Holi is one of the most colorful and celebrated festivals observed across all regions of India. The festival gets a lot of coverage in the international media and is very popular due to the widespread use of colors during the festivities. The image of Indians of all ages, genders and social stature partying together spraying each other with a spectrum of colors is one of the most popular images of the country that endures in the global tourism narrative.
However, there is much more to the Holi festival and its many observances, prayers and festivities than just the playful frolicking of colors. The Holi festival is celebrated for a variety of reasons.
The festival has been a traditional celebration to welcome spring as well as give thanks for an abundant harvest and celebrate soil fertility across all regions of India.
Holi is also commemorated by devout Hindus as a celebration marking the triumph of righteousness and religious devotion over evil and egotism. The legend of Holi originates from the story of Hiranyakashipu, the king of demons who in a fit of egotistic rage condemned his son Pralahda to death by fire for being a devotee to the Hindu deity Vishnu. As part of his sentencing, the sister of the king called Holika who was impervious to fire was to sit with Pralahda in a bonfire and ensure his death. Howeve,r as the fire raged Prahlada extolled the virtues of Vishnu, as the true God of the righteous, which saved him and instead burnt his invincible aunt Holika in the process. Hindus mark the occurrence as signifying the victory of faith and righteousness over ego and strength.
Holi therefore takes its name from the deceased villainess of the story Holika. Around India, the festival is traditionally celebrated with great zeal and fervor with devotees lighting bonfires, singing hymns and spraying anyone within range with colored dye as well as colored powder.
Holi is celebrated every year across India during the period called the Phaluga Purnima which is always a full moon and falls on dates between February and March according to the Gregorian calendar. The Holi festival is also called many different names across India such as Phakuwa, Dol Jatra, Jatra, Sigmo and Phagwa etc.)
Different regions of India celebrate Holi festivities at varying lengths. In Northern India, in cities like Mathura which is the birth place of Lord Krishna, another deity honored during Holi, the festival is marked by special prayer sessions and festivities lasting for over 16 days. Most regions generally celebrate Holi for a period of 3 to 7 days with the day of the festival of colors and bonfires marking the highlight of the celebrations.
While the spraying of colors and the lighting of bonfires are the common threads of all Holi festivities across India, there are distinct variations in the commemoration of Holi in many different regions which gives Holi in different parts of India a unique character.
In Gujarat, in the western part of India, apart from the staple celebrations of color dousing, young men form large human pyramids in an effort to reach a suspended clay pot of buttermilk which needs to be broken while the girls spray the young men with colored paint in an effort to deny them victory. Similarly in the northern Uttar Pradesh state, there is a local tradition called “Lath Mar Holi” during which women symbolically beat up men with wooden sticks who try to steal sweets from them. There is a variation of this ritual in other parts of India where married women roll up their traditional saris to symbolically beat up their brothers-in-law who come to steal butter from their house to commemorate the actions of Lord Krishna and his family.
In Bengal, the traditional colors and bonfires of Holi are also accompanied by a large number of swings that the devotees use to honor Lord Krishna and his consort Radha thereby turning Holi into a festival of colors as well as swings. Similarly in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, the Holi festival is marked with all traditional activities and fervor however the focus of prayers are local deities such as Lord Jagganath instead of Lord Krishna.
Holi is also very popular in states of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Goa where the majority Muslim and Christian communities observe the rituals of playing with colors and honoring the arrival of spring thereby making Holi one of the most pluralistic and multi-cultural festivals to be celebrated across all of India.
The Northern Indian state of Uttrakhand has its own spin to Holi. The festival is celebrated here with traditional fervor however the ingredients of the bonfire as well as the color being used are all made traditionally from organic materials such as tree bark, ash, food coloring and flower essence.
Holi festivities are also observed widely in South Indian cities of Cochin, Mumbai and Chennai with a signature mix of colors, parties and traditional feasts.
The most vocal celebrations of Holi however are held in Rajasthan, India’s largest and most boisterous state. The entire atmosphere is covered in a cloud of colors as whole cities come out to zealously participate in the celebrations of Holi. In Jaipur, the Holi festival is accompanied by the annual Jaipur Elephant Festival which honors the majestic animals and their mahouts across the state.
The festival while maintaining the traditions of Holi including colors, bonfires and prayer rituals also has traditional Rajasthani sports and elephant shows as well as a world famous elephant pageant. Other cities of Rajasthan such as Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur also celebrate Holi with traditional zeal and bravado.
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