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 has not always been 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.

This is reflected in the inscription found at the Sita-Bengra caves in Chattisgarh which are 2,300 years old.

The faint two-line inscription describes “poets venerable by nature (who) kindle or illumine the heart. They tie garlands thick with jasmine flowers around their necks”

Sita Bengra 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 10th 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?

Madanika playing Holi.

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 being sprayed with water from pichkaris by the dancer-girls.
Can you spot the girls with pichkaris? Picture : Hampi Ruins by AH Longhurst

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

This is yet another 16th century miniature now at the National Museum.

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).
Vasant Raga, Ahmadnagar, 1591-5. National Museum, New Delhi

 How the Royals played Holi

Here’s how the Emperors of India celebrated the festival of colours.
1748: From the Mehrangarh Museum Trust Collection : Maharaja Bakhat Singh celebrating Holi

The Mughals participated and propagated the festival whole-heartedly. 

During the rule of Akbar, 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.

1665: Jahangir playing Holi Photo: Wikimedia
Jahangir playing Holi in his harem. Photo © Chester Beatty Library.

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.

Artist: Mir Kalan. Photo Credit & ©Sotheby’s
Women celebrating Holi, Mughal, Lucknow 1780 | artist: Mihr Chand

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)

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.

Maharana Jagat Singh playing Holi (c. 1745) Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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

Prince-playing-Holi-in-harem (Golconda Miniature) 1700. National Museum, New Delhi

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

‪A Maratha chieftain, possibly Daulatrao Scindia, plays Holi with the women of his harem, inside his military camp, ca. 1809.‬

As time passed, the royals moved from using Bamboo Pichkaris to Silver ones. As 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 used by the royals for spraying colour. Although today the colours used for Holi include a broad spectrum of hues, the traditional colours were limited to reds and yellows. The red pigment was made from the leaves of the ‘tesu’ tree (Butea monosperma). This tree is known as the ‘flame of the forest’ and produces bright red flowers, which are dried and ground to give a saffron colour when mixed with water. The yellow powder was most probably turmeric, which comes from the root of a leafy plant in the ginger family called Curcuma longa. Ground turmeric comes from the fingers of the root, which are boiled or steamed and then dried and ground.

How other states celebrate Holi

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!

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

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.

From the V&A Collection: This is one of William Carpenter’s earliest Indian paintings. It shows three small children standing in front of a stall in the Sadr bazaar in Pune (Poona), central India. They are inspecting the flowers and coloured powders on sale.

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

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). Credit: 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) 

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 I particularly like these two:

  1. The one where Krishna and Radha intertwine.
  2. The one where Radha throws colour from above. Almost reminds me of how I play Holi.
Photo: Sotheby’s
Photo Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

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!


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

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