful event and country, so full of history and traditions and so genuine in its celebration. This is truly an amazing event, so what are you waiting for? Life is short…