Holi Festival: India's Spring Festival

Photographs and Text by Palani Mohan

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A riot of color, spirituality and exuberance, Holi is perhaps India’s most joyful and spectacular event. The spring festival is celebrated across the country, starting with the lighting of bonfires to signify the burning of demons. There are several versions of its origins, but all relate to Lord Krishna who is one of the best-loved gods in the Hindu pantheon. According to legend, Krishna complained to his mother about the contrast between his dark complexion and his consort Radha's fair appearance, so Krishna's mother decided to apply color to Radha's face – an act now mirrored by countless millions.

Holi originated in northern India but its wide appeal has seen it spread across the land, and even become embraced by non-Hindus who celebrate enthusiastically with their neighbors. The epicenter of the event, though, is Vrindavan, a holy city three hours from Delhi, which is closely associated with Krishna, who was raised there according to Hindu mythology.

At the height of Holi, I pushed my way through tens of thousands of people thronging the narrow lanes of the ancient city, carried along with them towards the Krishna temple which is the focus of celebrations. From far away I could hear the thundering noise of those gathered there, clapping their hands, chanting, and making the earth shudder with the drum-like pounding of their feet on the expansive marble floors.

Just minutes after venturing out I was already coated with colored powder, pelted by shouting crowds on the balconies and windows overhead, and doused with colored water chucked from rooftops. On street level, strangers smear each other’s faces with the vivid colors – pink, yellow, red and green, in an outpouring of laughter, joy and broad smiles. The powder buries its way into ears, nose, hair and clothes – and cameras – but it is impossible to object to the good-humored assaults.

Devotees arm themselves with plastic bags of colored powders piled high on pushcarts and rickety tables, in front of multi-colored vendors who urge passersby to stock up before entering the Krishna temple. As hundreds of thousands of devotees pour into the temple, the atmosphere becomes electrifying, and clouds of pink and yellow and green that puff upwards like a thousand magic spells obscure the surging crowd.

Their focus is an image of Lord Krishna which is kept concealed behind a curtain, and like a DJ building up a crowd at a dance party, the priests periodically bring them to a crescendo by moving the curtain aside, sending their spirits soaring as they cheer and hold their children aloft. They dance with their hands aloft, fingers pushing into the air, euphoric despite the pushing and shoving, and the choking clouds of colored dust.

Women use their saris to shield their faces, and children are swathed with scarves as they sit on their fathers’ shoulders. Even the elderly are caught up in the powerful ebb and flow of the crowd, but no one complains. It’s an intensely spiritual and emotional experience, even for the irreligious

A full color edit of 53 images are available.