Barsana, a town near Mathura in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh, celebrates Lathmar Holi 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 “Radhe Radhe” or “Sri Radhe Krishna”.
The Holi songs of Braj Mandal are sung in pure Braj, the local language. Holi celebrated 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 the men, who protect themselves with shields.
Mathura, in the Braj region, is the birthplace of Krishna. In Vrindavan this day is celebrated with special puja and the traditional custom of worshipping Radha Krishna; here the festival lasts for sixteen days. All over the Braj region and neighbouring places like Hathras, Aligarh, and Agra, Holi is celebrated in more or less the same way as in Mathura, Vrindavan and Barsana.
A traditional celebration includes Matki Phod, similar to Dahi Handi in Maharashtra and Gujarat during Krishna Janmashtami, both in the memory of god Krishna who is also called makhan chor (literally, butter thief). This is a historic tradition of the Braj region as well as the western region of India.
An earthen pot filled with butter or other milk products is hung high by a rope. Groups of boys and men climb on each other’s shoulders to form pyramids to reach and break it, while girls and women sing songs and throw coloured water on the pyramid to distract them and make their job harder. This ritual sport continues in Hindu diaspora communities.[
Outside Braj, in the Kanpur area, Holi lasts seven days with colour. On the last day, a grand fair called Ganga Mela or the Holi Mela is celebrated. This Mela (fair) was started by freedom fighters who fought British rule in the First Indian War of Independence in 1857 under the leadership of Nana Saheb. The Mela is held at various ghats along the banks of the River Ganga in Kanpur, to celebrate the Hindus and Muslims who together resisted the British forces in the city in 1857. On the eve of Ganga Mela, all government offices, shops, and courts generally remain closed. The Ganga Mela marks the official end of “The Festival of Colours” or Holi in Kanpur.
In Gorakhpur, the northeast district of Uttar Pradesh, the day of Holi starts with a special puja. This day, called “Holi Milan”, is considered to be the most colourful day of the year, promoting brotherhood among the people. People visit every house and sing Holi songs and express their gratitude by applying coloured powder (Abeer).
Kumaoni Holi in Uttarakhand includes a musical affair. It takes different forms such as the Baithki Holi, the Khari Holi and the Mahila Holi. In Baithki Holi and Khari Holi, people sing songs with a touch of melody, fun, and spiritualism. These songs are essentially based on classical ragas. Baithki Holi (बैठकी होली), also known as Nirvan Ki Holi, begins from the premises of temples, where Holiyars (होल्यार) sing Holi songs and people gather to participate, along with playing classical music.
The songs are sung in a particular sequence depending on the time of day; for instance, at noon the songs are based on Peelu, Bhimpalasi and Sarang ragas, while evening songs are based on the ragas such as Kalyan, Shyamkalyan and Yaman. 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 such as the dhol and hurka.
In the Kumaon region, the Holika pyre, known as Cheer (चीर), is ceremonially built 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 neighbourhood is rigorously guarded as rival mohallas try to playfully steal each other’s cheer.
The colours used on Holi are derived from natural sources. Dulhendi, known as Charadi (छरड़ी) (from Chharad (छरड़)), is made from flower extracts, ash and water. Holi is celebrated with great gusto much in the same way all across North India.
In West Bengal, Holi is known by the name of “Dol Jatra”, “Dol Purnima” or the “Swing Festival”. In Shantiniketan, West Bengal, Holi is known as “Basanta Utsav”. The festival is celebrated in a dignified manner by placing the icons of Radha and Krishna on a picturesquely decorated palanquin which is then taken round the main streets of the city or the village. On the Dol Purnima day in the early morning, students (mainly in Shantiniketan) 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, such as the ektara, dubri, and Veena. The devotees take turns to swing them while women dance around the swing and sing songs. During these activities, the people keep throwing coloured water and dry colours, abir, at them.
Locals celebrating Holi in Kathmandu Durbar Square, Nepal
Preparing for Holika Dahan, Kathamandu, Nepal.
Women celebrating Holi in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Tourists celebrating Holi in Pokhara, Nepal (2012)
Holi, also known as Phagu Purnima, along with many other Hindu festivals, is celebrated in Nepal as a national festival. It is an important major Nepal-wide festival along with Dashain and Tihar (Dipawali). It is celebrated in the Nepali month of Falgun (Terai region celebrates on the same date as Indian Holi, while rest of the country celebrates it a day earlier), and signifies the legends of the Hindu god Krishna. They worship Saraswati shrine in Vajrayogini temples and celebrate the festival with their Hindu friends.
People walk through 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). Many people mix bhang (made from cannabis, milk and spices) in their drinks and food, as is also done during Shivaratri. It is believed that the combination of different colours at this festival takes all sorrow away and makes life itself more colourful.
Holi was not a public holiday in Pakistan from 1947 to 2016. Holi along with Diwali for Hindus, and Easter for Christians, was adopted as public holiday resolution by Pakistan’s parliament in 2016, giving the local governments and public institutions the right to declare Holi as a holiday and grant leave for its minority communities, for the first time. This decision has been controversial, with some Pakistanis welcoming the decision, while others criticising it, with the concern that declaring Holi a public holiday advertises a Hindu festival to Pakistani children.