Holi in ancient India: From Kama Sutra to the Vedas, playing with colours has always been part of Holi festivities

Holi is one of the few surviving spring festivals that were celebrated in ancient India. It is difficult to say when the celebration of Holi began. There are clear references to both the festival of burning heaps (the Holi of bonfires) and the festival of spraying colours (the Holi of colours) in Sanskrit and Prakrit texts dating back thousands of years. Some older texts offer clues to both festivals. This article presents a summary of direct and indirect references to Holi in ancient Indian texts, which will help us get an idea of how Holi was celebrated in ancient India.

Origin of the word

The word 'holi' used today comes from the Sanskrit word holaka. While this may be a word imported into Sanskrit, Sanskrit dictionaries derive it form the root 'Hu'. The root means "to offer", particularly to offer an oblation to a deity by putting it in fire during a yajna. The popular word ahuti (oblation offered in fire) comes from the same root. The word holaka then means "that which receives oblations", a reference to the bonfire lit on Holi.

The Holi of bonfires is alluded to in a verse (18.12) in the 'Parishishta' of Atharva Veda: "Now, holaka is on the full-moon night of the Phalguna month."

As the text mentions the night, this is understood to refer to the Holi of bonfires. The burning of heaps of wood and/or cakes of cow-dung on the full-moon night of Phalguna month continues to this date. Interestingly, this verse is a part of a section on the "calendar of royal ceremonies", indicating that the Holi of bonfires may have been a royal celebration in ancient times. While direct references to the Holi of colours in the Vedic texts may not exist, a verse (1.3.5) in the 'Taittiriya Aranyaka' gives a description of the spring season with some resemblance to the Holi of colours.

 Holi in ancient India: From Kama Sutra to the Vedas, playing with colours has always been part of Holi festivities

Representational image. AP

The passage says that spring season is "skilled in water", with the Gods wearing coloured clothes. The commentary by Bhatta Bhaskara says that spring is "skilled in water" since people are fond of water in spring. Sayana’s commentary adds that the clothes of Gods are coloured by agents like turmeric powder. It is possible that the Holi of colours, where people spray coloured water on each other, is alluded to or was inspired by this passage.

In addition, there is mention of holaka in the 'Kathaka Grihya Sutra' associated with the Krishna Yajurveda. The sutra (cryptic formula) simply says that Raka (the full moon deity) is the deity for holaka. While commentaries explain the formula differently, it is certain that the 'Grihya Sutra' associates the full moon night with the festival of Holaka.

Holi in the Kama Sutra

While talking about social pastimes, the Kama Sutra (dating back several centuries BCE by some sources) mentions holaka after Suvasantaka, the festival of Kamadeva in spring. Jayamangala's commentary explains that Holaka is the festival on the Phalguna full-moon day during which people colour each-other by spraying coloured water, prepared with flowers like Butea (kimshuka or palasha), using water-syringes and throw coloured powder on each other. In some editions of Kama Sutra, the mention of holaka is absent but the work lists the pastime of udaka-ksvedika (literally "sprinkling water"), which Jayamangala's commentary explains as shringa-krida or "play with water-syringes or horns", a reference to the Holi of colours.

A steam bath named after Holi

The word holaka is used in the Ayurveda work Charaka Samhita, dated around 3rd Century BCE by some sources. The work has a description of 13 types of sveda or sweat-cleanse, of which the holaka-sveda is the last (1.14.61–63). Going by the names of the other svedas described, it appears very likely that this was named after the Holaka festival. If this is true, then the description of sveda gives a clue as to what was used as a fuel to burn bonfires during the Holaka festival: "A pyre of (dried cakes) of dung of animals, as mentioned before (elephants, horses, cows, donkeys, and camels) should be lit. When it is well-burnt and left without a smoke, a couch should be laid on top of the pyre commensurate with (the posture of) sleeping. Covering himself well, a man sleeping there sweats pleasantly. This is called holaka-sveda by the great Rishi."

Going by the description, Holaka may have been a common festival in the time of 'Charaka Samhita', and it may have been celebrated by burning dried cakes of dung of various animals.

Holi in philosophical texts

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

In his commentary on the Purva Mimamsa Sutra-s, Shabara, (c. first few centuries CE) there is an objection that the festival of Holaka is to be celebrated by easterners alone. Shabara then answers that the festival is to be celebrated by all 'Aryas'. This indicates that at some point of time, the festival of Holi was widely prevalent in eastern India and was not so common in the other parts of the country.

Holi in the Gaha Sattasai

Several verses in the Prakrit work Gaha Sattasai by Hala (first century CE) are associated with the Holi of colours. As an example, one verse (4.12) describes the failed plan of a nayika (heroine) wanting to throw coloured powder on her beloved:
"Holding coloured powder in her fist and thinking I would throw it on my beloved, she was (so) anxious with joy that the powder turned into coloured water in her hand (due to sweat)."

In another one (4.69), the heroine has been splattered with mud: "Somebody (your lover) adorned you with mud, which is acceptable during the Phalguna festival. But why are you washing it again after the sweat oozing from the mouth of the water-pots in the form of your bosom has already washed it?"

Here again the heroine is sweating, this time due to her love towards the hero who has splattered her with mud. As per the commentary by Bhatta Mathuranatha Shastri, the verse indicates that splattering with mud is not considered deplorable during the festival of Phalguna (Holi).

The riot of colours in Ratnavali

We come across a vivid description of the royal celebration of the festival of Kamadeva (Madana Mahotsava) with throwing of coloured water and coloured powder in the Sanskrit play Ratnavali. The play is attributed to Harshavardhana who ruled Thaneswar in the 7th Century CE. A poetic dialogue between the Vidushaka and King Udayana in the first act describes Kaushambi's riotous and colourful scene. With some differences, the description can also fit a modern-day Holi celebration.

Vidushaka: "Behold the beauty of this festival of Kama. Excited by the festival, women have snatched the water-syringes. They are spraying water on the men of the city. The men are dancing, giving rise to festive gaiety. There is loveliness in the ends of streets which are resonating with the sound of charchari songs independent of the beating of drums. The directions are coloured by the masses of scattered red powder (abeer)."

King: "Ah! The delight of the citizens is reaching its zenith. Heaps of red powder, as red as powdered saffron, are scattered and the day appears like the dawn. The crowns of Ashoka trees are lowered by the burden (of flowers) and are glittering like ornaments made of gold. As is apparent from the appearance (of its people), Kaushambi city has surpassed all the riches of Kubera (the God of wealth) with its grandeur. It appears yellow all around, as if its citizens have been covered with liquid gold. The courtyard is flooded all-around with water being released continuously by the syringes (or fountains). There is play (frolic) in the mud where people step quickly and heavily. The pavement of the city is made red by people stepping with their feet which are red from the colour of vermillion that is falling from the (wet) cheeks of the young women who move about freely."

Vidushaka: "May my dear friend also see the sportive play of the courtesans which is made pleasant by their hissing sounds when the clever men spray water on them with their water-filled syringes."

King: "In this darkness caused by the scattering of red powder, the crowd of bons vivants is only dimly visible by the rays from their ornaments and jewels. Their raised water-syringes are shaped like the hoods of snakes. The crowd reminds me of the Patala (the netherworld of snakes)."


The Holi of bonfires and the Holi of colours both have a long history dating back to several thousands of years. The various descriptions of Holi give a clue as to how and when the festivals were celebrated in the past. The colourful description of the Holi of colours in the court of Kaushambi in Ratnavali shows that several current aspects of the Holi of colours date back to at least the 7th Century CE.

I wish you all a very happy Holi.

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Updated Date: Mar 02, 2018 12:31:47 IST