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Holi: Mapping the Most Colourful Festival on the Planet 20

Join us as we map the meteoric evolution of Holi, the annual Hindu festival of colours, as it continues to spread around the globe. Around the beginning of March every year, the full moon marks the end of winter and the coming of spring and a rainbow-tinted whirlwind of energy and celebration explodes across South Asia as hundreds of millions of Hindu devotees all over India and Nepal saturate each other with multicoloured powder and water. Holi, the Hindu spring festival, signifies the triumph of good over evil and the mass gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people in cities such as Delhi, Kolkata and Kathmandu, pelting and dousing each other with multicoloured powder, have become something of a global megastar in the world's cultural calendar. Much more than a powder-caked battle royale of vibrant colour, deep spiritualism still pulses through the Holi festivities and unique traditional and regional twists across the Subcontinent and the dozens of Holi-inspired events which have sprung up the world over in recent years add literally hundreds of dimensions to this already mind-boggling Hindu spring festival. Whether you're a festival goer, a culture vulture or just a lover of all things vibrant, add your own images and come with us as we chart Holi's colour-drenched evolution from a Hindu celebration to one of the most popular and fastest-growing festivals on earth. From India to Nepal, from Malaysia to Brazil, across Europe and America and even as far as Fiji, let's get our colours on!

Dadar, Mumbai, India

Sep 6 2015

One of the most spectacular Holi rituals anywhere in the Subcontinent takes place in towns and cities in the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Across cities such as Mumbai, armies of men soaked with yellow coloured water patrol the streets in a kind of Hindu Easter egg hunt as they seek out terracotta pots, known as Matka, of buttermilk which are suspended on ropes often dozens of feet in the air. After finding the buttermilk, the men form a gravity-defying human pyramid as they attempt to reach up and smash the terracotta Matka pot.

Dadar, Mumbai, India

Sep 6 2015

The man who clambers to the top of the human pyramid and successfully shatters the terracotta pot of buttermilk is declared the 'King of Holi' for that year. The ritual can also be seen in August or September during the Janmashtami festival, but during Holi is inspired by the god Krishna's fondness for butter, milk and other dairy foods and his mythical habit of stealing them from people's homes. Legend also has it that Krishna's fondness for dairy once got the better of him, and that a demoness named Putana fed him milk laced with poison which turned his skin blue.

Kawant, Gujarat, India

Mar 23 2016

All across India and Nepal, celebrations get underway on the evening of day one, also known as Holika Dahan, with a ceremonial bonfire known as a Kamudu which is inspired by the mythical defeat of the demoness Holika and embodies the triumph of good over evil. In the same way that villages, cities and entire regions in the Subcontinent have their own traditions during the Holi festivities, similar unique twists are put on the Kamudu bonfire which kicks off the event. In the western Indian state of Gujarat, Holi is more a celebration of the spring harvest and on day two, or Rangwali Holi, Gujurati devotees make offerings of corn, mangoes, coconuts and a kind of Indian cheese known as Khoya as well as toys and idols made from sugar to the still burning Kamudu bonfire. Image Credit: TravelIndia

Kawant, Gujarat, India

Mar 24 2016

220 kilometres southwest of Ahmedabad, state capital of Gujarat, Kawant is a village which is one of the homes of the Rathwa people, one of the many Gujarati Adivasi, or tribal groups. The Rathwa celebrate Holi over a period of three separate days, with day one of their unique celebration known as Bhanguriyu and featuring spectacular costumed musical events in Kawant's village markets. Day two, or Gher no Melo, is observed on the second day after Holi and consists of huge, colourful family gatherings and day three, or Chool no Melo, is arguably the highlight of the protracted three day event and features Rathwari firewalkers walking across searing hot stones and burning embers.

Sadar Bazar, New Delhi, India

Mar 1 2017

Although industrially and chemically-produced Holi powders are now a mainstay of the festival, especially in major Indian cities, Delhi's exotic and intensely immersive Sadar Bazar is one of the best places to gain an insight into how the iconic Gulal coloured powder is still traditionally mixed and made. Before mass-produced powders took hold, Gulal powder for Holi was made by grinding all natural materials, including tumeric and other spices, as well crushed plant leaves and finely ground coconut shell. The traditionally-made Gulal Holi powder was also thought to have medicinal properties and in recent years many festival goers have also shied away from chemically-produced dyes and instead chosen natural ingredients for an eco-friendly Holi.

Sadar Bazar, New Delhi, India

Mar 4 2017

The meteoric bursts of colour in India and Nepal during Holi are inspired by one of the festival's most important Hindu myths and the story goes that, after Krishna had drunk the poisoned milk given to him by the demoness Putana, his skin was turned blue and he was concerned that his future wife Radha would not accept him. Krishna's mother then began smearing colour onto Radha's face and this is why the coloured powder is such a prominent feature of the Holi celebrations. Today, the Gulal powder as well as ready-mixed coloured water are available from virtually every store, street stall and market stand in the Subcontinent during the weeks leading up to the festival.

Barsana, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India

Feb 23 2010

Just over forty kilometres northwest of the city of Mathura, the twin villages of Barsana and Nandagon are the scene of one of India's most unique Holi celebrations. Legend has it that Krishna was born in Nandagon and that the god would regularly travel to Barsana, the birthplace of his wife Radha. Inspired by the legend, Lath Mar Holi is a Holi tradition in Mathura and sees men armed with shields travel from Nandagon to Barsana, only to be pelted with coloured powder by the women on arrival and beaten with bamboo sticks known as Lathis.

Barsana, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India

Mar 5 2009

In the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the city of Mathura and its namesake district is renowned as one of the very best places in the Subcontinent to get well and truly drenched in colour during Holi. In Mathura's temple towns, preparations for the festival get underway as early as January or at the start of February on a day known as Vasant Panchami, which marks the end of winter. Food fights also break out in Mathura's temples before Holi even kicks off, as believers pelt each other with lotus flowers and Laddu, traditional candy made from rice flour, milk, sugar and coconut.

Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

Mar 27 2013

One of the most prominent sights during the Hindu festival of colours in India and Nepal is that of devotees and revelers armed with a special, Holi-themed gun filled with multicoloured water and known as Pichkari. Traditionally, the water guns were crafted from pieces of solid bamboo but in modern times, Holi has seen festival-goers begin saturating each other with Pichkari made from plastic and in markets and bazaars all across the Subcontinent plastic, water pistol-style guns are also sold.

Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

Mar 24 2013

In recent years, and almost always in urban areas such as Allahabad, Holi has also seen the rise of seemingly Halloween-style masks. The masks are thought by many in India and Nepal to have been inspired by the Holi legend of the demon Holika, but many choose to wear them on Holi simply as a means of protecting their faces and eyes from the chemically-produced industrial dyes which have begun to replace the more traditional organic dyes used in the past. Controversially, the emergence of the masks during Holi has been met with disdain by a vast amount of Hindu devotees, especially among the older generations, who view the idea as opportunistic money-making off the back of one of Hinduism's most important festivals and traditions.

Basantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Mar 22 2016

In Nepal, Holi is celebrated with just as much gusto as south of the border in India and the event is known in Nepali as Phagu Purnima, which literally means 'Full Moon Day'. All across the country, the often riotous and energetic Holi festivities match those in India as the multicoloured Gulal powders and water are thrown and fired from Pikchari water guns and the most iconic Nepali Holi or Phagu Purnima celebrations take place in the Kathmandu Valley, in the world famous Durbar Squares of Patan, Bhaktapur and Basantapur.

Basantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Mar 13 2011

One uniquely Nepali way of marking Holi or Phagu Purnima's Full Moon Day takes place right in Kathmandu's iconic Basantapur Durbar Square. Legend has it that the god Krishna once played a prank on the gopis, or milkmaids, by dousing them in coloured water before stripping them of their clothes which he then hung from a tree on the banks of the Yamuna River. During Basantapur Square's Holi festivities, the legend is recreated as multicoloured strips of fabric and clothing are tied to a huge bamboo pole known as Chir, which symbolises the tree on which Krishna hung the milkmaids' clothes, as tokens of luck and good fortune.

Bhaktapur, Nepal

Mar 22 2016

The Durbar Squares of the Kathmandu Valley once housed the royal palaces and courtyards of Nepal's ancient Newar kingdoms. During Holi or Phagu Purnima's Full Moon Day in Bhaktapur, fifteen kilometres east of Kathmandu-proper, the town's intensely spiritual Durbar Square, known by the locals as Layaku, sees Nepali Hindus don the traditional dress of their Newari ancestors.

Bhaktapur, Nepal

Mar 22 2016

Due to Holi's status as the world's most colourful festival, as well as one of its most energetic, it comes as no surprise that the event is a favourite among Indian and Nepali children. In Bhaktapur's maze of backstreets, alleyways and pagoda and shikhara-style Hindu temples, the town's children adopt an almost guerrilla-like assault during Holi, pelting adults with handfuls of rainbow Gulal powder as well as Pikchari guns and balloons full of coloured water. Tourists are also fair game.

Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India

Jan 29 2010

Located in West Bengal's Birbhum district, 160 kilometres north of Kolkata, the town of Shantiniketan has its own take on Holi and the festival is locally known as Basanta Utsav. Although the usual staples of coloured powders and waters are naturally a mainstay of festivities in the town, Shantiniketan puts its own distinctly musical twist on Holi during Basanta Utsav, introduced by an iconic late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengali poet, writer and musician by the name of Rabindranath Tagore.

Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India

Jan 29 2010

The musical legacy passed down by Tagore can be seen today during Shantiniketan's Basanta Utsav and Holi celebrations as participants don yellow clothing, pelt each other with multicoloured Aabir powder and partake in a traditional Indian liqueur known as Mahua which is distilled from the flowers of a tropical tree. The main event of Basanta Utsav in Shantineketan also sees the performance of a traditional Bengali and Assamese dance known as Jhumur, which celebrates the union between the god Krishna and the goddess Radha.

Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Mar 23 2013

Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, is known as the 'City of Joy' and also plays its part in the nation's riotous Holi celebrations. Known across the state as Dol Jatra, Holi is the last festival on the Bengali calendar and legend has it that this was the day on which the god Krishna expressed his love for the goddess Radha. The usual multicoloured powder, known as 'Phag', 'Aabir' and 'Jal Rang' in Bengali, is a staple of the state's Holi celebrations as youngsters smear it on pictures of deceased family members as well as on statues and idols of Krishna as a mark of respect.

Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Apr 3 2007

As such an energetic and frenzied festival, one of the unwritten rules of Holi is that there are no restrictions on behavior and at times the event can become infamously rowdy. As India's second largest city, Kolkata is no exception to the rule as Hindu men can be seen brewing and indulging in one of the main reasons behind Holi's rowdiness in the form of a notoriously powerful and intoxicating drink known as Siddhi or Bhang which mixes milk, coconut milk, mango and spices with opium pulp.

Barpeta, Assam, India

Jan 15 2017

95 kilometres west of Assam's state capital of Guwahati, in India's far northeast, the 'Satra Nagari', or 'Temple Town', of Barpeta is home to one of the Subcontinent's most unique ways of marking Holi. The Hindu festival of colours is known to the Assamese as Xuaeri Utsav and from the outset the event is something of a lunar lottery as the length of the celebration depends on the extent of visibility of the full moon. Xuaeri Utsav usually lasts for three, four or five days in Barpeta and the town's specially handcrafted Holi fireworks, or Atachbaji, are famous throughout India.

Barpeta, Assam, India

Feb 6 2016

Assam's Holi and Xuaeri Utsav festivities are rooted in the traditions of a Vishnu-revering branch of Hinduism known as Vaishnavism. On day one, the festival gets underway with Holi Geet, a singing contest with teams of locals competing to determine the best singer of traditional Assamese Holi songs. Idols of Krishna, considered to be an incarnation or avatar of Vishnu himself by Assamese followers of Vaishnavism, and his cosmic companion Ghunusa are circled around a Holika bonfire, known as Meji in Assamese, in special chariots before being taken to a religious building known as a Satra. Day three of the event descends into energetic chaos as the pelting and throwing of the Holi powder and water sees Barpeta erupt into a rainbow-coloured frenzy.

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