Indian culture is renowned for its richness of tradition and diversity; its festivals are the best expression of this heritage, most notable being Holi. Known as the ‘Festival of Color’, Holi is celebrated in many parts of the world, but it is here in the sub-continent where you will find a fascinating diversity even in the celebration this single festival. Some of the rituals that are part of the merriment would seem shockingly bizarre to but they are a part of what defines India, both old and new. Here are 10 of the most unusual Holi traditions in India.
Lath Maar Holi, as the festivities are called, in Barsana, is one of the most unusual festive traditions in the country. In a reversal of fortunes, men are at the receiving end in the rituals held here, where the women-folk from the village beat the men with huge sticks, called dandas. The men often catcall and tease the women to get their attention, after which they are forced to defend themselves with shields.
For many Indians, the festive high of Holi is quite literally that! Consumption of thandai, a sweet milk-based drink with bhang as the primary ingredient, has long been a part of traditional Holi celebrations across the country. Bhang is basically an intoxicant, prepared from cannabis. While cannabis consumption is illegal in India, law enforcement forces prefer to turn a blind eye on such occasions because of the religious significance of the consumption. Yes, the cannabis plant often been described as a gift of the gods and has been ascribed with healing powers, as per ancient scriptures; this was long before modern medicine began to take note of the medical potential of the plant!
Ancient Indian culture and religious rituals have always had a deep connection to mother earth and emphasize harmony with nature, so colors have traditionally been made using natural dyes and herbs. The use of pakka colors that contain toxic chemicals, petrol, and even shards of glass would therefore make the ancients turn over in their graves! Today, colors sold for Holi are now often made with harmful chemicals like chromium, silica, lead, and metal oxides that can even cause cancer.
Everyone knows that Varanasi is one of the most colorful cities in the world on the occasion of Holi, but most are unaware of the ancient tradition that is still practiced here. After priests and devotees offer bhang, ganja (cannabis), fruits, and flowers to the deity they participate in a ritual that may shock outsiders. People use ash from cremation pyres, throwing it at each other and smearing it on each other’s faces. The ashes are also often mixed with gulal to add some color to the ash. As macabre as the tradition may seem, it is actually indicative of the local culture, where death is not something to be feared, but is a path to moksha or salvation.
In the context of Holi, the mention of a rain dance does not refer to any ancient spiritual tradition, such as the ritualistic dances of Native Americans and other tribal societies to beckon the monsoons. Instead, it refers to a modern phenomenon that has come to represent the celebrations in India’s metros. For many, Holi is as much a festival of water, as it is of color, and this life-giving element is therefore very much a part of the festivities. Parties with rain dances have now become a huge commercial enterprise in the cities and give people a chance to get together, dance, douse each other in water and colors, and have a fun time. Unfortunately, with the commercialization of the festival, the true essence of celebrations is often lost.
Holika Dahan is a tradition that is practiced in many parts of the country and involves the creation of a huge bonfire on the eve of Holi. The sacred bonfire is worshipped; people dance, chant hymns, and make offerings around the fire and then disperse for the night. In the village of Kokapur, in Rajasthan, however, the festivities get a little more extreme after this with a bizarre ritual. Once the flames die down, the villagers walk barefooted across the burning embers in act of daredevilry or devotion.
In some parts of Bengal, the festival is also called Dol Yatra because of a peculiar tradition associated with the festivities. As part of the celebrations, the idols of Lord Krishna and Radha are paraded after being placed on swings, with devotees jostling for a chance to swing them. The men also throw a powder, known as ‘abeer’ and colored water, while the women sing religious songs and dance around the swings.
Basanta Utsav is a tradition of Holi celebrations that can be observed in some parts of Bengal. The roots of this tradition are relatively modern, but historic, having been introduced by India’s legendary Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore. The festivities here are not really bizarre, but they are no less unusual because of the absence of boisterous merriment. The refined celebrations are most prominent at Shantiniketan and are characterized not just with colors, but with cultural programs that include song, dance, and the chanting of hymns.
Known as the ‘pink city’, it should come as no surprise that Jaipur celebrates the occasion of Holi with characteristic pomp and flair. The merry-making that is part of the tradition here includes what is known as the Elephant Festival, making the festivities truly unique. After all, what could be more unusual than parades, beauty contests, and tug of wars, with elephants as the main participants!
Like many festivals in the West that have Christian origins, the Hindu festival of Holi has also taken on a multicultural character and is celebrated by one and all. This tradition of multiculturalism is in fact so intrinsic to India that Holi was adopted and adapted to followers of Sikhism in the 1700s. The 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh believed that the festival should be used to showcase the martial skills of the community. Since then Hola Mohalla, as it is called, is celebrated with feats of physical endurance, including martial arts displays, wrestling, mock sword-fights, and lots more.
If you really want to enjoy the festivities, don’t just be a spectator, but participate in the merry-making. With all of these unusual Holi traditions across India, you can be sure that a journey through the country, exploring its different styles of celebration will be the experience of a lifetime.