How India Celebrates Holi, From Varanasi to Meghalaya

Travel across India with these five colourful traditions.

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Ganga Mela is a week-long celebration of Holi in Kanpur. Illustration: Rutuja Patil

Celebrating Holi is synonymous with being drenched in colour. While that may be the overall sense of the festival, almost each Hindu community has a distinct way of marking this harvest festival—and new customs keep being added. In March 2015, for example, widows from ashrams in Vrindavan and Varanasi played a special four-day Holi, after centuries of being excluded from the celebrations because they are expected to renounce earthly joys.

The central focus of Holi is its sense of bonhomie and cheer. Negativity is purged by the bonfires that are lit on the eve of Holi. Emperor Akbar was particularly fond of the revelry. Abul Fazl, one of the nine gems in Akbar’s court, documented in Ain-e-Akbari how “Shanshah ust chee shudam aviyaar minhal mustambeer qabl-e-jashn-e-faam”—the Emperor began to collect pichkaris [water guns] of different sizes well before Holi. We explore the legends and traditions of five Indian communities below.

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aren’t allowed to retaliate against the women.

Illustration: Rutuja Patil

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marks the end of the winter harvest—the green chickpeas used are a winter crop—and consequently, the arrival of spring. Also, it is customary to offer puran poli to the gods when the bonfires are lit on the night before Holi, and then serve the sweet the next morning.

Illustration: Rutuja Patil

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Help Tourism, the Meeties in Manipur still follow this practice. The boys of the community wear pheijom (dhoti) and the girls put on phanek (a sort of loincloth). It’s a celebration of the arrival of spring that fosters the spirit of community and brotherhood.

Illustration: Rutuja Patil

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  • Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.

  • Rutuja Patil is a Mumbai-based illustrator and photographer who recently majored in Visual Communication from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. She likes to use the medium of illustration and photography to sell a destination, narrative, prove a social cause, and communicate. Her travel over the past few years has influenced her graphics that tell stories about geography, environment, spaces and people.

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