Flying Colours: Holi across India

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India is the land of festivals and no other festival has captured people’s imagination as Holi, the festival of colours, accompanied by music, mirth and feasting. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY capture the celebrations across the country. 

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While Holi is played across India, its regional variations are as myriad as the hues that colour the festival.Be it murals in temples and havelis or miniature paintings, Holi is a recurrent theme in Indian art and literature. Neither does any other Indian festival have so many Bollywood songs dedicated to it. Gabbar Singh’s immortal lines in Sholay were not ‘Diwali kab hai’ or ‘Dussehra kab hai’, but ‘Holi kab hai’!

In sacred Brajbhoomi, at Lord Krishna’s birthplace Mathura and Vrindavan, where he grew up, Holi is celebrated with great pomp for 16 days. Special pujas are held until Rang Panchami to commemorate the divine love of Radha and Krishna. Legend has it that Krishna developed his blue skin as a child when the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his adolescence, Krishna often despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha will like him because of his dark skin. One day, tired of his constant pestering, his mother asked him to colour Radha’s face in any colour he wished. Krishna goes ahead and does it and in doing so, Radhe-Krishna become a couple. Ever since, the playful colouring of Radha’s face has been commemorated as Holi.

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Armed with pichkaris (water guns) and gulal (coloured powder), tolis or bands of men trawl the streets. But as if drenching each other with coloured water and painting faces black and blue wasn’t enough, people decided to whack each other with sticks! Radha’s village Barsana near Mathura celebrates a sadomasochistic brand of Holi called Lathmar Holi. Men from Nandgaon impersonating Krishna, come to play Holi with the ladies of Barsana who beat them up with lathis. The festival begins with a ceremony in the Radha Rani temple – the only temple in India dedicated to Radha. The procession of men marches down the Rang Rangeeli Gali (Colourful Street) where lathi-wielding women await them gleefully.

The tradition commemorates the event when Krishna stole the gopika’s clothes from the bathing ghat and Radha and her friends decided to teach him a lesson. Songs are sung in earthy Braj bhasha as chants of ‘Sri Radhey’ and ‘Sri Krishna’ rend the air amid clouds of colour. Males sing provocative songs to invite the women’s attention, who reply with well-oiled lathis as men protect themselves with leather shields. The next day, gops from Barsana go to Nandgaon in a reciprocal gesture so that everyone gets a fair, sound beating.

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Outside Braj, in rural hinterlands of UP-Bihar, Holi lasts for seven days with colour and often degenerates into mud-slinging and dunking people into pits of keechad (sludge). In Kanpur dehaat (rural), a grand fair called Ganga Mela or Holi Mela is celebrated on the last day at various ghats along the banks of the Ganga. The fair, started by freedom fighters during the first war of independence in 1857, marks the official end of the Holi celebrations in Kanpur.

In Gujarat, Holi is celebrated for two days. On the first evening people light a bonfire (holika) and offer raw coconut and corn to the fire. The second day is dhuleti, the festival of colour, where vibrant hues are applied to each other. The coastal city of Dwarka, once Krishna’s capital, celebrates Holi with festivities at the Dwarkadheesh temple and comedy shows held across the city.

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Ahmedabad celebrates Holi like Janmashtami, with a pot of buttermilk suspended over the streets as boys form human pyramids to reach and break it. Girls try to stop them by throwing coloured water while gops heckle the girls. It commemorates the pranks of Krishna and the cowherd boys to steal butter. The boy who manages to break the pot is crowned ‘Holi King’. Afterwards, they all set out in a large procession issuing mock warnings to people that Krishna might come to steal butter from their homes.

The word Holi itself originates from Holika, the evil sister of demon king Hiranyakashipu. According to Puranic lore, Hiranyakashipu had earned a boon from Lord Brahma that made him almost invincible. He grew arrogant, demanding that everyone worship him. His son Prahlad however, remained steadfast in his devotion to Vishnu. This angered Hiranyakashipu, who subjected him to torture. One day Prahlada’s evil aunt Holika tricked him into sitting on a pyre – she wore a magical cloak that would protect her. As the fire raged, the cloak flew from Holika and shrouded Prahlada. Holika burned while Prahlada survived. Vishnu appeared as Narasimha, ‘part-man, part-lion’, and killed Hiranyakashipu.

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The next day after the fire cooled down, people smeared the ash on their foreheads, a ritual still observed by some. Over time, people started using coloured powder instead of ash. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil. Falling in the Hindu month of Phalguna (Feb-March), Holi marks the agricultural season of the rabi crop. The festival is also a harbinger of spring and a celebration of love. Since it occurs on the first day of the panchang (Hindu calendar), Holi is hailed as the beginning of the year. People often undertake spring cleaning at home. It is an auspicious time for new beginnings, to forgive and make up, momentarily forget differences and celebrate with music, gaiety and laughter.

The Kumaoni Holi in Uttarakhand is a musical affair with many forms. In Baithki Holi and Khari Holi, people sing songs based on classical ragas. Baithki Holi or Nirvan Ki Holi begins in temple courtyards, where Holiyars sing Holi songs set to classical music and people join in. The songs are sung in a particular order based on the time of day. At noon, the songs are set to Peelu, Bhimpalasi and Sarang ragas, while evening songs are based on Kalyan, Shyamkalyan and Yaman. Khari Holi is celebrated in rural Kumaon with men in white kurta-pyjamas dancing in groups to the tune of ethnic musical instruments like dhol and hurka. Women too have fun, often with bawdy songs, in private assemblies called Mahila Holi.

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Across Kumaon, the cheer or Holika pyre is made amid great ceremony at the Cheer Bandhan fifteen days before Dulhendi. A green Paiya tree branch is placed in the middle. Every village fervently guards its cheer as rival mohallas from the neighborhood try to playfully pilfer each other’s pile. The colours used in Holi are sourced naturally. Chharad is made from flower extracts, ash and water and thus Dulhendi is also known as Chharadi. During Holi. walls and courtyards of rural houses in Punjab are decorated with drawings and paintings by women. This art, similar to rangoli in South India or mandana in Rajasthan, is known as chowk poorana locally. Flowers, plants, peacocks, palanquins and geometric patterns form key motifs.

In east India, Holi is called Phaguwa in Bihar’s Bhojpuri dialect and Phakuwa or Dol Jatra in Assam. Neighbourhood kids roam around to collect dry twigs, branches and leaves to make a large wood pile, often competing for the largest bonfire. On the eve of Phalgun Poornima, people light the holika pyre. They put dried cow dung cakes, wood of the araad or redi tree, grains from the fresh harvest and food offerings. The next day the festival is celebrated with colours from morning to afternoon. In the evening, families visit their friends and relatives for Holi Milan and apply abeer (coloured powder) to each other or daub the feet of the elderly for blessings. It’s an open house with an array of food laid out for visitors.

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Holi is synonymous with feasting and kitchens are abuzz days before the festival with elaborate preparation of sweets, savouries and other delicacies. Women make gujiya, malpua, laddus, khoa barfi, kheer, namakpare (namkeen) and shakarpare in large quantities to welcome guests. The highlight and often the cause of all revelry is bhang. A lot of time is devoted to grinding cannabis into a smooth paste, used to make bhang kulfi or pedas, fried into pakodas or spiking milk infused with dry fruits as thandai. For lunch, people prefer to be vegetarian with poori-sabzi (usually kathal or jackfruit) and dahi vada.

In Assam, Holi is closely associated with the Vaishnava satras of Barpeta. On the first day, clay huts are burnt while on the second day people play with colour. In Bengal, Holi is called Dol Jatra or the Swing Festival. Icons of Radha and Krishna are taken around the streets on a dol (decorated palanquin). On the morning of Dol Purnima, people dress up in saffron or white clothes, wear garlands and sing and dance to the tunes of the ektara (single stringed instrument). Women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs while men throw coloured water and abeer at them. The tradition of celebrating Vasantotsav (Spring Festival) at Shantiniketan through music was started by Rabindranath Tagore. Typical traditional sweets like basanti (saffron) sandesh, payash (kheer) and saffron milk are offered to visitors.

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In Odisha, the icon of Lord Jagannath is taken in a procession called Dola Melana with bhoga being ritually offered to the deity. Holi is also part of the Konkani spring festival Shigmo, which lasts for about a month. In Goa and Maharashtra, Hindus worship the fire as they perform Holika Dahan, followed by Dhuli vandan or playing with colours and haldune or offering of yellow (turmeric colour) to the deity.

In some cultures, the significance of fire is associated with the burning of Kama, the God of Love. Legend has it that the demon Tarakasura could be killed only by Shiva’s son. But after Sati’s death, a grieving Shiva withdrew into a shell. Without the procreative will, all creation and life came to a standstill. Kama shot Lord Shiva with his love dart to arouse his feelings towards Parvati, but was burnt to cinders after Shiva opened his third eye. Down south, children in north Karnataka collect firewood for weeks and the wood pile burnt on the eve of Holi is called Kamadahana. In Sirsi, Holi is celebrated with a unique folk dance called Bedara Vesha or Hunter’s Dance, performed at night across five days before the festival.

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The colors of Holi have run beyond India’s borders to wherever the Indian diaspora has emigrated – Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, US and UK. In countries where ISKCON is fairly active, Holi translates into one big community party. Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Utah, Holi NYC in Brooklyn and several cities across Germany celebrate Holi: Festival of Colors on a grand scale. Thailand has a similar water festival called Songkran, derived from the word ‘Sankranti.’ No matter where you go, the infectious spirit of Holi remains the same, a time to let your hair down and scream ‘Holi hai!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the March 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

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