Photo story: celebrating Holi festival in India's Braj region

The vibrant hues of Holi are recognisable the world over, but this time-honoured Hindu festival of colour has its roots firmly in the subcontinent.

Sunday, October 18, 2020,
By Prabir Mitra
Photographs By Prabir Mitra
In Holi, ancient traditions are celebrated in a modern way. Mobile phones — ubiquitous symbols of ...

In Holi, ancient traditions are celebrated in a modern way. Mobile phones — ubiquitous symbols of the modern world — are brandished by a crowd wearing traditional clothing.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

A Street vendor in Barsana is busy selling colourful flowers, which are used in abundance during the Holi celebration.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

The vibrant colours of spring are reflected in the colour of Holi. Vrindaban is one of the towns of Northern India where people take pride in painting and decorating their houses at this time of the year.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

Flowers, gulal (coloured powder) and dyed water are gathered ahead of the festival, which traditionally lasts one night and one day every spring. Faces and houses are also painted with vivid colours to reflect the time of year and to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. 

The revellers take time to decorate themselves prior to plunging into the Holi festivities. Face painting is an integral part of their preparation and the lucky ones get to have their face painted by experts, who are highly sought after.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

In contrast to the frenetic crowds in the Sriji Temple courtyard, there’s a certain elegance to be found among the temple’s traditional dancers, seen here apart from the fray on the temple rooftop.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

During Holi, gulal is sold in huge quantities across India, particularly in the towns of Vrindaban, Nandgaon and Barsana, and the city of Mathura. Demand always exceeds supply.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

At the Banke Bihari Temple at Vrindavan, revellers are showered in coloured powder and petals as part of the Phoolo Ki Holi festivities, known as ‘Holi of Flowers’. It’s a true feast for the ears, too, as the sounds of song and laughter ring out through the sacred Hindu temple, dedicated to Krishna.

At the Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindaban, revellers are showered in coloured powder and petals as part of the Phoolo Ki Holi festivities. It’s a true feast for the ears, too, as the sounds of song and laughter ring out through the sacred Hindu temple.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

Music is an integral part of the Holi celebration. People of varying degrees of expertise gather together to create impromptu concerts, dedicated to the mythological love story of Lord Krishna and his lover Radha.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

Holi is a great leveller: people of all ages come together to forgive and forget, and to celebrate the arrival of spring. Colours aside, there are myriad traditions that characterise the Holi festivities, which vary from region to region. One of the best known in Braj is ‘lath mar holi’, in which women beat men with sticks, known as lathi, as the men sing Holi songs. It symbolises the men vying for the women through song, and the women’s act of protection by beating them away. 

An elderly widow joyfully celebrates Holi by showering petals at the Gopinath Temple, Vrindaban. 

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

Holi is a great leveller: people of all ages come together to forgive and forget, and to celebrate the arrival of spring.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

A common sound during Holi is the cry of “Bura na mano, holi hai!”, which means “Please don’t mind, it’s Holi!”, as people douse each other in powder and coloured water. The festivities can be intense and tiring, but revellers are always willing to welcome a stranger for a meal or even a nap. 

The festivities can be intense and tiring, but local revellers are always willing to welcome a stranger for a meal or even a nap.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

People sing, dance and shout, ‘Bura na mano, Holi hain!’, which means ‘Please do not mind, it’s Holi!’ as they douse each other with coloured water and gulal.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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