Nepal’s Holi festival takes place every year
If you live in a country that has a Hindu population, or enjoy looking at websites that publish lots of photos you might well recognize the Holi festival due to its dazzling colors. The annual Holi festival takes place over the course of a week including in Nepal where it’s a national holiday and there’s one day dedicated to color. It’s also truly one of the most enjoyable festivals I’ve been a part of.
What is Holi?
In case you don’t know what Holi is here’s a short synopsis. Holi is a Hindu celebration known as the festival of color that celebrates the incoming spring. It’s mainly celebrated in India and Nepal. But there are also celebrations in large Hindu communities in places like Singapore, Malaysia and smaller local communities in parts of the US and UK.
In Nepal the festival’s eve is met with large bonfires and a feast. While on the day itself it’s a tradition to throw colored powder into the air and onto other people. It’s also common place to throw bags of brightly colored water at each other in celebration of the holiday.
Holi festival in Nepal
On the ground in Nepal the Holi festival actually takes place over several days. Some quoting as many days as fifteen. Though for most people they will only notice the final few days running up to the main day itself.Up in the remoter villages preparations are made, food cooked and various rituals performed in the weeks beforehand.
The first real noticeable difference I saw was that three days before Holi itself there is a tradition of throwing un-dyed water at women on the streets (I’ll come back to that one). Then, two days later it’s colored water and dye throwing at everyone all morning on Holi day itself.
As you can imagine it’s a huge thrill for children as they prepare buckets of dye and fill up balloons and bags of little water grenades. Many even purchasing giant water pistols to let loose on their neighbors. Young and old enjoy the brightly colored festival as they wash away the winter and celebrate the incoming spring. Personally, I’ve never seen so many happy smiles at any other festival.
The bad side to the Holi festival in Nepal
Like anywhere in the world where there’s a celebration there are always a few people who will grumble and groan. Not everyone wants to be pelted with water or covered in colored dye. I don’t blame them. Though I do like to remind them that’s it’s only once a year.
This year I was disappointed to see many news reports with stories of people being arrested for targeting women with dirty water. At face value it does sound bad. But remember it’s a tradition to through water at ladies on the third day before Holi. Dirty water is another story. But let’s stick to plain water for now. One person said it was good luck for her and meant that they wished a fertile year for her. In other words, they hoped she’d have a baby. Which is very important in Nepal. Another lady said men threw water at ladies to show they wanted to court them. Okay, I can think of better ways but hey, it’s a tradition.
Let’s not forget this festival is meant to be a joyous one, not a targeted campaign.
The bad elements that spoil Holi for many
The real problem started with some modern local youths who targeted ladies continually throughout the day. Worse yet are those that use dirty water rather than clean tap water. Though truly clean water is not always feasible in Nepal, I digress.
Indeed many of these youths also targeted tourists during the third and second day before Holi. Likewise the issue of unsafe dyes used in Holi is becoming problematic. Several reports have been made with findings stating that many dyes can be linked to skin irritations, eye problems and long-term health side effects (source). I can attest to this as I was hit my a bag filled with blue dye that was grease based. It took a few minutes but my face started to burn from the dye. Not a pleasant experience at all to say the least. Worse yet is that even after several days this blue dye still streaks my face.
How to fix the bad side to Holi
Okay, so the third day before Holi it’s traditional to throw water at women. And some people are complaining. And various women’s rights movements are complaining. Fair enough. But don’t ban it. Do something proactive like make the second day before Holi the day to throw water at men only! Yes, there’s an element of bored juvenile youth at work here that’s causing a problem. Certainly police it. Why not ban it in the afternoon. And of course take action if there is any real foul play at work
But keep a level head about it all.
Improve the Nepalese food and drug administration
Dyes used during Holi need to be regulated for sure. But then in a country whereby I can buy a four-year out of date carton of juice in a supermarket with ease this is going to be hard to enforce. Let alone Nepal’s insatiable demand for cheap foodstuffs coming from China. Who as we all know don’t have the best reputation for safe food stuffs. Let alone when they are exported in Chinese and not one local can tell what’s inside them other than from the photo on the front.
So to the people arguing about the toxic chemicals used once a year in the dyes: could you please put the same amount of effort into enforcing that everyday food being consumed passes a regulated health and safety check first?
The wrong way to approach the Holi Festival in Nepal
Sadly there are also some tourists who have made complaints to the police and newspapers about being targeting by gangs and been subjected to assault during Holi. Indeed I’ve seen this happen. I myself while walking along a road at the end of Thamel and was targeted by water bags thrown down from above. What did I do? I laughed and waved back. Then pointed to a tourist girl across the road and told them to get her. And they did. And she laughed and ran along the road dodging water balloons.
There, get it? Laugh. It’s an annual festival not a danger nor terrible daily hindrance to everyone!
Tourists complaining about Holi
The first thing I have to say here is, what planet are you living on Mr & Mrs Tourist? Granted you may not be smart enough to look up your guide-book and take note of festivals in the country you are visiting. But surely seeing guesthouses and hotels stock up on dyes, buckets and water you might ask what’s going on? Or even as you step outside and see people throwing dye and colored water at each other you might ask what’s this all about then?
So when a group of two small Nepalese boys and one girl runs at you along their neighborhood street throwing colored water or dye powder at you while laughing it might not be such a nice thing to scream and shout at them. Then threaten to lash out at them and call the police. Shame on you stupid tourists. Shame on you for making little children scared on their annual holiday of fun and color. Shame on you!
The problem is not just tourists
There are also Nepalese that don’t like the idea of being pelted with color. The problem here is that many of these people seem to be “connected.” And very soon after such “scandalous incidents” various newspaper articles start to appear questioning whether Holi should be “contained” within certain areas only. Again, I don’t see the problem. It’s a festival that involves throwing color at each other. It’s also a national holiday. The color throwing only happens from dawn until lunch time.
If you don’t like it, stay inside.
Don’t take away the festival of fun and color. Don’t take away one of the few festivals that anyone, young or poor can enjoy. It’s a day of equals. Dye costs virtually nothing. Water costs virtually nothing. The smiles are priceless and the memories last forever.
The future of the Holi Festival
I see a future for Holi in Nepal that a few people don’t agree with me on. I see a future whereby throwing water will be banned in the days leading up to Holi. Fines and charges will be pressed against anyone throwing water at women or tourists on the third day.
2014 update: Yep, as I predicted this year water throwing was banned nationwide in the days before Holi with police arresting local children and chasing others away. On the day of Holi itself this was not enforced though many locals were “encouraged” by radio to thwart people throwing colored water or plain water, give out to local children and try to “educate” tourists. Meanwhile the people, both Nepalese and tourists, that like to have fun enjoyed both throwing water and color!
2016 update: This year the police/government imposed a USD$100 fine and a 1 year jail sentence (yes really) for anyone caught throwing plastic bags with water. Sadly this dampened the meaning of Holi early on during the day as vendors were picked upon by police while locals and tourists were worried about coming out to play.
The festivities didn’t start this year until about 10am. By 11am the police were outnumbered by locals and tourists partying so they packed up and left so people enjoyed Holi. The other annoying aspect of Holi this year was Kathmandu Durbar Square who early on were charging tourists to enter. This, in my opinion, is a very greedy an non-tourist friendly thing to do. A) it’s a public holiday B) it’s a festival in Durbar Square – it’s simply not right to charge. Thankfully by 11.30am they to were out numbered by tourists and most people entered freely.
Kathmandu really needs a strong authority figure who understands festivals if Holi is to survive. Banning traffic in Kathmandu (Thamel) would be very good in regards to safety. Stop all this nonsense about banning plastic bags – introduce a levy on them to help with the clean up (because there is no clean up). Introduce dye safety standards. Stop charging tourists during public holidays in Durbar Square. Stop making excuses that it’s not “your” responsibility to do these things.
On Holi day itself I eventually see legislation based on “Safety reasons” saying the throwing of color can only be done on private property. Or in public sanctioned zones like Ratna Park. Sooner or later the public zones will follow-up and introduce a charge of course.
Then finally there will be legislation brought in to ban non-sanctioned dyes on the grounds that they are not quality control passed and may cause skin irritation or similar issues. Fair enough. How about subsidies for Holi dyes then? Likewise an extra tax placed upon buying water balloons to help with the clean up and recycling. Again subsidize the Holi balloons thereby still allowing the everyday Nepalese person to participate.
How it happened in other countries
All of these reasons I predict have a point of reason to them as you can see. Much like fireworks in developed countries. A few decades ago anyone could buy them. Then due to health and safety reasons you were restricted to only buying certain types. Finally they were outright banned. And only licensed public fireworks displays are allowed. Now you can’t even buy a simple hand sparkler.
Is it crazy to give fireworks to a child or someone untrained in handling them? Yes. Is it crazy to give bag of dye to a child? I really don’t think so.
Is there sense in all the legislation and banning? Sure. Can it kill the spirit of a local festival? Yes. Will the same thing happen to Holi in Nepal? In my view yes. Eventually you’ll start to see the legislation creep in with restrictions. And slowly Holi will lose the bright spark of color and smiles that covers Nepal with the joy of life for one day a year.
Making Holi stay colorful, festive and fun
I’ve enjoyed Holi on many occasions in Nepal. In the past I bought a cheap rain coat, leggings or shorts. I didn’t take my camera out much. And when I did we both got pelted with dye. The grip is now bright pink. I bought over eighty packets of cheap dye powder, a huge cheap plastic water pistol and one hundred little water bags. I spent the evening filling them all up with some local kids and the next morning the same.
We were ready at seven in the morning. Our first target: a rich old guesthouse owner from the neighborhood who was trying to sneak in before the festival started. He ended up bright yellow. He was none too happy. Not for being covered in dye. But for not being earlier. He turned, saw the children smiling faces at having “got him” and smiled. Mission accomplished. Then it was onto the war of the guesthouses as we took to the rooftops and lobbed water grenades at each other from rooftop to rooftop. The Holi guesthouse wars had truly begun. And it’s was FUN! Only one objection came in. A young North American sounding couple having breakfast on a neighboring rooftop.
The Holi Guesthouse wars
“Stop it!!” shrieked the girl, “We’re trying to eat our breakfast in peace!”
A really, really, dumb thing to say out in the open on Holi.
“Welcome to Nepal!” I shouted back as we began a grenade assault of colored dye onto their roof.
They ran inside squealing for cover. Then from nowhere a Korean man ran out from the same guesthouse with a huge maniacal smile and began firing bags of dyed water bags back at us! And so the guesthouse wars continued for the rest of the morning!
Holi festival in Nepal dates for 2017, 2018 & 2019
- Holi in 2013 was on Tuesday, March 26th
- Holi in 2014 was on Monday, March 16th
- Holi in 2015 was on Thursday, March 5th
- Holi in 2016 was on Tuesday, March 22nd
- Holi in 2017 was on Sunday, March 12th
- Holi in 2018 will be on Friday, March 2nd
- Holi in 2019 will be on Thursday, March 22th
Here are some more photographs from Holi in Nepal.
Where is the best place in Nepal to go for Holi?
This is a common question I get asked so here’s the straight up answer. Find the best guesthouse with people that like to have fun!! It doesn’t matter if it’s Kathmandu, Pokhara or where ever. If the guesthouse owners and the guests staying there are fun loving people and are ready to join in … then stay at that place!
Kathmandu is great if your guesthouse is close to other guesthouses that have rooftops. After that head down to Durbar square or some of the smaller side streets where kids are playing. Thamel can be fun but some shopkeepers get annoying at the water and color being thrown.
In Pokhara Lakeside’s main road is the best place. It starts a little later in Pokhara than in Kathmandu. Usually from 10 am and it does go on into the afternoon. Again the main chowks (junctions) leading away from the lake and the residential streets are often packed with kids paying with color.
In Sauraha (Chitwan) the main stretch and by the Rhino statue. Also down by the Rapti river where the elephant bathing takes place.
Lastly try to buy color dye that’s not grease-based. The best is in powder form. It’s available in the smaller local shops rather than the supermarkets. Just ask for “color for Holi”. There will also be some street vendors selling dye. Small packets can be bought for 10-20 rupee while larger packets in small boxes cost from 40-60 rupees.
There’s no muli-packs of dye so just buy the colors you like. The more the better. You’ll be surprised how quickly the dye gets used up so get a lot!
Enjoy the Holi festival and keep it fun!
Holi is a traditional festival of color and fun. I personally found it fantastic that people off all ages, nationalities, sexes and wealth could participate together.
Yes, it’s one giant mess. And yes, just like I got hit by some awful grease based dye that still won’t come off my face there will be accidents. But it’s worth it!
It’s worth it just because it brings the spirit of color, happiness and fun to so many people once a year. Don’t let the dour few people who want to restrict everything and bring everything under control take away Holi and make it some stuck in the mud pay to access type festival.
If you’re a tourist going to Nepal please read about when there is a festival. Take note of Holi. Be prepared. Join in. Don’t complain. You’re on holiday. Enjoy this wonderful festival that makes people laugh and smile!
This is an additional feature article
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