Where to go
Although Holi is celebrated all over India it’s primarily a North Indian festival. Partying in the Uttar Pradesh towns of Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon – places associated with the birth and childhood of Krishna – lasts all week, with each major temple devoted to Radha and Krishna commemorating the occasion on a different day People flock to these shrines to be drenched in coloured water, a shower of which is considered a blessing from God – devotees at, the Bakai-Bihari Temple in Vrindavan appear almost in a trance, rapt in the spiritual atmosphere. The region also hosts Lathmaar Holi, a particularly boisterous event – best watched from the vantage points set up by the tourist board on the outskirts of town – where Nandgaon men shield themselves from stick-wielding Barsana women in a playful mock battle. The men try to raise their flag over Shri Radhikaji’s temple, and those that are “captured” are made to dance in public in women’s clothes. At Phalen, a full-moon bonfire depicting the Prahlad- Holika legend is performed, and local priests walk through the fire to prove their devotion, while Jaipur, in Rajasthan, holds an annual Elephant Festival during Holi, with a royal procession of pachyderms painted in brilliant floral patterns, accompanied by lancers on horses, chariots, camels, cannons and palanquins. Elephant polo and tug-of- war are also part of the festival, as is a hotly contested elephant beauty pageant. Towns in West Bengal, on the other hand, perform the Dol Yatra, where idols of Krishna and his consort, Radha, are placed on swings and sprayed with coloured water. A great place in the region to visit at this time is Shantiniketan, where India’s Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, was so inspired by the spirit of Holi that he introduced the festival to his university. The students here wear yellow, the colour of spring, sing and dance to special Holi songs composed by Tagore, and coat each other with abeer, or dry colour made from natural products. In Manipur, festivities last six days, blending into the ancient Yaosang festival that follows. Thabal Chongda, a Manipuri folk dance, is traditionally performed on each of the six days, and there are a lot of high jinks, with girls letting the boys splatter them with colour, and then extracting money from them. The Shri Govindaji Temple in Imphal is the venue of most of the activities, with white- and yellow-turbaned devotees gathering for worship, song and dance, and on the last day moving on to the Vijay Govindaji temple for more festivities.
In the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, men form a human pyramid to break a pot of buttermilk hanging high on the street – whoever succeeds is crowned the Holi king of the locality for that year. In Himachal Pradesh, colder areas such as Kulu celebrate “Ice Holi”, mixing colours with the snow that’s often still on the ground at this time of year, while Goa has its own brand of Holi – Shigmo – which it celebrates with drum performances, plays and cultural events, and with processions of enormous effigies that wind their way through the streets at dusk.
Most foreigners are likely to find themselves in Delhi or Mumbai during Holi. Vibrant celebrations at areas such as Colaba and Juhu Beach in Mumbai draw huge crowds, while various shows and concerts take place in Delhi, with the Habitat Centre holding an annual Holi Festival, with talks, dance and music performances and art exhibitions, and the India International Centre featuring its own share of recitals.