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Celebrating Holi in Rishikesh

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Holi in Rishikesh 2016

An old travel story about my experiences celebrating Holi in Rishikesh a few years ago…

I attended Holi in March 2016 – but I believe this story is still fairly accurate in terms of what to expect from Holi in Rishikesh.

Drums are thumping through crackling speakers. A sea of bodies jumps into the air. Arms stretched, fingers pointed skywards, feet pounding the ground. A jet of red water flashes against the bright blue of the sky, seemingly suspended for a moment above the crowd before crashing down amid screams and whoops of joy.

Joy. That’s the overwhelming emotion attached to the celebration of Holi in India. It wasn’t even 11am yet, but people were dancing in the streets with the shameless jubilation that normally comes only with alcohol where I’m from. This is India, though, and we were in the holy city of Rishikesh – a dry city.

Some people in the crowd had taken bhang – an edible form of cannabis cooked into pakoras or served in lassi – and a few may have snuck in booze from a neighbouring town (as we did), but on the whole, most people seemed sober. Sober, and filled with a joy so fierce it was palpable – and overwhelming. Most of us Westerners hovered uncertainly on the edge of the crowd, not quite sure how to fully partake.

Holi Festival India 2016

But the locals here in Rishikesh are welcoming. This is Holi, a festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil, as well as the end of winter and the arrival of spring. There was no place for differences; the throwing of colours comes from a legend about the blue-skinned god Krishna and his love for fair-skinned Radha.

Krishna despaired that his blue skin would stop Radha from loving him, so his mother told him to colour her face using jets of water. He did, making them equals, and the pair became a couple.

Locals and tourists alike spent the entire morning in Rishikesh soaking each other with coloured water – attacking with water pistols, balloons, buckets, jets, and spray cans – and dousing one another with coloured powders, until we were all equals ourselves.

Holi Festival India 2016

We started at 9am on the roof of our hostel, Bunk Stay, where the staff went amazingly overboard in initiating us into the spirit of Holi with plates of bhang pakoras, packets of fire crackers, coloured smoke bombs, and huge piles of coloured powder. It didn’t take us long to destroy the roof terrace, dousing everything in colour, and we emerged onto the streets of Rishikesh already covered head to toe in orange, red, green and pink.

The high street on our side of the river had become a war-zone. Shops were shuttered, and the attacks came from everywhere. Women emptied buckets from balconies overhead. Kids popped out from doorways and alleys, armed with water pistols or jugs or anything else they could find. As we cowered in a side street for a brief reprieve, refilling our own pistols at a tap, a local shop owner emerged with a plate full of snacks to share with us. Meanwhile, his young son toddled over holding a can, unseen, and emptied purple water down somebody’s legs from behind before scurrying away, wide-eyed with excitement.

Holi in Rishikesh 2016
Holi in Rishikesh 2016

Although it’s a religious festival, there are no prayers or ceremonies on Holi itself. This entire day is about play – blowing off steam after the winter, ending conflicts and cleansing past errors, closing up debts, and most importantly celebrating. The more spiritual side of Holi took place the night before, with the Holika Dahan. In the market square near Lakshman Jhula Bridge, a huge bonfire was burnt as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil. The bonfire comes from a legend in which Holika, the daughter of evil King Hiranyakashipu, tricks her brother Prahlada – who is loyal to the god Vishnu and not his father – into sitting on a funeral pyre with her whilst she’s wearing cloak that will make her immune to fire. Lord Vishnu saved Prahlada and instead let Holika burn, then killed King Hiranyakashipu – and this story of good defeating evil is what gave birth to the jubilant Holi festival.

Holi Festival India 2016
Holika Dahan Celebration in Rishikesh

As the bonfire burned, locals danced to songs played by a DJ somewhere in the square, and coloured each other’s faces with powder. Our group of white tourists proved too much of an excitement, and within the space of an hour or so I’d taken about fifty selfies with locals. My face and hair were covered in colour, and I’d shaken hands with almost everyone that laid eyes on me. On the other side of the Ganges, on the riverside steps behind Freedom Cafe, the festivities were a lot more relaxed. A knot of locals were playing instruments and singing beside another enormous bonfire, and both locals and tourists were sitting around the steps, watching the glowing embers of the furnace rise into the night sky, reflected amongst pools of coloured light on the inky Ganges.

The night of Holika Dahan was calm in comparison to the chaos of the following morning. I spent the whole morning posing for selfies – it’s almost impossible to say no – receiving hugs, shaking hands, dancing with locals, having my face coloured, and being drenched over and over. It was messy, it was intense, and it was utterly insane – but it was so much fun.

Holi Festival India 2016
Hostel staff at Bunk Stay post-Holi

Holi wasn’t entirely play for me, though. Female tourists have a very different experience of the festival to men, because there are Indian men – both young and old – who simply take too much bhang or get too excited, and can’t resist the site of a white woman. I was hugged all morning, and while most of the time it was in the innocence of wishing me a Happy Holi, there were a few times when a hand slid towards my breasts – which I quickly learnt to guard with folded arms – or my bum, and twice my neck was kissed, my angry shoves met with gloating laughter. Thankfully, the many kind, welcoming locals we met far outweighed the few sleazy guys who tried to spoil things, but it did add a bit of a taint to an otherwise fun and joyful day.

By the end of the morning, I was exhausted. My face looked like a Sesame Street character, and I was covered from head to toe in a layer of colour so thick that it took thirty minutes of scrubbing in the shower to get it off. Twenty four hours and two more showers later, I still have a few stains on my skin that might be with me for a while. The yellow and red patches on my feet and elbows aren’t the only way this festival left it’s mark on me. Never in my life have I seen so much joy from so many people, so much colour and fun and camaraderie. The memories of colour flying against the blue sky, of that little boy with his can, or of the sight of strangers dancing in the streets together, are ones that will stay with me forever. Thank you Rishikesh for welcoming me into your celebrations.

Read more: If you’re planning a trip to India for Holi next year, check out this great guide on how to plan and celebrate Holi for some top tips!

Keep scrolling for more photos from Holi in Rishikesh 2016…

Celebrating Holi 2016 in Rishikesh, India
Holi Festival India 2016
Not even the animals were safe. Local dogs, cows, and even monkeys were coloured!
Holi Festival India 2016
Me with my India travel buddy Brendon Vince ( after Holi!
Holi in Rishikesh 2016
Bonfire for Holika Dahan
Holi in Rishikesh 2016
Playing Holi on the Bunk Stay roof terrace
Holi Festival India 2016
Local guys playing Holi
Holi Festival India 2016
A friend of mine post-Holi!
Holi in Rishikesh 2016
Aftermath of a colour bomb

14 thoughts on “Celebrating Holi in Rishikesh”

  1. Beautiful photos Emily! This sounds like such a fun festival. It’s a shame that these kinds of festivals are so often tainted by overexcited men. But you don’t seem to have let it ruin your day. Everyone looks beautiful covered in color!

    1. Thanks so much Erin! It is a shame, and it seems it’s not that uncommon still too – which is ridiculous given the age we live in. Surely it’s about time women stopped being treated as objects all over the world?!? But unfortunately that’s just what happens sometimes – I definitely wasn’t going to let it spoil my fun, otherwise they’d have won! The festival was incredible besides that, and the colours were amazing :)

  2. I wonder how long it takes the streets and shops to get clean again if it already took you more than three showers ;)
    This looks like so much fun despite some men taking too many liberties (which I find also happens during Oktoberfest or Carnival in Germany – not okay, but not an Indian thing per se). I also love the origin of it and the thought of us all being equal – beautiful!

    1. True, it’s not an Indian thing but a man thing I guess. And only some men! But thankfully it really didn’t ruin the day :)

      Strangely enough, all the streets looked pretty much back to normal the next day. I’ve no idea how they did it – someone must have worked overnight! Here and there are some bright pink stains on the roads, but on the whole you’d never even know Holi happened. There must be a trick to it!

    1. Thanks Grace! I love how multicultural London is, seems you can find every kind of festival from around the world there! But Holi in India was something else. Absolutely amazing being able to celebrate with the locals and being welcomed by them (mostly) into the festivities!

  3. Thank you for writing so beautifully on Holi. Am so glad you took efforts to understand and write what Holi is really all about. Kudos to you for going beyond the colors, revelry and joy and understand its truer, deeper meaning. You are right, Holi is a big leveler. Next time, try to catch the Holi at Barsana/mathura/Vrindavan. You will love it. It is 10 times more mad and insane, few hours from Rishikesh.

    1. Thanks so much Abhinav. I’m so thrilled that you liked my post! Also very glad that I took the trouble to unerstand Holi fully. I think it’s important to go beyond the surface of a festival such as this and find out what it means to the locals, and where it all comes from. And I really thought that the story behind the colours was a beautiful one that’s perhaps more relevant these days than ever. It’s a beautiful festival and I had an amazing time (on the whole). Although I’m not sure I could handle a bigger, madder version than the one in Rishikesh – that was pretty overwhelming for me!

  4. This looks as joyous as you described. Your first couple paragraphs set a thrilling scene. I have to experience this festival, and you’ve inspired me to make it happen ASAP.

    1. Thanks Jeff! It was a very thrilling occasion so I’m glad that came across in the post. Holi is an incredible event, and a really great insight into part of India’s culture. Especially if you can avoid the more touristy versions of it and head to smaller towns like Rishikesh. I definitely recommend it for next year :)

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