In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages

On the day of Holi, you can always spot two sorts of people. Those who love playing and can’t get enough of colour; and those who watch from their balconies, throwing water & colours at passersby, yet saving their own faces and hair from the ‘gulaal’.

No matter what category you fall into, we are sure you’d love the festivity and fun associated with Holi.

In this post, we cover the celebration patterns that have evolved through 20-Holi-pictures that you must see! So scroll down, and share away the ones you love 🙂

Holi was not always known by this name

The story of this festival recounts the fun and flirtatiousness of the gods but is also a reminder of the passing of the seasons and the illusory nature of the material world; and the victory of good over evil. Historians believe that Holi was celebrated by all Aryans but more so in the Eastern part of India.

An inscription at the Sitābengā caves in Chattisgarh (dating to the 3rd century BC) hints at the spring-festival. The faint two-line inscription reads :

“Poets venerable by nature kindle the heart, who…
At the swing-festival of the vernal full-moon, when frolics and music abound, people thus tie (….lost…) thick with jasmine flowers.

Translated by T.Bloch, Caves and Inscriptions in Ramgarh Hills in the Archaeological Survey Of India Annual Report 1903-4, ASI, Government of India
A two-line inscription in Brahmi script at the Sitabenga Cave (dating to the 3rd century BC) in Chattisgarh hints at the Spring Festival (Holi) in ancient times. 
<p><i>
“Poets venerable by nature kindle the heart, who...<br>
At the swing-festival of the vernal full-moon, when frolics and music abound, people thus tie (....lost...) thick with jasmine flowers.
<br></p></i>
<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Sitabenga cave inscription / Ms Sarah Welch, CC0 / via Wikimedia Commons

Sitabenga was an ancient theatre where poets, dancers and their audiences often gathered. The place was seemingly popular during the ‘spring nights’ especially when the festival of Kama (the Love God) took place on a full moon.

Yes, Holi was apparently the festival of Kama.

The festival of Holi also finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of old temples.

You can spot a Madanika playing holi in this 12th century temple of Chennakeshava in Belur, Karnataka. While one attendant fills her pichkari, the other gets her a vessel of water. Does that sound familiar?

The 12th century Chennakesava Temple at Belur includes a sculpture depicting the festival of Holi. Madanikas are celestial damsels each in a different expression, posture and poise, highlighting beauty and aesthetics.  While one attendant fills her pichkari, the other gets her a vessel of water. <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Madanika at Chennakeshava Temple / Prof. Ranga Sai, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Even at the 16th century structure, Mahanavami Dibba, at Hampi there is a relief depicting the play of Holi. Describing the relief, an Italian traveler of King Devaraya’s time, Niccolo De Conti wrote in his travelogue:

“…there are also three other festival days, during which they sprinkle all passers-by, even the King and Queen themselves with saffron water, placed for that purpose by the wayside. This is received with much laughter.”

Here’s a picture of the relief. You can see the Prince and Princess in the centre, sprayed with water from pichkaris by the dancer-girls.

A relief at the 16th century structure, Mahanavami Dibba, at Hampi depicting the play of Holi. The Prince and Princess in the centre are surrounded by three dancer girls who are aiming their pichkaris at the couple. 
<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Hampi Ruins by AH Longhurst

Check out this relief sculpture from Hampi – now at the Indian Museum, Kolkata:

Granite relief from Hampi depicting Holi featuring 9 human figures, filling their pichkaris with water from buckets and spraying each other and dancing. <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Granite relief decpicting the Holi festival in the Indian Museum, Kolkata from Hampi, Karnataka. From around 15th century C.E / Kritzolina, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Take a closer look:

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Detail / Kritzolina, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is yet another 16th century miniature now at the National Museum New Delhi.

The Sanskrit verses in the painting describe how Vasanta (Spring) is sprayed by young maidens in a mango grove on a Kashmiri mountain.

“Praised by strings of bees he disports himself on a swing. Like a blue lotus (dark complexioned) and dressed in a tawny garment, he holds in his fingers the shoots of the fresh mango.”

The two women on the right are spraying the lovers on the swing with coloured water from bamboo syringes (pichkaris)

A 16th century painting depicting the Vasanta Raga features a couple on the swing; two women on the right are spraying coloured water from bamboo syringes (pichkaris) on them; while another woman plays music. 

<br>The Sanskrit verses on the painting describe how spring is sprayed by young maidens in a mango grove on a Kashmiri mountain. 

<br><I>"Praised by strings of bees he disports himself on a swing. Like a blue lotus (dark complexioned) and dressed in a tawny garment, he holds in his fingers the shoots of the fresh mango."</I> <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Vasant Raga / Ahmadnagar, 1591-5 / National Museum, New Delhi / Public Domain

 How the Royals played Holi

Here’s how the Emperors celebrated the festival of colours.

A scene depicting women enjoying Holi; a nobleman from the Court is the only man in the painting, who takes coloured powder in his hands, probably to smear on the women. <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Holi Festival by a Lucknow painter / 1800-1899 / CC BY / Wellcome Collection

The Mughals participated and propagated the festival whole-heartedly. 

During Akbar’s rule, colors were made in huge utensils with natural items. These Holi parties were also known for the specially prepared culinary treats. Jahangir has been shown holding Mehfil-e-Holi in `Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’ (autobiography of Jahangir). Many court artists, such as Govardhan and Rasik, have shown Jahangir playing Holi with Noorjahan, his wife.

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Jahangir celebrates the Hindu festival of Holi from the Minto Album / c.1635 / attributed to Govardhan / © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Jahangir playing Holi in his harem / c.1800 / Lucknow / Provincial Mughal Painting, Awadh style / National Gallery of Australia

This 1775 painting of a colourful Holi celebration on a palace terrace depicts Nawab of Oudh, Asaf al-Daula, celebrating the spring festival of Holi with the ladies of his court.

a colourful Holi celebration on a palace terrace depicts Nawab of Oudh, Asaf al-Daula, celebrating the spring festival of Holi with the ladies of his court.<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Asaf al-Daula, celebrating the spring festival of Holi with the ladies of his court / c. 1775 / Sothebys
<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Women celebrating Holi, Mughal, Lucknow 1780 / attributed to Mihr Chand / Sothebys.

During Shahjahan’s rule in Delhi, Holi was known as Id-e-Gulabi (as Eid-ul-Fitr is close to Holi) or Aab-e-Pashi — Shower of Colourful flowers.  The Rajahs and the Nawabs all exchanged rose water bottles and sprinkled it on each other amid the frenzied drumming of the ‘nagaras’ (musical instruments)

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Emperor Muhammad Shah (reigned 1719-48) Presides Over Celebrations of the Spring Festival of Colors (Holi Utsava)

While the Mughals continued to have their Holi festivities documented by way of miniatures, the Rajputs weren’t too far behind.

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Maharaja Bakhat Singh celebrating Holi, 1748 / Mehrangarh Museum Trust
<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
“Maharana Swarup Singh and Courtiers Playing Holi at the City Palace,” attributed to Tara, circa 1851. (City Palace Museum, Udaipur/Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation)
<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Maharana Jagat Singh playing Holi (c. 1745) / National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne / Public Domain

The Nizams of the Deccan also commissioned Holi-artworks such as this:

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Prince playing Holi in harem / Hyderabad / c. 1800 / National Museum, New Delhi

This image is from Thomas Broughton’s “Letters from a Mahratta Camp”.

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
‪A Maratha chieftain, possibly Daulatrao Scindia, plays Holi with the women of his harem, inside his military camp, c. 1809.‬

As time passed, the royals moved from using Bamboo Pichkaris to Silver ones.

The V&A Museum states:

“This portable stand would have been used to hold the coloured water in the central chamber which is covered with a filigree silver dome. The syringes are conveniently stored around the exterior of the stand.”

Silver pichkaris / syringes used by royals for holding coloured water in the 19th century. The central part of the object is covered with filigree work. <br>The Rajahs and the Nawabs all exchanged rose water bottles and sprinkled it on each other amid the frenzied drumming of the 'nagaras' (musical instruments). <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Rosewater stand, silver, octagonal, with perforated dome-shaped cover, surrounded by 8 syringes for Holi, Delhi, India, 1800-1870

How different Indian States celebrate Holi

In Bengal and Orissa, Holi is also celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1533).

The Holi festival in Calcutta during the 1850s has been captured in this painting commissioned by the British. It has men daubed with red powder dancing, singing and drumming towards a tank. In the centre, a man is being carried on a flat charpoy. Bystanders include ascetics and sweetmeat sellers. Even till this day, Holi in Bengal is incomplete without sweets!

The Holi festival in Calcutta / Murshidabad during the 1850s features men daubed with red powder dancing, singing and drumming towards a tank. In the centre, a man is being carried on a flat charpoy 
 <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Holi festival, Musrshidabad or Calcutta, c. 1795 – 1805 / V&A

And in case you’re wondering whether like us, the kids back then had access to local kirana shops for the “extra” colour and Holi supplies, here’s a painting by William Carpenter, showing three small children standing in front of a stall in the Sadr bazaar in Poona (Pune), India. They are inspecting the flowers and coloured powders on sale for Holi.

Three small children stand in front of a stall in the Sadr bazaar in Poona (Pune), India. They are inspecting the flowers and coloured powders on sale for Holi. <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Shops for colours and flowers used at festivals, Sadr bazaar, Pune / 1850, William Carpenter / V&A

In Orissa, Holi coincides with the Dhol Yatra. Again, here’s a Company Style painting depicting one of the early Dhol Yatras in 1820.

A Company Style painting depicting one of the early Dhol Yatras in 1820. <br> In Orissa, Holi coincides with the Dhol Yatra. 

<br> The arch is covered with figures of Vaishnavite gods and hung with rings.  A crowd of Hindus are celebrating the festival of the Dol Jatra or Spring festival in which the image of Vishnu and his consort are swung in a throne suspendeed by chains from the rings of the arch. The celebration is part of the Holi festival and takes place at the full moon of the month of Phalguna (February to March). <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Elevation of the black stone arch near the Temple of Jagannatha, Puri showing the Celebration of the Hindoo Festival Dol Jattra / ca. 1820 – ca. 1822 / V&A

Holi & the Legends

In case you’re wondering about the Vishnu-connect with Holi, it goes back to the story of the demon Hiranyakashipu, who’s younger brother, Hiranyaksha was slain by Varaha, one of the avatars of Vishnu. Angered by this, Hiranyakashipu decided to gain magical powers by performing a penance for Lord Brahma. He was subsequently killed by the Narasimha Avatara of Lord Vishnu. (Yes, it was his sister Holika that sat with his son Prahalad in the bonfire attempting to kill him for being a devotee of Vishnu) 

20-holi-pictures
Hiranyaksha slain by Varaha. Photo Credit: British Library

Yet another legend about another form of Vishnu,  is that of Krishna deciding to smear colour on Radha because the latter is all fair and pretty and he is not. There is a series of Radha-Krishna Holi paintings, but here are two that are quite unique:

  1. The one where Krishna and Radha intertwine.
  2. The one where Radha throws colour from above
Krishna and Radha hold each other close during Holi - the festival celebrating the season of Spring and the promise of fertility.  Standing icon-like on a golden jeweled and velvet plinth they seem to intertwine and become as one.  A verdant leafy tree forming a green canopy, spreading out above them.  [catalogue note] <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages
Radha and Krishna intertwined during Holi / Sotheby’s Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art Including Property from The Cleveland Museum of Art Lot 300
Krishna and his friends play Holi with Radha and her friends who throw colour at them from a balcony <br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages

Radha and Hindu God Krishna Celebrating the Festival Holi / c.1800-1810/ Pahari Hills, Bilaspur School / Cleveland Museum of Art / CC0

Holi in Modern Art

Some of India’s best known modern artists : Jamini Roy, M.F Husain, Raza – all continued to make art on the theme of Holi. Take a look at their varied representations of the festival here.

Holi GIFs for you to enjoy

Download these from our GIPHY channel or find sticker versions on Instagram by searching “theheritagelab” in the GIF section of your Stories!


Think we missed a Holi-painting that should be on this list? Tell us in the comments!

If you enjoyed reading / browsing through the paintings, please spread some Holi-love and share away! Happy Holi!

PS: Those red and white balloon like things you see in the painting below are basically handkerchiefs. People would put colour in them and sling across. Isn’t that a great idea? Try them if you like this year!

<br><br><hr> In 20-Holi-Pictures: Celebration through the Ages

Krishna and Radha Celebrating the Holi Festival with Companions, ca.1750

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Aadil! Glad you liked it! Thanks for the RT on Twitter too 🙂 Please do stay connected and I hope you had a great festival!

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