The colours of incredible India

Updated: Mar 17, 2011, 13:51 PM IST

Shashank Chouhan

If there is one word that you ask me that defines India, I would answer- colours. Red, yellow, pink, blue, purple, azure, golden. silver, even black- you name it and you’ll get it everywhere and anywhere you look in this country. Especially on Holi. So if India is to be defined by its one- out of thousands- festival, it would have to be Holi. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Hindus to Sikhs, all ages and regions, men and women celebrate the festival of colours in one common hue- Indianess.

But how does India actually celebrate its vibrancy? Here is a short account:

Mathura-Vrindavan

Probably the centre of all Holi celebrations, Mathura and Vrindavan are also the places where Holi was born the way it is celebrated today. It is here that Lord Krishna began playing the festival of spring with colours with his gopis and gwals.

With their bonding with Krishna as strong as it was thousands of years ago, people of Mathura and Vrindavan celebrate Holi for over a week. Major attraction on Holi is the legendary Banke Bihar Temple where the devout remain drenched in colourful sandalwood water spurting out of hanging fountains. Another interesting place for Holi celebrations is Gulal-Kund in Braj; a beautiful little lake near Govardhan mountain. Here, the festival is commemorated on a more regular basis. Pilgrims can see the re-enactments of Holi throughout the year at this lake. Local boys, acting in the Krishna-Lila drama troupes, re-enact the scenes of Holi for the pilgrims.

Barsana

This birth-place of Radha, 42 kms away from Mathura, holds a special place in the celebrations of Holi and it is more famous than the neighbouring Mathura and Vrindavan for its style. Beginning in the afternoon with the chanting of Holi couplets and ‘rasiya’ songs that describe the Holi leelas of Radha-Krishna, the enthusiasm begins to build. Chanting of the Holi leelas further adds to the feelings of mutual forgiveness, acceptance and divine love that marks this occasion. After the prasad dinner and traditional sweets are served to the thousands of guests, a bell is rung to signal the beginning of Holi play on the Maharas Mandal. Men from Nandgaon, the land of Krishna come to play Holi with the girls of Barsana with hope of raising their flag over Radha`s temple. But, instead of colours, they are greeted with sticks by the gopis. Hence, Holi get its new name here-Lathmaar Holi.

Renowned poets like Surdas, Nand-das, Kumbhandas and others have picturesquely described how Lord Krishna received similar treatment and was forced to don a sari and wear make-up and perform dance before being released by the gopis.

The next day, it is the turn of men of Barsana. They reciprocate by invading Nandgaon and drench the womenfolk of Nandgaon in colours. It is a favourite place of tourists and people from all over the world come to witness this love and gaiety filled celebration of Holi.

Bihar

Biharis celebrate this festival in a wild fashion- the way, they say, it should be. The revelry is preceded by lighting of bonfires on the eve of Phalgun Poornima. 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 that tradition people also clean their houses for the day, buy new clothes and gifts for each other. And the next day, they play colours. Albeit not just colours- mud, muck, cow-dung and whatever else they can get their hands on. It is free-for-all fun where enemies forget their rivalries and friends become best friends in moments of shear madness!

Delhi

Delhi being the capital and the heart of India, celebrates Holi with extreme enthusiasm. Being a metro city, an amalgamation of cultures and traditions can be witnessed here. Virtually all aspects of Holi as seen in various states are noticeable in the numerous pockets of Delhi.

People move out in ‘tolis’ and apply colour on each other till they become unrecognisable. Play with colours peaks up in the residential colonies as people usually do not go out with families beyond their neighbourhood. Even public conveyances do no ply with usual frequency. Holi is also celebrated at the Presidents and Prime Minister residences where people gather to play the festival.

Punjab

The people of Punjab bring their red hot brand of fervour and piety to this festival. Celebrated as Hola Mohalla on the day following Holi, it is actually an annual fair that is organised on a large scale at Anandpur Sahib. The celebrations see processions lead by Nihangs- the warrior class- who show off their fighting skills adroitly. Practise of holding such a fair was initiated by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, to physically strengthen the Sikh community.

The festival is celebrated for three consecutive days, in which members of Sikh community display their physical strength by performing dare-devil acts like bareback horse-riding, standing erect on two speeding horses, Gatka (mock encounters), tent pegging etc. This is followed by music and poetry competitions to lighten the charged up atmosphere.

West Bengal

Holi is also known by another name, which is Basant Utsav in the state of West Bengal. The tradition of Basant Utsav, meaning Spring Festival was started by poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan, the University that he founded. Flowers, songs, graceful dances, poetry and elaborate feasts mark the festival here which is quite opposite of the boisterous Holi witnessed in most parts of India. It is nevertheless mesmerizing and one wishes that time would stop when Rabindra Sangeet wafts through the sweet smelling air.

Maharashtra

Maharashtra celebrates Holi with its sense of Maratha nationalism in place. Known as Rangpanchami, Holi is celebrated as the day when the parents of Shivaji got married. Locals of Maharashtra also know Holi as Shimga or Shimgo. The celebration is particularly popular amongst fisher folk. They celebrate it in on a large scale and revel in the festivities by singing, dancing and merry-making. People also utter a sound through their mouths in a peculiar fashion by striking their mouths with the back of their hands. Besides other things, not to be missed is their mouthwatering delicacy- Puranpoli.

Haryana

In mood through the year, Jat boys get it rough on Holi. Celebrated as Dulandi Holi in Haryana, the devars- husband’s brother- need to watch their step as their bhabis get social sanction to beat their devars and make them pay the price of all the pranks they played on them for the entire year. Bhabhi`s roll up their saris in the form of a rope in a mock rage, and give a good run to their devars.

In the evening, devars are supposed to bring sweets for their dear bhabhi.

Rajasthan

The royal and colourful state of Rajasthan celebrates Holi staying true to these characteristics. Gangaur is an extremely important festival of Rajasthan which commences on the day after Holi and continues for 18 days. The festival is celebrated by womenfolk with great enthusiasm and devotion for Gauri, the consort of Lord Shiva. They collect ashes from the Holi fire and bury wheat and barley seeds in it as ritual. These seeds are then religiously watered every day until the germination takes place. A week after Holi, women make clay images of Gauri and Isar. The ritual is made colorful and joyous with the traditional folk songs sung in praise of Gauri. The later days are marked with processions of girls with earthen pots on their heads and culminates in a feast.

The erstwhile royals mingle with commoners and display their warrior skills.

Goa

Goans just a need a reason to party and parade. And its not just New Year parades or Feni that Goa longs for. The festival of spring is a much awaited occasion and is called Shigmo. As expected from the Goans, the festival is accompanied with much fanfare. Performance on drumbeats and epic enactment of mythology are religiously followed. Shigmotav is highlighted with performances of troupes in the form of parades and cultural dramas. At dusk, huge effigies are taken in processions and prizes given away.

Gujarat

The state reverberates with the chants of the folk song-`Govinda ala re, zara matki sambhal brijbala..`. The state is famous for the tradition of breaking earthen pots full of buttermilk and tied high on a rope- just like little Krishna used to with his friends. Hundreds of people participate in forming a human pyramid, in order to reach the pot and it’s a spectacle to the eye when women attempt to stop them by throwing buckets of water at them.

On the eve of Holi, a bonfire decorated with flowers and fruits is lit with a fire brought from the temple of the Goddess. Unmarried girls from Gujarat create images of their goddess `Gauri` out of the ashes left by the bonfire of the night before.

Himachal Pradesh

While the playing with colours and bon fire are prevalent in this hill state, some other rituals make Holi unique in Himachal. Small twigs of Kamal tree are painted and women carry bamboo baskets with thread, kukkum, jaggery and roasted grams to a village elder. Contests are held among the village youth that who will touch the Holi flag first.

Madhya Pradesh

At Indore, Holi is celebrated continuously for five days. The last day is called the Pancham Holi. The tradition has its historic roots. It is said the Maratha Holkars who conquered the state brought with them Marathi tradition of Rangpanchami- where the colours are played with on the fifth day.

Manipur

The influx of Vaishnavism lead to the amalgamation of the traditional and the centuries old Yaosang festival of Manipur with Holi in the eighteenth century. Quite like Vrindavan, the festival has more devotional hues here as devotees dress up in special white and yellow turbans and sing devotional songs in the Krishna temples, play with colours in temple, take out processions and dance the `Thabal Chongba`- a special Manipuri dance associated with this festival. Apart from devotion, it gives local boys and girls a much awaited chance to interact with each other.

Orissa

Holi assumes the name of `Dol Purnima` and the idol of Lord Jagannath is placed in a swing. In the evening, milkmen, `gwalas` carry the palanquin on their shoulders, for Krishna belonged to their clan. Games such as Dandi Khela are also played to mark the occasion. A special tent called `jhoolan mandap` is erected to place the idol of Lord Jagannath at night.

Tamil Nadu

People of Tamil Nadu celebrate Holi around the legend of Kama Deva. On this day, songs are sung that tell the pathetic tale of Rati and her lamentations after Shiva burnt her husband Kama as he tried to wake him up from meditation. Holi is known by three different names here, Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-Dahanam.