The day dawns with everyone – young and old, men and women, rich and poor, breaking all social barriers – flocking to the streets. It is a day when people smear each other with coloured powder called abeer or gulal and soak each other with coloured water sprinkled through pichkaris (these look like big syringes).
Holi is largely celebrated by applying gulal (a red coloured powder) on friends and foes alike. In fact, people take this opportunity to end their differences. Nowadays, the gulal has given way to many colors like orange, yellow, green, purple, blue and even metallic. Kids throw water-filled balloons at each other, sometimes even from the balconies or from building terraces, thus catching their victims unawares. Friends get together and roam on the streets for hours, throwing colours at each other and also at passersby. They also feast on sweets and savouries alike. It is only late in the afternoon, after being happily exhausted, they head home to clean up and further enjoy a delicious spread with family.
The celebrations of Holi differ from state to state and have their roots in the ancient Indian culture.
Bengal: Bengalis call it Dol Yartra or Dol Purnima. Traditionally the festival is celebrated by placing the idols of Krishna and Radha on swings and the devotees take turns to swing them. Women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs, as men spray coloured water and abeer, a type of coloured powder. But these days rarely does one get to see these traditional rituals, for people play in the mornings with coloured waters and abeer instead and later on they join the festive processions.
Nobel laureate Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore introduced Basanta Utsav, the festival of spring, in the school at Shantiniketan. As per the tradition, the students dressed up in saffron-coloured clothes and garlands of fragrant flowers, and sang and danced, to the accompaniment of musical instruments, before their teachers and the invited guests. At the end of the programme everyone applied the auspicious red abeer to each other. Liquid colours were strictly forbidden. The boys and girls greeted the spring season not only with colours, but also with songs, dance and hymns, in a serene environment. Today, though Shantiniketan is a full-fledged university, the students welcome Spring in the same way.
Orissa: The traditions here are similar to those in Bengal. The only difference being that idol of Lord Jagannath replaces that of Lord Krishna and Radha. This is probably because the famous Jagannath Temple is situated in Puri, in Orissa. Anyways "Jagannath", meaning 'the Lord of the Universe', is yet another name of Krishna.
Mathura and Vrindavan: Finally, let us see how this festival is celebrated in the land of Lord Krishna. Holi in Mathura is celebrated for over a week. Being a city of temples, each day of the week Holi is celebrated in a different temple. The festival is also celebrated with lot of fun and frolic in Vrindavan. Holi celebration in the Bakai-Vihari Temple in Vrindavan is considered sacred.
Holi festival is also celebrated at 'Gulal-Kund' in Braj, a marvellous lake located near the Govardhan hill. At this sacred site tourists and pilgrims drench themselves in colour.
The men-folk of Nandgaon and the women-folk of Barsana, which is the birth place of Radha, come together and play the game of Huranga. As part of the game, men abuse women and in retaliation the women beat their tormentors with sticks. The men try to protect themselves with shields. It is all done playfully and with much merriment.
Punjab: The Sikhs also celebrate Holi but call it Hola Mohalla. And like the rest of the country the festivities are marked with feasting and merriment.
Gujarat: In Gujarat the vibrantly colourful Bhagoria festival coincides with Holi which attracts hundreds of tourists to partake in the festivities. The celebrations take on a slightly different form, somewhat similar to the Govinda festival in Mumbai, which is celebrated during Janmashtami. Both the festivals are connected with Lord Krishna. Earthen pots filled with buttermilk are tied up high on a rope at various streets between two buildings and people form a human pyramid so that the person at the top can reach the pot and break it. All the while people from the neighboring building throw water on the pyramid.
Maharashtra: Here people have a social get together and celebrate Holi with great fervour. The fisher folk celebrate it in their own special way. The men and women perform a special dance called Balya Dance to ward off evil spirits, thoughts and desires. The dancers make a peculiar sound, called Bombne, by striking their mouths with the back of their hands.
South India: Holi is not celebrated with as much intensity as it is in North India. But people do indulge in merrymaking. The legend of Kamdev is quite prevalent in this part of the country. The folk songs narrate the tragic story of Kamdev and Rati and it is considered as a festival of love. Holi in these parts is known by three different names - Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-dahanam.
Holi as a Harvest festival:
In years that followed these historic events, Holi acquired a new significance. Besides being a spring festival, it is also celebrated as the harvest festival when the winter rabi crop ripens and the corns of wheat become golden, and is ready for harvesting. Farmers offer oblation or prayer to God as thanksgiving for a good harvest and also offer their first crop to Agni dev, the God of Fire who for centuries has been looked upon with love and esteem by the Aryans. Only after this first offering, the farmers use the crop for their personal consumption or sell it in the markets. To celebrate a good harvest, the farmers play Holi with great joy.