Holi City: Why London’s Crazy About The Indian Festival Of Colour

By Ellie Broughton Last edited 96 months ago
Holi City: Why London’s Crazy About The Indian Festival Of Colour

The Hindu paint-throwing festival is a success — what others could take off? Photo by Deadlyhappy via the Londonist Flickr pool.

For years, crowds in white T-shirts have gathered at Battersea Power Station or the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as if going on a day-trip to hang out with a Moonie-like cult. A few hours later, the same crowds troop back onto the Tube looking like they've been in an explosion in a paint factory.

It's all down to Holi paint parties, which are taking London by storm. The traditional Hindu festival of spring, during which people pelt each other with powdered paint, has adapted for western audiences who are seeking Facebook photos rather than spiritual meaning.

But given the London parties are more rave than religion, how do Hindus feel about party-goers subsuming their festival? And if Holi is popular now, what festival is next for the cultural calendar? We take a look at how Hindus feel about the adoption of the festival, and what other cultural festivals could become the latest craze.

What are the traditions behind the paint-throwing parties?

Holi is a multi-faceted celebration — it's about the triumph of good over evil, a festival of love, and a knees-up to mark the end of winter. It’s called Holi after Holika, a demoness who was burned to death attempting to kill the son of god Vishnu. In India, the holiday is marked by people throwing coloured paint powder and squirting coloured water at each other. It's a dangerous day to be outside if you're wearing a new top.

What’s with all the paint?

Because it’s a spring festival, it’s also a celebration of love, recalling another story from Hindu mythology, when the god Krishna courted his other half Radha. So the paints are about playfulness and excitement about the forthcoming summer. It's about a levelling of social norms, as no-one is exempt from getting paint chucked at them, regardless of age, sex or social status.

Is it offensive to attend Holi parties if you’re not a Hindu?

Nope. Dipen Rajyaguru, director for equality and human rights at the Hindu Council UK, says: "Holi can certainly be celebrated by non-Hindus. There is no discrimination, and the message is universal."


Well, there are a few ways to show a bit of respect for other people’s beliefs. Rajyaguru adds that common sense should prevail: "It only becomes an issue when there is ignorance of the reasons for the celebrations — for example if there is a prayer or a Hindu deity then people should not be eating meat or drinking."

Mindful of this, organisers of the Holi One festivals are careful to point out that their events are simply "inspired" by the Hindu festival, and are not religious events.

What about other festivals? Are they all OK for people outside of the religion?

It depends who you ask. Nick Spencer, research director for religion and society thinktank Theos, says he doesn’t think people should worry about it: "We shouldn't be too precious about preserving any clear blue water between 'religious' and 'cultural' festivals. After all, the great Christian festivals of the middle ages were as much social and cultural celebrations as they were theological ones."

He thinks religious groups should encourage people to join in their festivals and encourage them to come to their own judgement about what they are celebrating — or, in his words: "invite people to party rather than police the front door".

But, he added, not every interpretation of a religious festival will be right: "There’s a big difference between Oxford Street lights celebrating the joy of giving, and Oxford Street lights sponsored by Wonga or Paddy Power."

Why do some festivals become popular when others don’t?

It’s not really clear, although the more photogenic parties (such as Chinese New Year, Mexican Day of the Dead and Holi) tend to become more popular in the mainstream because they are social media-friendly, and they look like fun. But celebrations like Eid ul-Fitr, which were traditionally held by families, are gaining more visibility as Muslims increasingly attend big outdoor events such as celebrations in Valentines Park in Ilford.

What other religious festivals might take off in London?

If the Instagram appeal of festivals is anything to go by, the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival might be a nice do for springtime.

Likewise, to celebrate Loi Krathong, the Thai festival of light, in Bangkok they float candles down the Chao Phraya, so can you imagine the Thames glowing through the city on a cold November night?

If you want to find out more about Loi Krathong, Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon celebrates the festival in late November and opens the event to the public.

What festivals do you think could take off in London? Let us know in the comments below.

Last Updated 22 September 2014