Date of Observance: Full moon of Phalgun
Holi (Hindi: होली) is a religious spring festival celebrated by Hindus, as a festival of colors. It is primarily observed in India and Nepal. It is discreetly observed by the minority Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well in countries with large Indic diaspora populations following Hinduism, such as Suriname, Malaysia, Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, United Kingdom, United States, Mauritius, and Fiji. It is also known as Phagwah and Festival of Colours, or as Doḷajāta (Oriya: ଦୋଳଯାତ) in Orissa and Dol Jatra (Bengali: দোলযাত্রা) or Basantotsav (“spring festival”) (Bengali: বসন্তোৎসব) in West Bengal. The most celebrated Holi is in the Braj region, in locations connected to the Lord Krishna: Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, and Barsana, which become tourist destinations during the season of Holi. Large parts of South India, however, do not celebrate Holi with the same fervor.
In Vaishnavism, Hiranyakashipu is the great king of demons, and he had been granted a boon by Brahma, which made it almost impossible for him to be killed. The boon was due to his long penance, after which he had demanded that he not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra”. Consequently, he grew arrogant and attacked the Heavens and the Earth. He demanded that people stop worshipping Gods and start praising respectfully to him.
Hiranyakashipu, on the lap, being killed by Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu
According to this belief, Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from Hiranyakashipu, Prahlada continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. He was poisoned by Hiranyakashipu, but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and survived. All of Hiranyakashipu’s attempts to kill his son failed. Finally, he ordered young Prahlada to sit on a pyre in the lap of Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s demoness sister, who also could not die because she had a boon preventing her from being burned by fire. Prahlada readily accepted his father’s orders, and prayed to Lord Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika burnt to death, while Prahlada survived unharmed. The salvation of Prahlada and burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.
In Mathura, where Lord Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days (until Rangpanchmi) in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna. The festivities officially usher in spring, the celebrated season of love.
Every year, thousands of Hindus participate in the festival Holi. The festival has many purposes. First and foremost, it celebrates the beginning of the new season, spring. Originally, it was a festival that commemorated good harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring’s abundant colors and saying farewell to winter. It also has a religious purpose, commemorating events present in Hindu mythology. Although it is the least religious holiday, it is probably one of the most exhilarating ones in existence. During this event, participants hold a bonfire, throw colored powder at each other, and celebrate wildly.
Rangapanchami occurs a few days later on a Panchami (fifth day of the full moon), marking the end of festivities involving colors.
The main day, Holi, also known as Dhuli in Sanskrit, or Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing scented powder and perfume at each other. Bonfires are lit on the eve of the festival, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi), after which holika dahan prayers are said and praise is offered. The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in South India.
Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna (February/March), (Phalgun Purnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March. In 2009, Holi (Dhulandi) was on March 11 and Holika Dahan was on March 10. In 2010, Holi was on March 1 and Holika Dahan was on February 28. In 2011, Holi was on March 20 and Holika Dahan was on March 19. in 2012, Holi was on March 8.
In most areas, Holi lasts about two days. Holi lowers (but does not remove completely) the strictness of social norms, which includes gaps between age, gender, status, and caste. Together, the rich and poor, women and men, enjoy each other’s presence on this joyous day. No one expects polite behavior; as a result, the atmosphere is filled with excitement, fun and joy.
Though there have been references in Sanskrit texts to similar festivals, like ratnavali where people sprayed coloured waters using bamboo syringes, the origin of the modern Holi festival has been traced to ancient Bengal. It was a Gaudiya Vaishnav festival, in accordance to Vaishnaviya Tantra. People went to Krishna temples, applied red color to the icon and then distributed the red coloured powder or Abir along with malpua prasad to family and friends. Red signified the colour of passion and Lord Krishna is the king of desires. The ritual signified that all our desires should be diverted for the attainment of Krishna and for the well being of society.
In some cultures though, the ritual of burning wood and leaves on the full moon night already existed. This ritual was to signify the end of winter and full advent of spring. Old wood and leaves that had fallen were burnt to signify that it was time for new leaves and flowers. People then smeared their bodies with ash. Later, however, the story of Holika Dahan became associated with this ritual.
Holi fire in front of Jagdish Temple in Udaipur, Rajasthan- 2010
The earliest textual reference to the celebration of Holi is found in the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnavali. Certainly there are perennial rituals attached to Holi: the first is smearing of coloured powder on each other, and throwing coloured and scented water at each time. On the first day of this festival, Hindus participate in a public bonfire. Prior to the event, men prepare for this by collecting extra wood. The fire itself is lit near midnight, as the moon rises. The main custom of Holi is the use of the colored powders and water on others. This is why Holi is given the name “Festival of Colors.”
Regional rituals and celebrations
The Holi celebration has its celebrative origins in Gujarat, particularly with dance, food, music, and colored powder to offer a spring parallel of Navratri, Gujarat’s Hindu festival celebrated in the fall. Falling on the full moon day in the month of Phalguna, Holi is a major Hindu festival and marks the agricultural season of the Rabi crop.
A bonfire is lit in the main squares of the villages and colonies. People gather around the bonfire and celebrate the event with singing and dancing, which is symbolic of the victory of good over evil. Tribals of Gujarat celebrate Holi with great enthusiasm and also dance around the fire.
In Western India, Ahmedabad in Gujarat, a pot of buttermilk is hung high on the streets and young boys try to reach it and break it by making human pyramids. The girls try to stop them by throwing coloured water on them to commemorate the pranks of Krishna and cowherd boys to steal butter and ‘gopis’ while trying to stop the girls. The boy who finally manages to break the pot is crowned the Holi King. Afterwards, the men, who are now very colourful men, go out in a large procession to “alert” people of the Krishna’s possible appearance to steal butter from their homes.
In some places, there is a custom in the undivided Hindu families that the women of the families beat their brother-in-law with her sari rolled up into a rope in a mock rage as they try to drench them with colours, and in turn, the brothers-in-law bring sweetmeats to her in the evening.
“Celebration of Spring by Krishna and Radha,” 18th Century miniature; in the Guimet Museum, Paris
Barsana is the place to be at the time of Holi. Here the famous Lath mar Holi is played in the sprawling compound of the Radha Rani temple. Thousands gather to witness the Lath Mar holi when women beat up men with sticks as those on the sidelines become hysterical, sing Holi Songs and shout Sri Radhey or Sri Krishna. The Holi songs of Braj mandal are sung in pure Braj Bhasha.
Holi played at Barsana is unique in the sense that here women chase men away with sticks. Males also sing provocative songs in a bid to invite the attention of women. Women then go on the offensive and use long staves called lathis to beat men folk who protect themselves with shields.
In Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and in Vrindavan this day is celebrated with special puja and the traditional custom of worshipping Lord Krishna, here the festival lasts for sixteen days. All over the Braj region and its nearby places like Hathras, Aligarh, Agra the Holi is celebrated in more or less same way as in Mathura, Vrindavan and Barsana.
In Kanpur Holi lasts 7 days with color and a grand fair called Ganga Mela or the Holi Mela that was started by freedom fighters who freed Kanpur from British rule after the First Indian War of Independence in 1857 under the leadership of Nana Saheb. Since then people started this Ganga Mela where they play Holi at various Ghats along the banks of River Ganga in Kanpur. This Ganga Mela which has been played since more than 150 years depicts the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb or the Hindu-Muslim Unity in the city. In 1857, the Hindus and the Muslims had combined to resist the British forces in the city. People of all castes, creeds, religion and societies together participate in this huge social congregation. On the eve of Ganga Mela, all Government offices,shops,Courts generally remain closed. Major Business groups, politicians, MLA’s and MP’s all gather on the Ghats to enjoy the Ganga Mela. The Ganga Mela which takes place mostly on the seventh day after Holi marks the official end of “The Festival of Colours” or Holi in Kanpur.
In Gorakhpur, the northeast district of Uttar Pradesh, this day is celebrated with special puja in the morning of Holi day. This day is considered to be the happiest and most colourful day of the year promoting the brotherhood among the people. This is known as “Holi Milan” in which people visit every house and sing holi song and express their gratitude by applying coloured powder (Abeer). Holi is also considered as the end of the year as it occurs on the last day of last Hindu calendar month Phalgun. People also kickoff for the next year planning with new year Hindu calendar (Panchang) at the evening of Holi.
The uniqueness of the Kumaoni Holi of the Kumaon region in Uttarakhand lies in its being a musical affair, whichever may be its form, be it the Baithki Holi, the Khari Holi and the Mahila Holi which starts from Basant Panchmi. 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.
The Baithki Holi (बैठकी होली) begins from the premises of temples, where Holiyars (होल्यार), (the singers of Holi songs) as also the people gather to sing songs to the accompaniment of classical music.
Kumaonis are very particular about the time when the songs based on ragas should be sung. For instance, at noon the songs based on Peelu, Bhimpalasi and Sarang ragas are sung while evening is reserved for the songs based on the ragas like Kalyan, Shyamkalyan and Yaman etc.
The Khari Holi (खड़ी होली), is mostly celebrated in the rural areas of Kumaon. The songs of the Khari Holi are sung by the people, who sporting traditional white churidar payajama and kurta, dance in groups to the tune of ethnic musical instruments like the Dhol and Hurka.
The Holika made is known as Cheer (चीर) which is ceremonically made in a ceremony known as Cheer Bandhan (चीर बंधन) fifteen days before Dulhendi. The Cheer is a bonfire with a green Paiya tree branch in the middle. The Cheer of every village and mohalla is rigorously guarded as rival mohallas try to steal the others cheer.
Dulhendi known as Charadi (छरड़ी), in Kumaoni (from Chharad (छरड़), or natural colours made from flower extracts, ash and water) is celebrated with great gusto much in the same way as all across North India.
Holi is celebrated with the same fervour and charm in Bihar as in rest of north India. It is known as Phagwa in the local Bhojpuri dialect. Here too, the legend of Holika is prevalent. On the eve of Phalgun Poornima, people light bonfires. They put dung cakes, wood of Araad or Redi tree and Holika tree, grains from the fresh harvest and unwanted wood leaves in the bonfire. Following the tradition people also clean their houses for the day.
At the time of Holika people assemble near the fire. The eldest member or a purohit initiates the lighting. He then smears others with colour as a mark of greeting. Next day the festival is celebrated with colours and lot of frolic.
Children and youths take extreme delight in the festival. Though the festival is usually played with colours at some places people also enjoy playing holi with mud. Folk songs are sung at high pitch and people dance to the tune of dholak and the spirit of Holi.
Intoxicating bhang is consumed with a variety of mouth watering delicacies such as pakoras and thandai to enhance the mood of the festival. Vast quantities of liquor are consumed alongside ganja and bhang, which is sometimes added to foodstuffs.
Holi being played in the courtyard, circa 1795 painting- Patna style.
On the Dol Purnima day in the early morning, the students dress up in saffron-coloured or pure white clothes and wear garlands of fragrant flowers. They sing and dance to the accompaniment of musical instruments like ektara, dubri, veena, etc. Holi is known by the name of ‘Dol Jatra’, ‘Dol Purnima’ or the ‘Swing Festival’. The festival is celebrated in a dignified manner by placing the icons of Krishna and Radha on a picturesquely decorated palanquin which is then taken round the main streets of the city or the village. The devotees take turns to swing them while women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs. During these activities, the men keep spraying coloured water and coloured powder, abir, at them.
The head of the family, observes fast and prays to Lord Krishna and Agnidev. After all the traditional rituals are over, he smears Krishna’s icon with gulal and offers “bhog” to both Krishna and Agnidev.
In Shantiniketan, Holi has a special musical flavor.
Traditional dishes include malpoa, kheer sandesh, basanti sandesh (saffron), saffron milk, payash, and related foods.
The people of Orissa celebrate Holi in a similar manner but here the icons of Jagannath, the deity of the Jagannath Temple of Puri, replace the icons of Krishna and Radha.
Holi is a part of Goan or Konkani spring festival known as Śigmo or शिगमो in Koṅkaṇī. One of the most prominent festivals of the Konkani community in Goa, and the Konkani diaspora in the state of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. Śigmo is also known as Śiśirotsava and lasts for about a month. The colour festival or Holi is a part of entire spring festival celebrations.
Holi festivities(but not Śigmo festivities), include:Holika Puja and Dahan,Dhulvad or Dhuli vandan,Haldune or offering yellow and saffron colour or Gulal to the deity.
Main article: Shigmo
Holi celebrations, Pushkar, Rajasthan.
Narayani Shastri, an actress celebrating Holi with her friend at Mumbai, 2011.
In Maharashtra, Holi is mainly associated with the burning of Holika. Holi Paurnima is also celebrated as Shimga. A week before the festival, youngsters go around the community, collecting firewood and money. On the day of Holi, the firewood is arranged in a huge pile at a clearing in the locality. In the evening, the fire is lit. Every household makes an offering of a meal and dessert to the fire god. Puran Poli is the main delicacy and children shout “Holi re Holi puranachi poli”. Shimga is associated with the elimination of all evil. The colour celebrations here traditionally take place on the day of Rangapanchami, 5 days after Holi, unlike in North India where it is done on the second day itself. During this festival, people are supposed to forget about any rivalries and start new healthy relations with all.
Manipuris celebrate Holi for six days. Here, this holiday merges with the centuries-old festival of Yaosang. Traditionally, the festival commences with the burning of a thatched hut of hay and twigs. Young children go from house to house to collect money, locally known as nakadeng (or nakatheng), as gifts on the first two days. The youths at night perform a group folk dance called Thabal chongba on the full moon night of Lamta (Phalgun) along with folk songs and rhythmic beats of the indigenous drum. However, this moonlight party now has modern bands and fluorescent lamps. In Krishna temples, devotees sing devotional songs, perform dances and play with aber (gulal) wearing traditional white and yellow turbans. On the last day of the festival, large processions are taken out to the main Krishna temple near Imphal where several cultural activities are held. Since the past few decades Yaoshang, a type of Indian sport, has become common in many places of the valley, where people of all ages come out to participate in a number of sports that are somewhat altered for the holiday.
In the Mattancherry area of Kochi, there are 22 different communities living together in harmony. The Gaud Sarawat Brahmins (GSB) who speak Konkani also celebrate Holi in Cherlai area of West Kochi instead of in theior own community. It is locally called Ukkuli in Konkani or Manjal Kuli in Malayalam. It is celebrated around the Konkani temple called Gosripuram Thirumala temple. Holi is also celebrated at some colleges in south.
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh
Holi is celebrated with much fervor here. Unlike in the other Indian communities, it is also here a school holiday. There is also a tradition followed in rural Karnataka where children collect money and wood for weeks prior to Holi, and on Kamadhana night all the wood is put together and lit. The festival is celebrated for two days. People in north Karnataka prepare special food on this day. In Andhra Pradesh Holi is celebrated along with Basnata Panchami. In the Telangana region,especially the capital city of Hyderabad, Holi is a major festival, and the festivities and colour starts appearing at least a day before the actual holiday.
Jammu & Kashmir
In Kashmir, Muslims and Hindus alike celebrate Holi. Holi celebrations here pretty much fit the general definition of Holi celebrations: a high-spirited festival to mark the beginning of the harvesting of the summer crop, is marked by the throwing of coloured water and powder and singing and dancing. Holi is also celebrated in great fervor in Jammu.
Western Madhya Pradesh
In western Madhya Pradesh, Bhil tribesmen who have held on to many of the pre-Hindu customs celebrate it in a special way.
Rural Maharashtra State
Known as Rangapanchami in rural Maharashtra State, it is celebrated with singing and dancing.
In Jaisalmer, a town in Rajasthan, music is played as clouds of different coloured powders fill the air.
Haryana & Western Uttar Pradesh
This region has its own variety of Holi. The festival is celebrated with great zest and enthusiasm. Dhampur is a city and a municipal board in the Bijnor district in the state of Uttar Pradesh of India. The Holi celebration in Dhampur is famous throughout the whole of Western UP.
In Dhampur holi—holi hawan jaloos have been organized for the last 60 years. The festival involves almost 10,000 people, including lots of bands and Jhakhi, which represent the cultural values of Holi and India.
Over the years, Holi has become an important festival in many regions wherever Indian diaspora had found its roots, be it in Africa, North America, Europe or closer to home in South Asia.
In Nepal, Holi is celebrated in the month of Falgun and is also called as the “Fagu” and is celebrated on the Full moon day in the month of February. The word “Fagu” (Devanagari:फागु) represents the month of Falgun and the day is called the “Fagu Poornima” (Devanagari:फागु पुर्णीमा) which means (full moon day in the Falgun).
In Nepal Holi is regarded as one of the greatest festivals as important as Dashain (also known as Dussehra in India) and Tihar or Dipawali (also known as Diwali in India). Since more than 80% of people in Nepal are Hindus, Holi, along with many other Hindu festivals, is celebrated in Nepal as a national festival and almost everyone celebrates it regardless of their religion, e.g., even Muslims celebrate it. Christians may also join in, although since Holi falls during Lent, many would not join in the festivities. The day of Holi is also a national holiday in Nepal.
People walk down their neighbourhoods to celebrate Holi by exchanging colours and spraying coloured water on one another. A popular activity is the throwing of water balloons at one another, sometimes called lola (meaning water balloon). Also a lot of people mix bhang in their drinks and food, as also done during Shivaratri. It is believed that the combination of different colours played at this festival take all the sorrow away and make life itself more colourful.
Phagwah is a national holiday in Guyana, and peoples of all races and religions participate in the celebrations. The main celebration in Georgetown is held at the Mandir in Prashad Nagar.
The spring season, during which the weather changes, is believed to cause viral fever and cold. The playful throwing of natural coloured powders has a medicinal significance: the colours are traditionally made of Neem, Kumkum, Haldi, Bilva, and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedic doctors.
A young man celebrating Holi
As the spring-blossoming trees that once supplied the colors used to celebrate Holi have become more rare, chemically produced industrial dyes have been used to take their place in almost all of urban India. In 2001, a fact sheet was published by the groups Toxics link and Vatavaran based in Delhi on the chemical dyes used in the festival. They found safety issues with all three forms in which the Holi colors are produced: pastes, dry colors and water colors.
Their investigation found some toxic chemicals with some potentially severe health impacts. The black powders were found to contain lead oxide which can result in renal failure. The prussian blue used in the blue powder has been associated with contact dermatitis, while the copper sulphate in the green has been documented to cause eye allergies, puffiness of the eyes, or temporary blindness.
A Natural Holi in Pune, an alternative to synthetic colors
The colorant used in the dry colors, also called gulals, was found to be toxic, with heavy metals causing asthma, skin diseases and temporary blindness. Both of the commonly used bases—asbestos or silica—are associated with health issues.
They reported that the wet colors might lead to skin discolouration and dermatitis due to their use of color concentrate gentian violet.
Lack of control over the quality and content of these colors is a problem, as they are frequently sold by vendors who do not know their origin.
The report galvanized a number of groups into promoting more natural celebrations of Holi. Development Alternatives, Delhi and Kalpavriksh, Pune, The CLEAN India campaign and Society for Child Development, through its Avacayam Cooperative Campaign  have both launched campaigns to help children learn to make their own colors for Holi from safer, natural ingredients. Meanwhile, some commercial companies such as the National Botanical Research Institute have begun to market “herbal” dyes, though these are substantially more expensive than the dangerous alternatives. However, it may be noted that many parts of rural India have always resorted to natural colours (and other parts of festivities more than colors) due to availability reasons.