Primarily North India, but other states such as West Bengal, Manipur, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Goa also join in the revelry. Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh, hosts perhaps the biggest Holi party
February or March
About 4 days
Holi is one of the most vibrant Indian festivals. It has its origins in Hinduism, but revellers today span the entire country, regardless of their religion, caste or class. Although a springtime festival, and hence a celebration of the arrival of the harvest season, Holi is essentially about colour, and everyone gets involved, showering friends, family and passers-by with multi-coloured powders, and assaulting complete strangers with water balloons and spray guns. No one seems to mind; indeed, some people don’t even notice after indulging in bhang, an intoxicating substance culled from cannabis leaves, and usually mixed with seasonal food and drink, or made into chewy balls, or golees. Colour may be the common feature of Holi, but each region adds its own unique touch to the spectacle – from Mathura’s mock battles between the sexes to Phalen’s full-moon bonfire.
Other than its importance as a spring festival, there are various Hindu myths surrounding the origins of Holi. Some believe the festival derives its name from the demon princess, Holika. Her brother, the megalomaniac king, Hiranyakashipu, wanted everyone to worship him as god. Prahlad, his son, preferred the powers of Vishnu and refused to be bullied by the king. An outraged Hiranyakashipu ordered Holika to kill Prahlad, but the devout young boy survived the fire that she had prepared for his murder, and instead it was she who perished in the flames. The bonfires that burn the night before Holi, all over North India, are associated with the burning of Holika. Other myths involve Lord Shiva incinerating Kamadeva, the god of carnal love, and the relationship between Lord Krishna and Radha, concentrating particularly on the blue-skinned Krishna applying colour to Radha’s enviable luminous complexion; many worship Kamadeva during Holi, especially in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, while images of Krishna and Radha are often carried through the streets – Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace, celebrates the festival with a gusto unrivalled in the rest of the country.
Holi reaches its vigorous climax on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Phalgun, but the build-up generally begins a few days earlier, when devout Hindu families get together in the evening to perform the formal sprinkling-of-colour ceremony. On the second day of the festival, Puno, bonfires are lit as part of the community celebrations and people gather around the flames in festive bonhomie. Celebrations peak on the final day, Parva. Children rush around squirting everyone with dyed water from their water guns, and people gather on the streets, smearing each other with powder called abeer and gulal – soon no one is recognizable, lost beneath the layers of colour that cake their faces and bodies.
Holi has always been a chaotic event, but these days things are more full-on than ever, with eggs and mud baths added to the mix. Competing with the general mayhem are the sounds of dholaks, or Indian drums, as revellers belt out the songs of the season.
Participating in Holi is not always your choice to make, especially in the north, where it’s hard to avoid being dragged into the festivities at every street corner. If you’d rather stay clean, then remaining indoors and watching the powder-slinging from the window might be a better option – Holi also involves a number of performances, parades and other pageantry that you can watch from a distance, wherever you are in the country.