Holi or the festival of colours is an important festival especially in India. The festival is celebrated to commemorate the victory of good over evil. Modern influences have influenced the way Holi is played, but there are few other festivals that match Holi for its vibrancy and mass participation.
Back in the days when the gods made regular forays into the mortal realm, the demon king Hiranyakashyap was trying to stop his son Prahlad from chating Lord Vishnu’s name. Exasperated by his failure he devised an evil plan with his sister Holikawho was granted the boon that she would be unscathed by fire.
Holika entered a blazing fire with Prahlad, confident that Prahlad would die while she would come out unharmed. However, Holika failed to realize that the boon worked only if she was alone. As all moral stories go, Holika was killed and Prahlad came out alive. It is to mark this event, that large bonfires are burnt on Holi even now.
Holi is synonymous with a riot of colours – either as powder or watered with the pichkaari (the local water gun). There is also the traditional bhang or opium laced, flavoured milk that is a must-try on Holi. However, some regions have their own peculiar styles of celebrating Holi. Prominent among them is the Lathmaar holi of Barsana. The Sikh community also celebrates Holi as Holla Mohalla.
In no place is Holi celebrated more intensely than in Barsana, a prominent pilgrim centre and the birthplace of Radha. About 27 km from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, Barsana’s holi is called Lathmaar Holi.
According to legend, Lord Krishna visited his beloved Radha at Barsana and teased her and her friends. The women of Barsana didn’t take a liking to his pranks and chased him away. Since then, men from Nandgaon – Krishna’s village –visit Barsana to play Holi. However, it is not a cakewalk for them as women go to any lengths to thwart their attempts, even using a staff to beat them.
The atmosphere is infectious as Braj Bhasha songs about Holi render the air and chants of Sri Radhey and Sri Krishna rise to a crescendo.
Holi is also special in Kumaon Hills in Uttarakhand for the way it is celebrated. Unlike the thrashing and clubbing which is the hallmark of Barsana, Kumaoni Holi is a much tamer affair, be it Baithki Holi or the Khari Holi.
The Baithki Holi and Khari Holi are unique in that the songs on which they are based have a touch of melody, fun and spiritualism. These songs are essentially based on classical ragas. No wonder then the Baithki Holi is also known as Nirvan Ki Holi and begins from temples. Holiyars (professional singers of Holi songs) lead the chorus in singing traditional songs to the accompaniment of classical music.
Celebrated a day after Holi, the festival of Hola Mohalla is unlike the festival of colours. It is to celebrate the martial prowess of the Sikhs, in which the Nihangs (translated to: army of god) take the lead. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, started the Holla Mohalla festival to develop the martial spirit of Sikhs. In the midst of fighting both the Mughal Empire and Rajputs, Guru Gobind Singh started the new tradition on February 22, 1701, to train his forces in warfare by rechristening Holi festival as Hola Mohalla.
Mock battles with gatkas, swords, spears and lances are the highpoint of the festival. A military-style procession near Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib marks the end of the festival.
As against the martial pageantry of Punjab, Holi at the Vishwa Bharti University, Shantiniketan is a tamer affair. Holi is celebrated as ‘Basant Utsav’ or ‘Spring Festival’ as per the wish its founder Rabindranath Tagore. Prabhat pheris in the morning by youths singing Gurudev’s compositions are the main event.
In the north east, Manipuris celebrate Holi for six continuous days. Following the introduction of Vaishnavism in the 18th century, the centuries-old Yaosang festival was combined with Holi. Recital of Manipuri dance called ‘Thabal Chongba’ is the highlight of the festival.