No matter when you come to India, you are sure to witness at least one festival with its own special celebrations. February-March is ideal for visiting the country, and will leave you with memorable experiences of a unique festival. As winter gives way to a short spring, there is color everywhere that finds expression in the festival of colors: Holi. Of course, all festivals are colorful in their own way, but color is central to Holi. It is celebrated in diverse ways in the different states of India, but you will experience its essence in North India. As with most festivals, its origin lies in mythology, (in this case, three different stories from Hindu mythology!) but what is unique is the form of the celebration.
In keeping with one story, “Holi” symbolizes the victory of good over evil, and the word literally means “burning”. On the day before the festival, you might wonder at the piles of logs at various locations like community centers, and even at crossroads! The reason will be apparent at night, as you see numerous bonfires around which people sing special songs, circle the fire and throw in specific items! An interesting ritual is to throw in an item of old clothing–symbolizing the end of the old, and marking a new start. This is because Holi also heralds the spring season, which is around March in India. Moreover, the harvest season is just over, so fresh grain is thrown into the fire as thanksgiving. This night is called “Chhoti” (small) Holi in north India, and does not give a hint of the riot of color that will greet you the next day!
Do not be surprised if you are woken up by sounds of revelry and singing, and see people out on the streets, smearing (or throwing!) color and water on each other! This is supposed to signify friendship and harmony, as people of all faiths and communities are literally covered in the same color. This is also what makes it a truly “community” festival, (like the north Indian harvest festival Lohri) bridging differences and bringing people together. Sweets are a special part of every Indian festival or any celebration; moreover, each festival has its own specialities, and Holi is no exception. Another popular item on the Holi menu is “bhang,” a powerful intoxicant associated with the Hindu god Shiva!
Indians are hospitable people and will invite you to join in the celebrations, but do be cautious about the use of colors! Holi colors were traditionally made from flowers and herbs, but unfortunately, this has been replaced today by commercially prepared synthetic colors which can damage the skin. However, with a growing awareness of the health hazards of using chemical colors, people are once again opting for natural ones; one can grate and soak beetroot in water and get a lovely magenta, or boil marigold flowers to get yellow.
Holi has a special significance in Vrindavan, associated with the Hindu god Krishna. You will find echoes of the past in this little town, where, apart from water colors, petals of flowers like the rose and tuber rose are used! Celebrations in the northern state of Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, is very different from those in the plains. Festivities start a few weeks earlier, with groups traveling from village to village, singing folk songs and dancing. This is called “Khari Holi” and is followed by “Baithi Holi” in the evenings, when the locals gather in groups to sing “bhajans” (songs of praise and worship) to Lord Krishna. Instead of water colors, people sprinkle dry color on their white caps, and put flowers behind the ears!
Red is the predominant color during Holi— it also matches the color of the big, red blossoms of the “Flame of the Forest”; the name is self explanatory, as the tree literally seems to be aflame with color! Holi has inspired numerous poems in almost all Indian languages, as well as popular songs in Indian movies. This colorful festival is sure to give you a glimpse of the varied hues of India’s culture and traditions!
Festivals of India, National Book Trust