Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love and for many, it is a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships. The festival also celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season.
That celebration is Holi, the Hindu festival of love, color and spring. It’s a time when Indians don simple, inexpensive clothes and take to the streets to drench each other in clouds of colored powder and buckets of water. There’s singing, dancing, and of course, food.
Holi, also known as the festival of colors, is a religious occasion celebrated with much pomp. It is considered the second biggest Hindu festival after Diwali, and the celebrations last for two days – Choti Holi or Holika Dahan and Dhulandi or Rangwali Holi. It marks the celebration of the victory of good over evil. Throwing of colors to each other is the signature of this festival. Therefore, it is often referred to as the Festival of Colors. Mythologically, Holi is associated with the legend of the demon King Hiranyakashyap and his son Prahlad and sister Holika .
What is common everywhere is that people from all communities come together to apply colours on each other to celebrate Holi. Offering sweets and other delectable dishes, and enjoying thandai (a traditional sweet drink made of milk, almonds and saffron) and lassi (buttermilk) on this day are some things that bond people of all ages and across ethnicities.
As per the Hindu calendar, Holi is celebrated on Purnima, or full moon day, in the month of Phalguna. The date, therefore, falls in mid-March according to the Gregorian calendar. This year, the festival will be celebrated on 17 and 18 March. However, in some places, the festival begins days in advance. And any trip around India during Holi should begin with one of these places.
But before we get to that, let’s look at why Holi is celebrated.
Significance of Holi
Holi traditions and celebrations go back several centuries. It is said that Lord Krishna, one of the most prominent deities in Hinduism, played the festival of colours.
But beyond that, Holi is connected to mankind’s belief that good always triumphs over evil. This is why the usual two-day festival begins with the ritual called Holika Dahan — a religious ceremony held on the evening before Holi in which a huge pyre is lit to symbolize the burning of evil. Holika was demon lord Hiranyakashipu’s sister who had the boon of being immune to fire. On the orders of her evil brother, Holika tried to kill her young nephew (Hiranyakashipu’s son), Prahlad, by sitting on a pyre with him. Since Prahlad was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, he emerged alive from the fire which engulfed Holika, burning her to death. From this episode, it can be said that even a boon cannot save evil from prevailing over good.
Here are some places in India where Holi is celebrated
Mathura, Uttar Pradesh
Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, is enveloped with a myriad of colours on the occasion. As such, it is undoubtedly the site of one of the best Holi celebrations in India.
Temples are decorated and multiple events are held for people to come together to celebrate the festival of colours. Special events include the mega procession from Vishram Ghat to Holi Gate. People not only sing devotional songs and dance, but many also express their love for the divine through chants and prayers. A must-visit site on this occasion is the Sri Krishna Janmasthan temple. A sacred place for the Hindus, the temple marks the exact location of Lord Krishna’s birth and draws massive crowds during festivals connected to the god.
Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh
Vrindavan, which is to the north of Mathura, is daubed in multiple colours of the joyous Holi celebration. The Banke Bihari Temple is the centre of activity on Holi, but other parts of the town, too, present an energetic spectacle.
Vrindavan is also connected to Lord Krishna’s early life. Therefore, his devotees from around the country arrive at the holy town ahead of the festival. The celebrations begin with the famous Phoolon Wali Holi (Hindi for ‘Holi of the flowers’), in which people throw flowers at each other. It is followed by Hindu widows playing with colours at the Gopinath Temple and ends a day before the festival with everyone participating in it.
Many devotees and revellers then travel to Mathura to take part in the celebrations in the city.
Barsana, Uttar Pradesh
Barsana is a small town near the state’s border with Rajasthan. It is located approximately 50 kilometres to the northwest of Mathura. The town is famous for one of the unique Holi celebrations in India — Lathmar Holi (Hindi for ‘Holi of the sticks’).
Barsana is considered the village of Radha. The tradition, therefore, has its roots in the tales of Lord Krishna and Radha. It is believed that Lord Krishna and his friends were playfully beaten by Radha and her friends whenever they came to Barsana. This is why, every year, a week before Holi, women in the town recreate the tradition in a ceremonial playful beating of the men with sticks and batons. The menfolk enthusiastically participate by protecting themselves with shields.
The town is also known for Laddoo Holi celebrated at Shriji Temple. Laddoo, a type of Indian dessert, is thrown by the priests at the devotees which are followed by gulal (coloured powder).
Shantiniketan, West Bengal
Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore started the tradition of Basanta Utsav (Spring Festival) at Shantiniketan near Kolkata to celebrate Holi. The annual event, which is held at the Visva Bharati University, is now a major cultural festival of the state. Many foreign tourists visit Shantiniketan, drawn to its cultural vibes and Tagore’s legacy.
Clad in Indian traditional dresses, students and other participants sing and dance to songs of Tagore and folk music. One of the best places to celebrate Holi in India, Shantiniketan’s Holi festivities last for three days during which playing with gulal also takes place.
Purulia, West Bengal
Purulia’s Holi festival celebration closely resembles that of Shantiniketan. Here, too, it is called Basanta Utsav. Locals come together to participate in ceremonial folk dance and performances of Chau, Darbari Jhumur and Natua.
The music is of particular note. Baul, travelling minstrels who sing traditional folk songs of Bengal, perform during these events.
Holi in Purulia is all about Bengal’s rural traditions and the ethnic diversity of the region. It is the best place to be for anyone interested in local art forms.
A highlight of Udaipur’s Holi festival is the Holika Dahan. The ceremony is presided over by the Maharaja of Udaipur and members of the House of Mewar at the Manek Chowk of the City Palace, making the festival in Udaipur a regal affair.
As locals perform a traditional dance known as Gair, a procession is carried out from the Shambhu Niwas Palace to the Manek Chowk. A grand spectacle, the procession involves the royals and their rides — elephants, camels and horses. Fireworks then illuminate the night sky.
Holi is played the following day by the people in the city.
Holi in South India is devoid of the fanfare seen in the north of the country. However, Hampi celebrates Holi in a unique manner.
Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the ruins of buildings, dating back to the Vijayanagar dynasty. The majestic temples and other remarkable historic venues come alive with the festive fervour associated with Holi. Celebrations start with Holika Dahan, during which people sing and dance to usher in spring.
On the day of the Holi, residents apply colours to each other amidst the beating of drums. They gather on the banks of the River Tungabhadra to celebrate together. Many also take a dip in the waters of the river on the auspicious occasion.
The spirit of Holi in Hampi, therefore, looks like a merger of the ancient and the modern.
Puri is one of the holiest places for Hindus. Millions of devotees visit the grand Jagannath Temple to pray to the lord of the universe.
In Puri, Holi is known as Dol Purnima, which revolves around the deity. A palanquin of Lord Jagannath is carried out in a procession around the city a day before Holi. As part of the tradition, milkmen lead the festivities in the evening. A traditional local game called Dandi Khela is held as the Lord’s idol is placed in a tent known as Jhoolan Mandap.
People play Holi the next day. Special sweetmeats, such as pethas, are distributed. Before the end of the day, Lord Jagannath returned to the temple after ceremonial bathing.
Anandpur Sahib, Punjab
One of the unique Holi celebrations in India is held at Anandpur Sahib. The famous annual fair, Hola Mohalla, started in 1701 by Guru Gobind Singh, is held here on the occasion.
Hola Mohalla is an unforgettable experience for anyone who visits Punjab. Nihang warriors from the Sikh community present an incredible display of martial arts during the festival. From sword fights to wrestling, every move is in absolute harmony with the bodies of the warriors. One of the highlights is horse riding, during which outstanding stunts are performed.
A colourful Holi procession is led through the city. Kirtan sabhas, where devotional songs are sung by a group, and community service that offer free meals called langar to take place.
Anandpur Sahib is a sacred place for the Sikhs. It is, therefore, always bustling with devotees throughout the year.