Holi In Varanasi, India: Everything You Need To Know

Holi in Varanasi: A Travel Guide. Playing at the Indian Holi Festival party in Varanasi. Tips on how to celebrate Holi in India + things to do in Varanasi. Why you need a hotel in the Ghats of the Ganges River, sacred temples, cultures and the dangers for women. 🇮🇳 🎨 🕍 🏞 #Varanasi #India #Travel #CwC #Photography #culture

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      So, you want to know how to celebrate Holi in Varanasi this year?

      This India travel guide will help you decide whether the Varanasi Holi Festival is right for you. Or, if you will be in Varanasi for Holi, how to get the most fun out of the Holi celebrations while you’re here.

      Holi 2019 Dates

      The Varanasi Holi Festival date is the 21st March 2019. The night before Holi, on Holika Dahan (date: 20th March 2019) huge bonfires are built to help burn away evil spirits.

      Holi is celebrated each year at the end of the winter months after the full moon in March.

      HOLI, VARANASI: CONTENTS

      Holi brings a lot of thoughts to mind… mainly of colour being splashed around in a happy array and coloured water dye seeping down the walls of the sacred Varanasi temples. Maybe you imagine entire Indian families engaging in a coloured powder dye war on the streets that you can take part in?

      Perhaps the religious importance of the colour festival crosses your mind? And for that reason, you would probably think that experiencing Holi in one of the most spiritually scared places in India would be a monumentally fun and interesting affair. Life-changing even.

      But there is more to Holi in Varanasi than just getting in on the fun and experiencing the culture. There are safety issues and things you should really know before you go off the play around in the coloured dye of Holi in Varanasi.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India

      What is Varanasi like?

      Varanasi is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed. You won’t know what I mean by “vibes” until you’ve actually felt them yourself.  From the maze of alleyways of old Varanasi to the spectacular decrepit buildings that line up along the Ganges.

      Every nook and cranny of Varanasi is steeped in interesting history and tradition. Along the ghats of Varanasi, daily life and religious rituals exist each day in perfect harmony. This spiritual town is one of the most important sacred religious sites in India, especially for the Hindu people.

      Varanasi is often described as the ‘City of Shiva‘. Shiva is the god of the destruction of the world. Shiva’s role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it. Here in Varanasi, death is very apparent.

      The holy River Ganga slips silently past. It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of bodies of the dead are burned on these ghats every day, their bones and ashes pushed into to calm waters below. That is, until you get close to the smouldering pyres.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India
      A burning ghat in Varanasi, India’s oldest city, glows as burning pyres continue through the night

      In the days leading up to the main Holi event, I could feel the vibe of the city becoming more manic. Stranger. Perhaps more sinister. There were thousands more people on the streets, some drunk men, some families enjoying themselves and a lot of children pre-soaking you in colour before they were supposed to.

      It wasn’t a vibe I didn’t like, it was just different.

      How to Protect Yourself During Holi

      The following refers to the safety precautions you should take in the day and night leading up to the Holi celebrations, and on the day of. The day before the Varanasi festival you can engage in water fights on the streets and you’ll probably see a lot of local men “pre-gaming” by getting absolutely trashed at Holika Dahan burnings.

      Personal Safety

      Firstly, personal safety. This is a big issue. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows at this India Holi festival, unfortunately. In Varanasi, local men are known to get drunk and rowdy. Large groups of men adorn the streets, and usually, all of them are drunk or high. Some of them can become aggressive, too touchy, or just plain rough.

      On the day before and the day of the Holi festival, only go out onto the streets as a group of people. In the group, there should be at least a few men you trust. Safety in numbers, as they say. Going out in groups is much more fun anyway, and watching out for each other will definitely get you quickly out of any sticky situations.

      Even if you are just a couple of guys going out together, you are not entirely safe. I have heard stories of men’s clothes being ripped off and others who have been punched. So go out with as many people as you can rustle up in your hotel and look out for each other.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India
      A before and after shot

      Safety of Your Personal Belongings

      Many people will tell you not to take anything of value out onto the streets. This is because everyone (I’m talking about literally everyone) will throw coloured dye at you. Both wet and dry dye. It will stain your clothes, ruin your phone and get in your camera lens if you aren’t prepared.

      Clothes

      I highly recommend you buy Holi attire specifically for the occasion. My friends and I bought white shirts and pants so the colours would show up better. And we could just throw them away once we were done with the festival. Wearing white clothes screams; “throw dye at me” though and the young guys can get a bit rough. If you are a foreigner with lighter features, a woman, or are wearing light coloured clothes, you will be a major target.

      For women wearing white shirts, they will get wet. Consider wearing a black shirt underneath so when the shirt goes see-through from the water, you won’t be more exposed than you feel comfortable with.

      You may also like to rub Vaseline on your skin before you go out if you are worried about your skin becoming stained. I didn’t do this and managed to wash off the colour after a few showers.

      READ: How to Pack for India: All You Need to Know

      Phone and Money

      I highly, highly recommend travelling AT ALL TIMES with ziploc bags. I can’t express how many times ziploc bags have saved my ass in so many different situations. For Holi, a ziploc bag will keep your phone and money dry and safe in your pocket and you can even whip out your phone and take a photo INSIDE THE BAG when the occasion presents itself.

      You may have trouble finding ziploc bags in India, so bring them from home. I literally never travel without them.

      Alternatively, you could bring a cheap waterproof phone case and hang it around your neck. However, it is likely the dye will ruin it and you probably won’t be able to use it again.

      Camera

      For watery situations like this, a waterproof GoPro camera is such a saviour. You can get dye all over it and just wash it off at the end of the day. Perfect.

      If you’re more of a DSLR person (and can’t bear to leave the camera in the hotel), you will definitely want to waterproof the crap out of it. Festival-goers will most definitely still throw water and dye at you even if you have a camera (in fact, you might actually become more of a target). Cover it in plastic bags and tape and leave just the tip of the lens sticking out (hopefully it isn’t your favourite lens?).

      Place a clear UV Filter on the end of your lens. This will ensure any damage to the glass is only on the lens protector and not your expensive original lens. If you’re super organised you can buy a nifty rain cover for your camera before you leave.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India

      Tips for the Leadup to Holi in Varanasi

      Buy water guns, dye and other Holi paraphernalia before and during the Holi Festival, Varanasi. Buy lots of snacks and your alcohol beforehand because most restaurants and alcohol shops will be shut until the late afternoon or evening on the day.

      Get a group together and head to the ghats on the late afternoon of Holika Dahan (the day before the colour festival). I have written more on this below. This is when you will have the most fun colour dye fights with the children. They are all over the ghats in giant gangs, strategically ready to pounce on unsuspecting passers-by. The water fights with the children on this afternoon was my favourite part of Holi in Varanasi.

      Then after sunset, on your way home, you will experience all of the fires burning in the streets and on the ghats. It’s an incredible sight to see. Only do this in a group though, because when the fires start burning, the men start drinking. It can become unsafe if you stay out late.

      The Night before Holi; Holika Dahan

      The ritual bonfires that occur on the night before Holi is known as Holika Dahan. Holika was a demoness or devil in Hinduism, who tried to kill her nephew by luring him into a fire. However, the god Vishnu stepped in and Holika was burned instead.

      In the days leading up to Holi in Varanasi, people will gather wood, small Holika statues and other burnable things and build large pyres in the middle of the streets and on the ghats. At or just after sunset on the night of Holika Dahan the fires will be lit, casting huge plumes of smoke into the air. Some bonfires appear far too close to houses, others are out on the ghats.

      The bonfires symbolise a triumph of good over evil. Throughout the night, people might add things to the fire that have significance to them. A sort of process of purging bad things out of their life. Youth commonly steal strange things to burn up in the flames as well. People will sit by the fire, drinking, dancing, singing, and praying that their internal evil is destroyed in the same way Holika was in the fire.

      A Hoilika Dahan Pyre - How to spend Holi in Varanasi
      A picture of a Holika bonfire

      The Day of the Holi Festival in Varanasi

      The history of Holi began with Holika and variations of the story above. The Holi festival is celebrated all over India. Nowadays it is known in India as Rangwali Holi, and to us; the Indian Festival of Colors. It is celebrated all over India as well as some other countries around the world. The Holi parties begin on the last full moon day of the Hindu lunisolar calendar month, marking the end of winter and the start of spring.

      In general, the Holi festival signifies ridding oneself from past errors, ending conflicts, forgiving and forgetting. Some people repay debts or even forgive debts, to start off fresh and new.

      The Holi activities mostly take place in public. Where both strangers and friends can become the brunt of a colourful attack in the streets, no matter if you are female, male, young, old, rich or poor. Everyone partakes in Holi. Some groups will carry loud drums and other musical instruments and go from place to place dancing and singing. Everybody throws colour on each other, in dry and wet forms, turning the entire country into a giant colourful water fight.

      You can buy special sweets for a happy Holi called gujiya at most Indian candy shops. Some people customarily drink bhang (made from cannabis) which can get you very high. Be careful taking intoxicating substances during Holi for your own safety. If you are indulging, only take your own or from people you trust.

      Candy store at Holi in Varanasi, India

      Is the Varanasi Holi dangerous for women?

      This following is my personal experience celebrating Holi in Varanasi, India. Everyone will obviously have different experiences. However, it is important to know what you might be up against so that you can make decisions that are right for you.

      Varanasi was not my first choice for Holi.

      I’d been warned that the bigger cities like Varanasi would be much more intense and told to steer clear of them. But I usually love the intensity of busy cities and instead thought; “Bring it on!” Also, my friends were going to be in Varanasi for Holi so I decided to meet them there.

      In the Days Before, we started getting warnings

      The day before the main colour event at least 10 different Indian people on the street told us (my friend, her boyfriend and I) not to leave our hostel in the morning of Holi. “Why?” we would inquisitively ask. “Because,” they said, “it is far too dangerous for women.”

      The general advice we were getting was that the men who start drinking the night before were so hammered the next day that they could get overly touchy and sexually abusive.

      We tried not to let this put us off, so we and came up with a game plan to mostly participate in the festival from our veranda, which was conveniently located above the main walkway on the Ganges overlooking the ghats.

      We would venture out in the morning, during the “safest” hours. After the day before, playing Holi with the children was on top of our to-do list.

      Then, if we felt unsafe we would return to the hotel and celebrate Holi from our viewpoint instead.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India

      The Morning was Calm

      At about 8 or 9 in the morning, and under the guidance of the hotel owner, we ventured out onto the streets. It was like a zombie apocalypse. All the shops were shut; the streets were smouldering with the fires from the night before and were lined with rubbish and cow dung.

      The only life we saw was the odd cow or dog, some passed out men from the night before and a few children who poked their heads over the rooftops of their houses to throw paint on us.

      We would gleefully try to get them back, chasing them around corners or squirting our water guns up onto the roof. That part of the day was fun.

      After a while, things got Strange

      The kids were the highlight of the day, because from then on it only got stranger.

      After a couple of hours, the people on the street started getting older and bigger, and there was more of them. Instead of kids laughing and innocently throwing paint around, we had dye forcibly smashed into our faces by much stronger arms. Sometimes it hurt and, on those occasions, it felt unnecessarily forceful.

      Anyway, we had run out of colour by this time, so we returned to our hotel veranda where we had a good vantage point over the ghats. Below, we could see a group of young Indian men setting up large speakers to play loud music. “Great,” we thought, “we have people to throw dye at!”

      But almost immediately one particular teenager spotted us and began to scream at us some of the most disgustingly detailed obscenities I’ve ever heard in my life.

      He demanded we go down to the ghats so that he could ‘have his way’ with both of us women at the same time, telling us he would like to ‘penetrate our behinds.’ After a while, he moved his attention to my friend’s boyfriend. The teenager yelled; “and after them, I’m going to f**k you in the a** too!”

      And that is putting it nicely…

      I was really glad we hadn’t run into these people face-to-face in the streets. Though we were warned to expect this sort of behaviour it was still confronting, and just such a shame after such a nice morning.

      The rest of the day was a bit of a letdown

      Too scared to leave our hotel, we just sat on our veranda and played cards as we watched the young Indian men below fall over themselves, try to fight each other and yell in the faces of foreign tourists walking past.

      Though I didn’t really know exactly what to expect of Holi in Varanasi, all in all, it was a very strange experience. I always try to keep an open mind in travel and in life, but the Varanasi Holi festival was just plain confronting.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India
      Varanasi Ganga Aarti prayer happens every sunset at holy Dasaswamedh Ghat

      The Verdict: Should You Go to Varanasi for Holi?

      Do you think you can handle the intensity of Holi in Varanasi?

      Are you a woman travelling alone?

      Will you stay in accommodation where you are likely to meet people so you can spend the Holi festival in a group for added protection?

      Does hearing my experiences make your skin crawl, or do you feel excited by the prospect of spending Holi in one of the holiest cities on Earth?

      When confronted by groups of “handsy” men, how do you hold your own? Can you mentally deal with these types of experiences?

      These are just a few questions you might ask yourself before you book your ticket. Varanasi may not provide the best Holi for your personal needs.

      If I were to be in India for Holi again, I would go to a smaller town with crowds that would be easier to manage. Pushkar, Bundi or Goa would be better choices, I think.

      Celebrating the Holi Festival in Varanasi; the holiest place in India
      Huge crowds at the Ganga Aarti prayer

      Book Varanasi Accomodation Months in Advance

      Keep in mind that Holi in Varanasi can book out months in advance. If you are a single woman (or anyone, really) I suggest you make sure to book a hotel as early as humanly possible. Just turning up is not a smart idea as you will just have to take any hotel you find, and it might not be the most ideal place to stay.

      Below I will list some of the best Varanasi hotels for the Holi, so you can be safe and happy in the knowledge that you’ve booked the right place.

      Disclaimer: I did not stay in any of these hotels myself, but I scoured the reviews and picked out the very best budget hotels on the ghats in Varanasi so that you don’t need to do the work. All of the Booking.com hotels below include free cancellation, so you can feel safe in the knowledge that you can book now and cancel later if you change your mind.

      Kedareswar B&B

      This cute hotel is located right on the steps of the ghats where I had a water fight with the children the day before Holi. Location is key, meaning this is the PERFECT Varanasi accommodation for the Holi Festival. Kedareswar B&B has fantastic river views from the balconies and rooftop, basic clean amenities, a good free breakfast and super helpful and friendly staff. It is also close to everything. What’s not to love?

      CHECK PRICES

      Dwivedi Hotels Hotel Elena

      Dwivedi Hotel boasts a seriously good location (only 500m from the main ghat), it’s clean and some rooms even come with 180° views of the river and ghats. A seriously good breakfast is included in the price, the staff are friendly and helpful and all the rooms have an attached bathroom. The hotel comes with free Wifi but sometimes it goes down.

      CHECK PRICES

      Sri Yoga Mandir

      Want a jaw-dropping view of the River Ganga for a seriously low price? Sri Yoga Mandir has a gorgeous open area in front of the hotel overlooking the river, complete with a light river breeze. The breakfast is to die for and the hot water is always running (a must in winter). Rooms are neat, clean and large and the hotel is quiet and homely. Literally, the only downside of this hotel is that it is about 2 km from the main ghat.

      CHECK PRICES

      Paradise Inn Guest House

      Although the Paradise Inn isn’t right on top of the ghats, it is so close you will be there in just a few steps. It is also only 200 m from Dasaswamedh Ghat (the main ghat) and it had the CHEAPEST price for a double room I have ever seen for accommodation on the ghats in Varanasi. The owner goes out of his way to be helpful and the shower water is always warm. This is easily one of the best budget hotels in Varanasi, India.

      CHECK PRICES

      READ: Should you go to India? Can you accept her? An essay about my love/hate relationship with India

      Pin for later!

      Splice of 4 images from Holi in Varanasi, India with text overlay: "Varanasi Holi Festival in India"

      Have you ever experienced the Holi Festival, India? Tell me how it was in the comments below!

      Originally Posted: September, 2017. Frequently updated.

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      Categories: Adventure & off the Grid, Featured, India, Stories & Personal
      Crystal Egan

      Passionate baby goat cuddler and part-time adventurer, Crystal can often be found doing headstands on the edges of cliffs, taking photos of abandoned buildings or sleeping on deserted islands with dangerous criminals. She has too many awesome stories and helpful tips to keep them all to herself so follow along and in return she will bring you inspiring pictures, travel videos and a whole load of fun!

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