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Originating from the Indian subcontinent and celebrating the arrival of spring, Holi is known as the Festival of Colour, Festival of Spring or the Festival of Love. And it really is all three of those things. Like many festivals across the world its date is based on a lunar calendar and it falls on the last full moon of winter. It is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and has become an increasingly popular event all over the world. In the countries that celebrate, Holi is a national holiday when everyone comes together to celebrate spring and love. We were lucky to spend Holi in Nepal a few years ago.
There are a number of rituals associated with the festival and these can vary between different regions. The celebrations start in the evening before Holi with a Holika Dahan where communities gather and light a fire, burning a symbolic effigy of a demoness who attempted to kill her nephew, Prahlad, a worshipper of the God Vishnu. This represents the triumph of good over evil. Traditionally participants contribute wood for the fire and dance and sing together. It’s important to remember that Holi is also about love and repairing broken relationships.
The following morning is Rangwali Holi (Dhuleti), the festival of colour. And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, you are welcome to join in the fun. Everyone takes part and those serious about ‘Playing Holi’ will be armed with all sorts of devices to make the day as colourful as possible – there will be powdered paints, water pistols containing ordinary or coloured water, water balloons (you have to watch out for those as they can be quite a surprise). People often wear white clothes in order to show off all the colours. You can buy paint powder from street vendors everywhere.
Holi In Nepal
In Nepal Holi celebrations begin eight days before the full moon, starting off with the raising of a chir – a long bamboo pole embellished with brightly coloured strips of cloth in three circular layers. This chir will be burned on the night before the full moon, again symbolising the burning of Holika and the victory of good over evil.
We were in Nepal during Holi a few years ago and it was one of the most fun days we have ever had when travelling. After a fantastic journey travelling through Bhutan and Southern Nepal, including a stay at the Neydo monastery and a couple of days in the Chitwan National Park where we undertook a walking safari and learned to cook with the local Tharu people. We had travelled back to Kathmandu to explore the capital as well as nearby Bhaktapur and Patan, all cities with an incredibly rich cultural heritage. (We will post about these in detail another time.)
Bhaktapur, also known as Khwopa, is a UNESCO world heritage site, a city located some 13km from Kathmandu. It has some of the most remarkable architecture, with squares that contain beautiful temples and statues.
Patan is another UNESCO site. Around 5km from Kathmandu, it is so close to the capital that even though it is Nepal’s third largest city, it almost feels like a suburb of Kathmandu these days. Along with the capital and Bhaktapur it is one of Nepal’s three royal cities. It is also known as Lalitpur – City of Beauty – a title that is hugely apt.
Sadly, both cities and their remarkable historic buildings were badly damaged during an earthquake in 2015 and repairs have been ongoing for some years.
Happy, Happy Holi
Holi began tentatively for us. We were doing a walking tour in the early morning in Bhaktapur when a smiling young man approached us as we were strolling down a side street, smeared a little red powder paint on our cheeks, and declared “Happy Holi!”. We wished him the same.
As soon as we had paint on our faces we quickly discovered that we were fair game. People would come up to us and anoint us with paint powder. Children bearing water pistols would quietly approach us then squirt us before running away, shouting joyously as we gave chase, their families looking on smiling and laughing. And we loved every moment.
Moving on to Patan, by mid-afternoon the town squares were filled with crowds as music played loudly and colours filled the air.
Even one of the local dogs took part.
Walking through the town people were singing and dancing in the streets, “Happy, Happy, Holi!”
It was lovely looking out at the celebrations over Durbar Square.
Holi In Nepal – Celebratory Food
Of course we wanted to try some of the local food. At a tiny restaurant off one of the side-streets near Durbar Square in Patan, we joined local people sitting on benches in front of low tables, and discovered chatamari. We sat down on a bench and watched the cook expertly make this lovely dish. It’s a celebratory food and it seemed entirely appropriate for the day.
Chatamari is a specialty of the Newar community of the Kathmandu valley. It is like a pancake with toppings. The batter is made from rice flour, spices and eggs. It is then fried on top of a circular flat grill and various toppings are added as it cooks – ours comprised minced meat, onions and a fried egg – but fully veggie options are available.
These were the star dish but were accompanied with some roasted lamb, a potato curry and bhuteko bhatmas, soybeans roasted in Nepali spices, which were spicy, crunchy and absolutely delicious. (And perfectly complemented a nice, cool beer.)
After lunch it was time to head back into the happy mayhem and explore further. The local children were particularly interested in playing Holi with us. Just as we were about to leave Patan we asked a passer-by to take a photo of colourful us – by the time he had figured out the camera setting… PHOTOBOMB! The kids were very happy to show us their pre-prepared waterbombs.
Arriving back at our (relatively posh) hotel in Kathmandu, absolutely covered in paint, we were a little unsure about how we would be received. Nobody minded, they knew it was Holi, and the local people were delighted that we had taken part and we were greeted with smiles. We showered very carefully, doing our utmost not to get paint on the hotel’s towels. We were largely successful.
Holi in Nepal was one of the most colourful, delightful and – above all else – happy festivals we have ever attended. It was truly a day of joy.