Help save the Holi festival of color and fun in Nepal

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 12th, 2012. Updated on March 16th, 2014. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Nepal.
Girls smiling and covered in colored dye during the holi festival in Nepal

Holi is about color, fun and laughter. As you can see, that’s a good thing!

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 have seen Holi hit the headlines recently. The 2012 Holi festival look place over the past week including in Nepal where it’s a national holiday. 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.

Nepalese boys prepare dye for Holi

Nepalese boys prepare dye for Holi

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.

Nepalese lady being hit by water during Holi

Nepalese lady being hit by water during Holi

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

Bad oil based blue dye that burns your skin

Bad oil based blue dye that burns your skin that was used during Holi

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!

A table full of dyes in preparation for Holi in Nepal

My war table for Holi in Nepal. The first round in preparing colorful water grenades!

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.

Tourists enjoying Holi in Nepal

Tourists enjoying Holi in Nepal!

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!


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.

Nepalese man spraying a tourist with dye during Holi

Nepalese man spraying a tourist with dye during Holi – I’d come back to Nepal just for Holi alone!

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 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016

  • Holi in 2013 was  on Tuesday, March 26th
  • Holi in 2014 was on Monday, March 16th
  • Holi in 2015 will be on Friday, March 5th
  • Holi in 2016 will be on Wednesday, March 22nd

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.

colorful smile during Holi in Nepal

A big colorful smile during Holi in Nepal

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 


Travel Tip:

Planning a trip to Nepal? For all the details on what to do, places to visit, photos, costs, accommodation and maps –  check out my travel guide to Kathmandu and my travel guides to Nepal.


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Speak your mind, all opinions welcome - leave a comment below

25 Great responses to Help save the Holi festival of color and fun in Nepal

  1. hayadeen says:

    FUN FUN FUN!!!

  2. Tash says:

    Also, if you are a tourist in Nepal during Holi, RESPECT the local customs!
    I am in two minds about the targeting of women in this, although I have read that in some parts they get to retaliate with big sticks….I guess that would make it fair! Ha!
    I think I could be in India for next year’s Holi, and after seeing the travel blogging community’s photos of the celebrations, will certainly try to – looks amazing!

    • Hey Tash, spot on with respecting local customs! Far too many people go into a country either not reading a simple page or two about them, or else go overboard!

      I’m all for making the second day before Holi a day when women can throw water at men. Only fair to turn the tables on us guys.

      I hope you get to experience holi in India, it’s a great festival tops anything other by far.

  3. Aakar says:

    Great post! I agree with you!

  4. This sounds like an intense festival. I’d like to experience it once– as long as its not sewage water or toxic chemicals they are throwing on me :)

  5. Sounds like I should experience Holi asap (2013!). Reminds me of Songkran in Thailand, where people target phones and cameras with water pistols. As you say, you can always stay indoors!

  6. Kaylin says:

    I celebrated Holi this weekend! (In Korea of all places) I went with a bunch of my fellow English-teacher friends to the beach where I live for the festival that was set up by the Indians in Korea group here. It was so much fun!!! We just danced and threw powder at each other (and had a few drinks) for a couple hours, some people got in the ocean (which was freezing!), then we went and ate some Indian food.
    I would love to experience it in a country where it is actually a holiday!!! Esp since it was a little bit weird going home on the subway surrounded by Koreans staring at me even more than normal haha. But I loved get covered in the dye, even though my fingernails and the part of my hair are STILL pink two days later… I’m thinking I might have to go to India or Nepal for this one day (in 2014 maybe?? I might be contained on the other side of the world this time next year).

    • Sounds like an great time Kaylin. I could just imagine the looks going back on the train like that.

      Never been to Holi outside of a Hindu country so I don’t know the difference. All I know is that Holi in Kathmandu is an amazing experience. If you do travel to Nepal, Kathmandu is the place to experience it. And preferably in a really friendly guesthouse!

  7. Chris says:

    I’ve heard the Holi festival shouldn’t be missed. Some tourists tend to get into a privileged state when traveling and feel that they can freely exercise their right to complain. But I agree with you, as long as certain rules are enforced, the experience of the festival should be enjoyed for what it is. It really comes down to embracing and celebrating the culture and people.

  8. bernie says:

    Hi Dave.. Yeah sounds like you had a good time there! Great! Like to get there one day!

  9. Rachel says:

    I’ve been in Nepal for the last few months but unfortunately had to leave just a couple of days before Holi kicked off, so it was really great to read this. Thanks for posting!

  10. I’ve heard in India, many women try not to go out seeing as they’re one of the big targets so when I was in India during holi, I actually was advised to a degree against it. But I was also in an ashram in south where it wasn’t strong.

    It pisses me off when tourists (& overly sensitive locals) make a big stink about something that’s been a tradition. I despise when the government gives into that minorty. Similarly, this past year, the Hawaii gov cracked down on New Year’s Eve fireworks. It’s been a cultural tradition since forever and HI folk celebrate it to the extent of India/Nepal on Holi. The whole island is in a cloud on NYE due to every neighborhood playing fireworks, aerials, etc… in the streets. The next morning is a big sweepup of red paper, etc… But people complained- first tourists, then people with health concerns… This year, we needed a permit to play sparklers, which is like saying you need a permit for your kid to play with hand poppers! Sadly, the state never tried to sell or commercialize it as THE place to go to for NYE, so not much of the world knows that you’ve NOT seen a real fireworks celebration until you’ve hit the islands. It’s a shame.

    Tourists that don’t want to experience local traditions should either not travel or research the dates that they wouldn’t want to travel on. Simple as that.

    • I hear you Christine.

      I used the the fireworks example as I couldn’t think of something else that had a succession of banning in various countries over the years. I thought it was a bad example as I do in some regards agree that “certain” people should not be allowed near fireworks.

      I remember Christmas eve in The Philippines. The amount of people being checked into hospital due to fireworks blowing up on them is huge.

      On the other hand I can see how in a decade it will also be banned there. I think it is officially banned just not enforced at the moment. So many people will grow up not knowing the fun and excitement of setting off fireworks.

      I remember doing this as a kid myself. And yes I burned myself. And yes I learned my lesson and respected fire, and fireworks ever since.

      It’s just amazing how many clueless people don’t know how to handle something as primitive as fire.

      I could go on … but I’m only agreeing with 100% anyway! :)

      I can just see Holi being stripped away over the next few years and it’s a crying shame.

  11. Vicky says:

    I’ve always wanted to go to Holi – it looks amazing. I never thought about the fact that some of the locals might not like it. It’s so annoying how in any celebration there are always some people who’ll ruin it for everyone else. Argh, so annoying. Throwing dirty water, that’s just grim. Really hope these people come to their senses and just let everyone have good, innocent fun instead of damaging the festival’s reputation.

  12. Sonia says:

    Hey Dave,

    Loved your post. I am from Nepal myself and relate to a lot of what you’ve written. However, I wouldn’t really call throwing balloons at women on the 3rd day leading up to Holi a tradition. It would be akin to saying whistling at women on the streets is a tradition. It happens in almost every corner of Kathmandu, and since it is mostly harmless we just learn to tune it out, but that does not really make it a tradition right? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for having fun and pelting balloons and throwing water at passersby. I have personally gotten together with friends to throw water balloons and colored water at men, but not many women do that. The problem isn’t that women are being pelted with balloons, but that it is mostly men who do the pelting. Throwing water at people of opposite sex is just another way of flirting and Nepali people, like other South Asians, are more forgiving of men who tease/flirt with women but not the other way round. Women who don’t shy away from going against the traditional stereotypes are sometimes jokingly and sometimes seriously called “oottauli” (I can’t think of the exact translation, but you might find someone in Nepal who can explain the word to you). So most women would rather be teased then be on the other side of the teasing. So, although I agree that complaining and making a big fuss about bring pelted with balloons during Holi is just plain stupid, I don’t think designating any one day as the day to pelt balloons at men will solve the problem. It will still be mostly men who will be doing the throwing and throwing water at people of your own sex can only be so much fun…

  13. allan says:

    hi there, I will be in nepal for Holi in March 2013, and was wondering which town I should be in.. I haven’t found too much info online of where to be yet, but someone on tripadvisor recommended Pukhara rather than Kathmandu on the basis that Kathmandu doesn’t have access to clean water so some people they throw dirty water…

    I would like to be in a town/area that is the most festive, & enjoyable

    Allan

  14. Kath says:

    Hi

    I’m going to Holi Festival in Kathmandu this month and want to know if any has any advice on avoiding dirty water or preventative medication is case of dirty water. I’m keen to get fully involved in the festival but a little concerned about dirty water?

    Cheers
    Kath

    • Hi Kath,

      In the days before Holi it’s usually water in bags that’s thrown. It’s not really thrown at people’s faces and it’s fairly sporadic. I would not ingest the water. Its tap water which is not safe to drink in Nepal but is used for showers/bathrooms etc.

      On Holi itself it’s the same water but colored with dye. You should avoid oil based dyes if you are participating as they are very hard to get off your skin. Generally though it’s water based dyes which wash right off. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been sick from Holi. Though if you have allergies, medical conditions or don’t feel comfortable in these environments then it’s best not to participate. Otherwise for most people they simply wear clothes that they don’t want ruined and enjoy the festivities!

  15. Tats says:

    Hi Dave,

    My upcoming trip to Nepal will be during Holi week so I am kinda looking forward to it, after reading this! Do you think other parts of Nepal than Kathmandu will also celebrate Holi, like Pokhara? I still have an open itinerary yet so I wanna make the most of it.

    Cheers,

    T

    • Hi Tats,

      There’s no better time to visit Nepal! Yes other parts of Nepal will celebrate Holi. The only thing to remember is that the more remote you get the less of a “big” deal it will be. The narrow streets of Kathmandu mixed with the tall buildings and large population make it a lot of fun. The next best place will be Pokhara. Lakeside will be brimming with kids pelting each other (and tourists) with small balloons.

      The best tip I can give you is find a guesthouse that’s filled with fun people and owners. Older types & package tourists generally are not so great to be around. Wear old clothes and enjoy the day!