Originally a Hindu festival celebrated in the north of India, Holi’s exuberant fun, vitality and sense of good will has led it to be picked up by people all over the world. It takes place in February or early March, and marks the renewal of the earth with the coming of spring, a symbol for the renewal of relationships gone sour, the casting aside of differences, and for the general triumph of everything good over everything evil.
Traditional festivities begin with a bonfire the evening before Holi itself, on which an effigy of the evil Hindu demoness Holika is burnt. This task completed, everyone awakes cleansed the next day and flood out onto the streets to throw water and paint at each other, to sing, dance, wrestle, talk and generally party with the people they love, as well as just about anyone else they can find. But alongside these general traditions, many regions in northern India have evolved their own distinctive rituals over the centuries. Here we’ve gathered together five of the most interesting and unusual places in which to celebrate this sunny festival of colors.
Jaipur, known as the pink city, already has strong associations with color, so it’s no surprise that its Holi celebrations are particularly vibrant. Until 2013, its celebrations were distinguished by an elephant festival on Holi eve, involving elephant parades, elephant beauty contests and elephant tug of wars, all heartily cheered on by enthusiastic onlookers. However, animal rights activists argued that the performances were cruel, and they’ve been cancelled for the past couple of years. The issue is currently the subject of a fierce tug of war between different factions within the city. Fortunately, as the festival is all about reconciliation and putting aside differences, the arguments are forgotten once Holi itself comes around and the streets of the pink city explode in a kaleidoscope of color, dancing, singing and general intoxication.
The Bengal district of Purulia has retained a strong Bengali folk presence, which adds a distinctive local flavour to its Holi celebrations. A three day folk festival, organized by the local community with the support of the Banglanatak social enterprise, takes place over the holiday, usually in a rural setting with accommodation provided in colorful tents. The festival area is covered in folk art, and a variety of local folk music soundtracks your every step, much of it played by the region’s wandering Baul musicians. Alongside the throwing of paint and water, folk dances such as the disciplined, martial Chhau are performed both formally and spontaneously. Details of the festival change each year, so it is worth contacting Banglanatak for information before making any concrete plans.
The city of Udaipur, beautifully situated on the lower slopes of the forested Aravalli Hills, makes a gorgeous backdrop to the Holi celebrations. For centuries the capital of the Mewar kingdom, Udaipur’s Old Town are bejewelled with palaces and temples, all overlooking the sparkling water of Lake Pichola. The Old Town’s architectural focus is the sprawling City Palace, a jumble of gardens and buildings blending various periods and styles with remarkably attractive results. Every Holi, the Udaipur Royal Family hosts an extravagant celebration here, which anyone sufficiently affluent to afford a ticket can attend. Alternatively, for a slightly more traditional experience, travellers can join the celebrations in the nearby town of Nathdwara, centered around the striking Hindu temple of Shrinathji.
Holi is celebrated with great enthusiasm all across Mumbai. As well as throwing paint, another tradition that is popular in the city is known as "breaking the pot". A pot of buttermilk is hung high above a city street, and the male residents gather beneath it to form a human pyramid, which grows until it is tall enough for the man on top to smash the suspended pot with his head. A journey out onto Mumbai’s streets on the morning of Holi, then, is guaranteed to get you covered in a frothy concoction of multicolored paint and buttermilk. At that point you may as well head down to Juhu Beach, the epicenter of the festivities, where you’ll find live music, folk dancing, celebrity performances and much more.
Anandpur Sahib is the world center of Sikhism and the location of the religion’s most famous shrine, the Golden Temple. It would be understandable, then, if you assumed that it wasn’t an ideal place to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi. But like many Christian festivals in the west, Holi has spilled far beyond its Hindu origins, and in fact Anandpur Sahib hosts one of the most spectacular festivals in the whole of India. The roots of this celebration go back to the 18th century, when the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh decreed that Holi should be the occasion for a vibrant celebration of the martial spirit of his people. The three-day festival, named Hola Mohalla, continues today, and you can see myriad mind-boggling displays of physical agility, including wrestling, martial arts, mock sword fights and acrobatics.