Along with Diwali, Holis is the most colourful festival of the Hindus.  It falls on the Full Moon Day (Puranamashi) in the month of Phalgun according to the Hindu Calendar, which is the month of March as per the Gregorian Calendar.  This Holi festival has many elements of primitive and prolific rites and revelries that have defied civilisation.
During the three days of this festival, the whole country, town, cities and villages go gay with merry markers.  Streets, parks and public places are crowded with people, daubed in diverse colours, looking funny and ridiculous.  Children and youngsters compete with each other in being original and use fast and sticky colours.  This festival of joy, fun and enthusiasm is celebrated when both Man and Nature cast off their winter gloom.

Holi heralds the arrival of Spring – the season of hope and new beginnings and marks the rekindling of the spirit of life.  Gulmohurs, corals, silk-cottons and mango trees start flowering, gardens and parks present a glorious spectacle of a riot of colours – crimson, red, pink, orange, golden yellow, lemon and a variety of glittering greens.  Men who remained indoors during the cold months of winter emerge out to see a new sparkling world of colour and gaiety.
The flowers breathe out their fragrance into space and brooks and streams leap in the valleys.  Men rejoice with brilliant light of day and the eloquent silence of night.  The joy bubbling in their hearts finds expression in dance, drama and music. 
Holi is one of the most ancient festivals of the Aryans, which finds an honourd mention inour old Sanskrit texts like Dashakumar Charit and Garud Puran.  Even the play Ratnavali written by Harshdev in 7th century contains a delightful description of Holi festival.
In those days, Holi was celebrated as “Vasantotsav.  Acclaiming it as a spring festival Mahakavi Kalidas has called it Madanotsav.
The mythological origins of this festival vary in different parts of the country.  In South India especially in Tamilnadu and Kerala the legend that is popular is of Kamdev th god-of-Love, his bow is of sugarcane having the string of a line of humming bees and his arrow-shafts are topped with passion that pierce the heart.  In spring, he moves through woodlands and hunts birds, beasts and men.  Once in his foolish pride, he aimed his arrow at the mighty Lord Shiva who was in deep meditation.  Lord Shiva opened his third eye and brunt him to ashes.  Grief-stricken Rati, Kamadev’s wife beseeched Lord Shiva to take pity on her and restore her husband to life.  Shiva relented and granted her the boon that she could see her husband but he would remain “anang” that meant without the physical human form.  Hence, the songs sung during holi tell the pathetic tale of Rati and her lamentations.  In Tamilnadu Holi is known by three different names Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-dahanam.
Lord Krishna, the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is also worshipped during the Holi festival, which is celebrated as a commemoration of a mythological incident. Putana, the she-demon was sent by the cruel king kansa to kill the child Krishna.  In guise of a beautiful woman, Putana went about in the village of Nandgaon suckling every child to death.  But the infant Krishna sucked her breasts till blood started flowing and she succumbed to her death.  Hence, on the previous evening of the Holi, bonfires are lighted to celebrate the victory of Krishna and the death of Putana.
Those who attribute the origin of festivals to seasonal cycles maintain that Putana represents winter and her death end of winter. 
The mighty king Hiranyakashyapu in his stupendous ego ordered his people to worship him as god.  His son Prahlad defying his father’s orders continued his worship of Lord Vishnu.  The king wanting to kill Prahlad and wipe out the very name of Lord Vishnu sent his sister Holika, who possessed the boom of never being burnt by fire, to destroy Prahlad.  She cajoled the young Prahlad to sit in her lap and she herself took her seat in a blazing fire with the full conviction that fire could never touch her.  But the flames devoured Holika and Prahlad walked out of the fire unscathed and alive.  Perhaps this festival got its name from this incident.  Certainly it was the victory of good over Evil!
Everywhere in North India this victory is celebrated, effigies of Holika are burnt in the huge bonfires that are lit.  This tradition is also followed in Gujarat and Orissa. To render gratefulness to Agni, god of Fire, grams and stalks from the harvest are also offered to Agni with all humility.
In Bengal, this festival is known by the name of Dol jatra or Dol Purnima.  On this day, the idol of Mahaprabhu Chaitanya, placed in a picturesquely decorated palanquin, is taken round the main streets of the city.  The head of the Bengali family observes fast and prays to Lord Krishna and Agnidev.  After all the traditional rituals are over, he smears Krishna’s idol with gulal and offers “bhog” to both Krishna and Agnidev.
Krishna’s love-play with gopi’s is known.  Hence, in places like Mathura and Vrindawan where Krishna cult flourished, this Holi festival is celebrated with songs, music, plays and dances and of course coloured waters are thrown on each other.  In Nandagaon, where the young Krishna played all his youthful pranks, Holi is observed for many days and also in Barsana, which was thebrithplace of Radha, Krishna’s beloved.  The men-folk of Nandagaon and the women –folk of Barsana come together and play the game of “Huranga” in which men abuse women and in retaliation women beat them with sticks that the men try to avoid with their shields.
This festival of Holi still retains a big charm in Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Shanti Niketan.  On the Dol Purnima day, in the early morning the students dress up in saffron coloured clothes and wear garlands of fragrant flowers.  They sing and dance to the accompaniment of musical instruments before their teachers and the invited guests, sitting in a colourfully decorated dais.  In th end, dry gulal (coloured powders) and the auspicious black aabir is smeared on the foeheads of everyone.  Use of liquid colours is fully forbidden.
The Sikh community also celebrated Holi with feasting and merriment.  In Punjab it is called Hola Mohalla.
In Maharashtra Holi is commonly known by the name of “Shimga” and is also called rangapanchami.  The fisher folk celebrate it on a large-scale with hilarious singing, dancing and merry-making.  Today this festival retains its significance mostly in every section of a society in the State.
Druing the Maratha regime, this festival was celebrated with great pomp and grandeur.  It was on a Holi festival day that five year old Jijabai daughter of Lakhooji Jadhav, innocently splashed coloured water and threw gulal on young Shahaji, son of malajirao Bhowale. Taking it as an auspicious event, the two children’s engagement was announced that  very day.  Soon they were married.  Shivaji, the son born to this couple, fought valiantly and shook the foundations of the powerful Mugal Empire.  Thus, Shivaji established the Maratha Empire and changed the course of History.
As year rolled by, this age-old festival of Holi acquired a new significance.  Besides being a spring festival, it also became the harvest festival.  The winter crop of Rabi gets ripe and the corns of wheat become golden.  So Holi means to the farmers joyful celebration of new harvest and bubbling with joy and excitement at the prospect of prosperity they offer their first crop to Agnidev the god of Fire – who for millennia has been looked upon with love and esteem by the Aryans.  Only with love and esteem by the Aryans.  Only after this offering of first harvest to Agnidev, the farmers use the corp for their personal consumption.
On the eve of Holi, huge bonfires are lit with logs of wood, basketful of cow dung cakes, ghee, honey and the new crop brought fresh from the fields.  When the fire leaps up in high and strong flames, all those present walk around the bonfire seen times, pray and invoke the blessings of Agnidev.  Women prepare delicious sweets and put these in the bonfire as Naivedya to Agnidev.  When the fire dies down, water is splashed on the embers and the ash from the extinguished fire is applied on the forehead by everyone.  Some of the ash is preserved in the house all through the year to apply to the foreheads of children as the effective remedy against any impending evil.
The ancient tradition of the Aryans of celebrating the festival of Holi in honour and in devotion to Agnidev the god of Fire continues even today in the modern world of science and technology.  Indeed, it is a festival, which gives men a thrilling spell of happiness and respite from their problems of everyday life.  This festival is a festival of myriad colours, of gaiety, of friendships and re-unions all over the country.  Thus, Holi is certainly a vital part of our Indian life and culture in which religion still is a living force.

Radha-Krishna legend

Holi is also celebrated in memory of the immortal love of Lord Krishna and Radha. The young Krishna would complain to his mother Yashoda about why Radha was so fair and he so dark.  Yashoda advised him to apply colour on Radha’s face and see how her complexion would change.  In the legends of Krishna as a youth, he is depicted playing all sorts of pranks with the gopis or cowgirls.  One prank was to throw coloured powder all over them. So at Holi, images of Krishna and his consort Radha are often carried through the streets.  Holi is celebrated with éclat in the villages around Mathura, the birth-place of Krishna.
Holi as a festival seems to have started several centuries before Christ as can be inferred from its mentions in the religious works of Jaimini’s Puruamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutra.  There is no doubt Holi is one of the oldest among Hindu festivals. Various references are found in the sculptures on walls of old temples.  A 16th century panel sculpted in a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, shows a joyous scene depicting Holi where a prince and his princess are standing amidst maids waiting with syringes to drench the royal couple in colored water.

Holi in Medieval paintings

A 16th century Ahmednagar painting is on the theme of Vasanta Ragini spring song or music.  It shows a royal couple sitting on a grand swing, while maidens are playing music and spraying colors with pichkaris (hand-pumps).
A Mewar paining (circa 1755) shows the Maharana with his courtiers.   While the ruler is bestowing gifts on some people, a merry dance is on, and in the center is a tank filled with colored water.
A Bundi miniature shows a king seated on a tusker, and from a balcony above some damsels are showering gulal on him.

Holi and Shri Chaitanya Maha Prabhu

Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1533), in Bengal, and also in the coastal city of Puri, Orissa, and the holy cities of Mathura and Vrindavan, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Colours of Holi

The colours of Holi, called ‘gulal’, in the medieval times were made at home, from the flowers of the ‘tesu’ or ‘palash’ tree, also called ‘the flame of the forest’.  These flowers, bright red or deep orange in colour, were collected from the forest and spread out on mats, to dry in the sun, and then ground to fine dust.  The powder, when mixed with water, made a beautiful saffron-red dye.  This igment and also ‘aabir’, made from natural coloured talc, which were extensively used as Holi colours, are good for the skin, unlike the chemical colours of our days.

How to celebrate Hli

Colourful days, solemn rituals, joyous celebrations – Holi is a boisterous occasion! Draped in white, people throng the sreets in large numbers and smear each other with bright hued powders and squirt coloured water on one another through pichkaris (big syringelike hand-pumps), irrespective of caste, colour, race, sex or social status.
All the petty differences are temporarily relegated to the background and people give into an unalloyed colourful rebellion.  There is exchange of greetings, the elders distribute sweets and money, and all join in frenzied dance to the rhythm of the drums.  But if you want to know how to celebrate the festival of colours to the fullest through the whole length of three days, here’s a primer.
First day of Holi
The day of the full moon ‘Holi Purnima’ is the first day of Holi.  A platter ‘thali’ is arranged with coloured powders, and coloured water is placed in a small brass pot ‘lota’.  The eldest male member of the family begins the festivities by sprinkling colours on each member of the family, and the youngsters follow.

Second day of Holi

On the second day of the festival called ‘Puno’, images of Holika are burnt in keeping with the legend of Prahlad and his devotion to lord Vishnu.  In rural India, the evening is celebrated by lighting huge bonfires as part of the community celebration when people gather near the fire to fill the air with folk songs and dances.  Mothers often carry their babies five times in a clockwise direction around the fire, so that Agnidev blesses her children.

Third day of Holi

The most boisterous and the final day of the festival is called ‘Parva’, when children, youth, men and women visit each other’s homes and coloured powders called ‘aabir’ and ‘gulal’ are thrown into the air and smeared on each other’s faces and bodies.  ‘Pichkaris’ and water balloons are filled with colours and spurted onto people – while young people pay their respects to elders by sprinkling some colours on their feet, some powder is also smeared on the faces of the deities, especially Krishna and Radha.