Best Place to Celebrate Holi – Mathura, India

Holi is a world famous festival native to India where the colored paint is thrown around as everyone celebrates Krishna in this festival of spring, colors & love.  I celebrated Holi for the first time 3 years ago in Korea and loved it so much that I vowed to one day celebrate Holi in its mother country, India.  After some careful research, I found out that the best place for Holi is Mathura, India, about an hour train ride from the Taj Mahal!

Celebrate Holi in Mathura, India


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flew into New Delhi after a whirlwind weekend in Beijing and immediately left for Mathura where I joined this week-long festival.  The days leading up to Holi are all part of the celebration as the festival moves around the country but the best place to play Holi and see the festivities is Mathura and neighboring Vrindavan.

Lord Krishna’s was born in Mathura and this 5000-year-old tradition is a celebration of Krishna hence Mathura is the best place for Holi. 

There are many different ways to celebrate Holi.  Many Indian families simply spend the day with family while others fill the streets carrying pain that they share with everyone they see.  A traditional “happy holi” is used as a greeting when you use your hand to put some paint on someone’s face.  It’s common for people to come up and put a thumbprint on your forehead as a type of blessing or simply for others to throw paint at you as you walk past.

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The day before Holi a parade heads to Vrindivan and you can play Holi in the sacred temples.  We visited in the afternoon and it was one of the most amazingly intense experiences I’ve ever had.

Indians refer to throwing colors as “playing Holi”

There were literally thousands of people crammed into the streets like sardines with paint flying everywhere.  It was impossible to move independent of the crowd and it often felt like a human river.  You simply went with the current.  More than once we would stop moving; the masses of Indians would start chanting and then all of the sudden we would surge forward!  Thankfully I was able to stay with a small group from my hostel and 2 amazing Indian men we met on the way.  Thank you Rishabh and Natish if you’re reading this!  

The festival is much calmer in the early morning but as the crowd grows mob mentality can take over.  With the surges forward it would be all too easy for someone to get squashed against a wall and god forbid someone falls they would surely get trampled.  I had a lot of fun during this part of Holi but met many travelers who did not enjoy the experience because it was too crowded.  I do NOT recommend going to this as a solo female or with small children.  Don’t worry though you can still play Holi all over India and even in Mathura or Vrindavan.  But I recommend going early and staying out of the huge crowds.  If you’ve already decided to go to Holi then be sure to check out this girl’s Holi guide, its got great tips for guys too!

Part of the celebration includes throwing buckets of water and water balloons at the crowd.  Kids can be seen on the streets and rooftops with giant water cannons so anything you bring to Holi will likely get soaked in addition to a new paint job.

 

This photo is rom my buddy Chandra Aditya (that’s my pain covered head in the bottom left) and all I can say is that celebrating Holi together in Vrindavan was insane!
Check out his Instagram for more!

Where to Celebrate Holi in India?

On the main Holi day, priests create a tea-like drink called Bhang lassi using cannabis.  It is the only day of the year that Indians drink Bhang as it is illegal for the other 364 days.  Locals sell it in yogurt smoothies for as low as 40 INR or if you find a priest making it they’ll likely give it to you for free.  We found a priest near the pink riverside temple in Mathura who insisted that we all try a glass to enjoy Holi like a local.

I left my camera behind on the second day and we purposely started early at 730AM.  We were told that the crowd would be “rowdy and crazy by noon,” especially with the addition of Bhang to the mix.  There were dozens of dance parties in the streets with everyone rocking out to Indian pop music as paint was thrown in every direction.

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We chose to take a break from the celebrations and relax on a riverboat near the temples.  For 200INR we had a private boat tour to 3 temples and saw Mathura from a unique new angle.  Even if it isn’t Holi you can still enjoy the boat ride and historical sites in Mathura.

Krishna’s birthplace is actually a broken down temple that served as a prison in ancient history.  The noticeable landmark is a giant water basin that was used to clean Krishna’s laundry and is now a protected site, you can see it in the panorama below.

At the end of the last night of Holi massive bond fires are lit in the streets.  They burn huge piles of cow dung along with festival trash and other effigies.  If you’re lucky you’ll find one of many special bond fires where Holika, aka the devil, is burned.  Before burning you’ll see a child, Prahlad, in her arms but tradition dictates that the child must be saved from the fire as the spring celebration also embraces the victory of good over evil.

 

What to do in Vrindavan or Mathura

Even if you miss Holi there are some amazing places to see in Vrindavan and Mathura.  I highly recommend taking a boat along the river to explore the temples.  You can head to Porta Kund in central Mathura and see Krishna’s birthplace. My other favorite stop was Prem Mandir, a newly constructed temple with beautiful drawings.  When you finish in Mathura jump on the train and take an hour ride to Agra and see the Taj Mahal!

Where to stay in Mathura or Vrindavan

There are dozens of guest houses and homestays to choose from in the Mathura or Vrindavan area.  I stayed at the Matu Shree Guest House and you can too!  Private rooms are as little as $10 each but you are quite off the tourist trail so expect a dirtier room and don’t be surprised if you have a “bucket” instead of a shower.  They were very friendly providing information, hot water, and even homemade Indian snacks throughout the day!  Be sure to reserve your room in Mathura ahead of time because everything sold out weeks before I arrived for Holi.

Have you been to Holi, what was your experience like? Comment below to tell me about it!  If you’re thinking of attending Holi 2018 comment below and you can find a group to celebrate with!

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

16 thoughts on “Best Place to Celebrate Holi – Mathura, India

    1. Bhang is really sweet. I watched the priests make it and they spend like 2 hours preparing it. They use a grind stone and add a giant block of sugar that gets powdered and some nuts.

      I’ve always wanted to celebrate Songkran in Thailand! What time of year is it?

  1. Holi is definitely something I would like to experience! Perhaps in a place that’s a little more serene without all those crowds, though. And where I can find accommodations where the bathing options aren’t limited to a bucket. 🙂 On the other hand, maybe if I had a glass of bhang I’d feel more mellow about the whole thing.

    1. haha the Bhang definitely helps you enjoy the chaos. But there are also lots of places that will be calmer for Holi. Mathura is known as one of the craziest for locals because its Krishna’s birthplace

  2. Holi really looks like such an assault for the senses and something I wish I had done when I was younger in my backpacker days – the people, the colours, the momentum of the crowd all look amazing. Not sure how I would go with those crowds these days. Fabulous photos.

  3. Holi is indeed a colourful festival. But I prefer to watch it from the sidelines. As it is a bit too much crowded for comfort. Love to indulge in this experience in more private settings with a closed group though.

  4. Mike, I hope you enjoyed Holi. I think it looks like an amazing festival, but I’m not sure I’d wander in there. It looks a little crazy. Have fun.

  5. Holi is such a colorful festival – I can imagine the atmosphere is incredible when you are there. I’d be a bit hesitant with the crowds though.. I’m really not a fan of crowded places!

  6. Aaaaahhh! Now I know holi euphoria’s secret : cannabis!! It was nice to learn the history and traditions behind this world famous festival. Do you think it is safe for ladies to get in those crowds? Thanks

  7. Now this would be an incredible experience! I had no idea about the Bhang drink – very interesting! I would imagine there would be harsh penalties for being caught with that any other day of the year. Great insight into this colourful festival, having experienced the madness of India, and celebrated Diwali in Fiji last year, I would now love to experience Holi.

  8. Great post! I’ve seen several posts about Holi fest but it was mostly just showing off selfies with all the colorful paints. I appreciated a much more textbook approach for those of us who did not understand what the meaning was. I was surprised to learn that they can drink the cannabais tea on that day. Thanks for a great story and photos.

  9. I was in Thailand for Songkran a couple of years back. It was fun but hey no colours ! Half the fun of Holi is to be brightly coloured and as kids, we would hope the colour stays for atleast a day so you can show-off at school 😉 . I still have that – with Holi being my fav. I would be sceptical in a crowd though

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