Compiled by Nanditā Mādhav pāchī with inputs from Udayā Māvinkurve pāchī and Keshav Sorāb mām

"Let us participate in the utsava-s intelligently by understanding the purpose behind them and let us share this understanding not just with our family, samāja, or country, but with the world at large":   

H.H. Shrīmat Sadyojāt Shaṅkarāshram Swāmījī, 11th Mat͟hādhipati of Shrī Chitrāpur Mat͟h, Shirālī

The Sanskrit word "utsava " for festival, derives from "उत् " meaning elevation. Our ancient Ṛs͟hi-s and elders have handed down to us through tradition, the manner of celebrating each utsava in a way that elevates us and brings us closer to the Divinity manifested through Nature. Our festivals are remarkable because they appeal to both the sādhaka and the child within us; from elaborate, traditional Vaidika pūjā-s to the simple pūjā-s by gṛhastha-s and the accompanying festivities. Each festival is a special occasion to connect more closely to the Divine. Every one of our major utsava-s is closely related to the change of seasons. Our beautiful culture is deeply rooted in the belief that Nature and the changing seasons are manifestations of the Divine. Utsava-s allows us also to express our bhakti in the form of art, dance, and music because these are seen as expressions of Divinity which strengthen our connections with It.  An excellent example of this is Holī.

 Holī is a popular utsava, where the fun element dominates, but carries much deeper significance too. Falling on the Pūrṇimā (full moon) of Phālguna, the last month of the Hindu calendar, it usually occurs around mid- March. It has been celebrated since the vedic times, and we find allusions to it in the 'Parishis͟hṭa' of the Atharva Veda: "Now,  होलाका is on the full-moon night of the Phālguna month."  

 The word 'Holī' comes from the Sanskrit word होलाका, which originates from the Sanskrit root हू, meaning " sacrifice". Hence the universal belief that Holī is a time for us to cleanse ourselves of our negativities by sacrificing them in the fire. In Vedic times, a नवात्रैष्टि यज्ञwas performed on that day. The Purāṇa-s and Itihāsa-s have various stories about Holī, and in different regions of India, the practices vary according to the legend they follow.

The predominant paurāṇic story associated with Holī is that of Bhakta Prahlāda, Lord Vis͟hṇu's child devotee. Prahlāda's father, the demon king Hiraṇyakashipu, enraged by the child’s devotion to Lord Vis͟hṇu, commanded his sister the demoness Holikā to kill the boy. Holikā had been blessed with a boon that she could never be burnt by fire, so a huge bonfire of wood was made, and Holikā sat on it with little Bhakta Prahlāda on her lap. By the Grace of Lord Vis͟hṇu, young Bhakta Prahlāda was unscathed while the evil Holikā was burnt to ashes. This legend is the basis of Holikā-dahana, a common theme across celebrations everywhere, symbolizing the destruction of evil, and a reiteration of the ultimate victory of good over evil.  

In the Braj region of India, where Rādhā and Kṛs͟hṇa grew up, the festival celebrates their divine love and continues till Raṅga-pañchamī, the fifth day after the Pūrṇimā. According to a popular legend, young Kṛs͟hṇa was sad because He was dark and despaired of ever winning the love of the fair-skinned Rādhā. Yashodā maiyyā suggested that He should go to Rādhā and ask her to colour His face any colour of her choice.  Rādhā lovingly coloured Kṛs͟hṇa's face with bright coloured powders, and since then, the day has been celebrated as the festival of colours - Holī.  

In yet another legend from Vālmiki's Rāmāyaṇa, it is on this tithi and naks͟hatra that Devī Sītā and Bhagawāna Rāma were joined in wedlock. Hence, it is considered an auspicious time for engagements and weddings. This season of Love is also when all the temples celebrate the marriages of the Divine couples: Devī Pārvati and Lord Parameshwara, Murugana and देवयानै, and कोदै आण्डाळ and रङ्गमन्नार. The Brahmānanda Purāṇa further records that on this Paṅguni Uthirama, all holy waters join the seven sacred tanks in Tirūpati Tirūmala.  

Holī is known by various names like योशान्ग जाजिरि, धुलैण्डी, फगुवा, शिग्मो ,उक्कुळि and even कामन हब्बा.  Generally, the festival is celebrated over two days, starting with Holikā-dahana on the eve of Phālguna Purṇimā, the night before Holī. People gather in a common area where a bonfire has been prepared. After a simple puja, the gathering prays that the evil within be destroyed in the way Holikā was, and then the bonfire is lit.  Holī is celebrated across the subcontinent, reflecting the dazzling, kaleidoscopic beauty of our culture. It is fascinating how in each region Holī has its own variation.

In North India, Holī marks the zenith of Spring and is celebrated with joyous fervour as it ushers in the vibrant, warm वसन्त ऋतु  after the dry, cold शिशिर ऋतु. Here, Holī is a time to offer prayers to the Devatā-s for the bounties of the spring harvest, and to share happy times with family and friends.  Songs, both lighthearted and spiritual, are sung according to the time of day (प्रहर) since they are based on Hindustānī classical music.

Holī in Puñjāb and Haryāṇā has its roots in the story of Bhakta Prahlāda and Holikā, which was also popular with the early Sikh-s. The Guru Granth Sāhib even contains verses recounting the story. The Sikh-s have an additional festival called होला मोहल्ला, introduced by Guru Gobind Singhjī, the 10th and last Guru of the Sikh-s. 'होला मोहल्ला' is a cultural event where Sikh-s demonstrate various martial maneuvers in mock battles.  

Holī celebrations in the East lean more towards the classical performing arts. Holī in these states is also known as Basant Utsava, "डोल पूर्णिमा "or " डोल जात्रा " (Swing or Palanquin festival) since the mūrti-s of deities are taken from the temples in grand processions through the surrounding towns. In Odishā, Dola Holī celebrations lasts for five to seven days, commencing on Phālguna dashamī, when the mūrti-s of Lord Jagganāth are taken out in a yātrā , seated in grandly decorated pālakhī-s.  Pūjā-s and Bhoga (naivedya) are offered to them and also Abira, a colored powder.

In Maṇipur, Holī is called  योशांग  or  याओसांग and is the most important festival in the Valley. It is a five-day spring festival celebrated mainly by the Meitei (locals), the highlight of which is the थबल चोंगबा, (meaning "dancing by moonlight"), a Maṇipurī folk dance, traditional to the Holī festival.

In Mahārās͟hṭra, Holī is also known as Shigmā or Raṅga-pañchamī.  Holikā-dahana followed by singing, dancing and throwing colours on each other are the regular features of the 2-day celebration, but adding to the sweetness of the festival is the much-loved PuraṇapoĪī, a special delicacy peculiar to Holī. So deeply is the delicacy identified with Holī that a favourite seasonal chant is होळी रे होळी पुरणाची पोळी. PuraṇapoĪī and other delicacies are lovingly offered to the family Devatā-s as naivedya after the pūjā.  

In Āndhrā and Telaṅgānā, Holī is called as जाजिरि, कामुनि पुन्नमी or काम पूर्णिमा.  It relates to the legend of Kāmadeva and Ratidevī hence is also known as कामविलास , कामुनि पण्डुग  and कामदहनम् .  Devotees visit the रती - मन्मथ temple in the village and offer पूजा and silk clothes to the deities.  

In Karnāṭaka, Holī is also known as Kāma-dahana. The celebration in Sirsī deserves a special mention. A unique folk dance called "Bedara Veshā" (hunter's dance), is performed for five nights before Holī Pūrṇimā , and draws large numbers of tourists from different parts of India. However, this occurs only every alternate year.

In Shrī Chitrāpur Mat͟h the festival is celebrated on Phālguna Pūrṇimā with the traditional Holikā-dahana. This usually takes place after the evening As͟hṭāvadhāna pūjā at the Mat͟h. People gather in a common area at the Rathāgādde where a wooden bonfire is readied by erecting a bamboo to which dried wood and dry coconut branches are tied.  

A vaidika performs Āratī by initially offering coconut smeared with turmeric and the vermilion (kuṅkuma) after which the bonfire is lit and sādhaka-s pray for the destruction of ones’ inner evils and negative qualities. This practice of lighting a bonfire is the common thread which weaves together the myriad ways the festival is celebrated across different regions.

We conclude with another quote by H.H. Shrīmat Sadyojāt Shaṅkarāshram Swāmījī:  

"Let us participate with a sense of pride - of swābhimāna in being born in a culture which provides so many different and artistic ways of collectively demonstrating and sharing our love for the enchanting manifestations of the Divine."