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Holi, Houly, Huli, Whoolye: How Europeans documented their encounter with India’s festival of colours

Holi over the years: To the European observer, the festival was essentially tied up with Hinduism, Lord Krishna and his flirtatious ways and of course the tradition of spraying colours.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: March 2, 2018 7:33:13 am
Holi, Happy Holi, Holi 2018, Holi in India Holi has, for centuries, held a special place in the hearts and minds of foreign visitors to India. (Wikimedia Commons)

For foreign eyes, colours and India have always had a connection. Remember the much talked about music video produced by Coldplay back in 2016? Almost every glimpse of it was smeared with the shades of Holi, to the point that the spring festival almost appears synonymous for the Indian subcontinent. Holi has, for centuries, held a special place in the hearts and minds of foreign visitors to India. At times associated with exoticism, at other times with primitivity, the festival has for years been seen as an essential segment of the Indian cultural landscape.

Holi, Happy Holi, Holi 2018, Holi in India Widows play Holi, at the Gopinath Mandir in Gopinath Bazar. Vrindavan. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

When the Europeans first started ruling over parts of India, the region, its geography and its people were just as incomprehensible to them as were their manners and traditions. They were particularly fascinated by the festival of colours, as they described it variously as “the carnival of the Hindus,” or the “Hindu spring festival in honour of Krishna, the amorous cowherd.” The name of the festival too was hard to assimilate in the English tongue. For a long time, it was referred to as Houly, Huli, Whoolye and Wooly before the current spelling of the word was used by the English dictionaries of the early twentieth century.

To the European observer, the festival was essentially tied up with Hinduism, Lord Krishna and his flirtatious ways and of course the tradition of spraying colours. The dictionary Hobson-Jobson, first published by Henry Yule and A.C.Burnell in 1886 describes Holi in the following words:

“It is a sort of carnival in honour of Krishna and the milk-maids. Passers-by are chaffed and pelted with red powder, or drenched with yellow liquids from squirts. Songs, mostly obscene are sung in praise of Krishna, and dances performed around fires.”

Holi, Happy Holi, Holi 2018, Holi in India To the European observer, the festival was essentially tied up with Hinduism, Lord Krishna and his flirtatious ways and of course the tradition of spraying colours. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the European documentation of the festival went far beyond the carnivalistic aspects of it. They described in details the multitude of ways in which different tribes, castes and communities of the subcontinent ritualistically celebrated the festival. The strangeness experienced by the Western spectator is evident from their accounts, and so will some of their documentation appear unknown to the modern Indian urbane reader.

F.S. Growse

F.S. Growse was the Joint Magistrate of Mathura from 1871. In his celebrated work, “Mathura Memoir,” he documented the history and culture of the region. He made some interesting observances of Holi rituals in Mathura, for instance that of the lighting of fire and the village lads leaping across the flames.

“The lads of the village kept on running close round it, jumping and dancing and brandishing their lathis, while the Panda (village priest) went down and dipped in the pond and then, with his dripping pagri (turban) and dhoti (loin-cloth) on, ran back and made a feint of passing through the fire.”

Captain G. R. Hearne

Documenting the festival in the northern part of Mathura district, another British official, Captain G.R. Hearne writes about rituals involving sexual conflict during the festival.

“At the other Jat villages in the northern part of the Mathura district, Jan and Bathen, a peculiar game is played about the time of Holi. The men arm themselves with branches of trees and form a ring, while the women with stout lathis or staves and with saris (sheets) drawn over their faces, fiercely assault the ring and break it, soundly belabouring the men. Separate rings are formed by the Jats and the Chamaars or low castes. Finally they return to their village in pairs, the man chanting a song, and the woman, when he has finished, driving him on a few paces.”

Louis Rousselet

Louis Rousselet was a French traveller, writer and photographer who was in India between 1864 and 1868. He travelled widely across Central India to places like Alwar, Baroda, Bhopal and parts of Rajasthan as well. Rousselet documented his travels in several works namely, “L’Inde des Rajas: voyage dans l’Inde centrale et dans les présidences de Bombay et du Bengale,” and “Les royaumes de l’Inde.” In another such work, “India and its native princes,” he wrote about his experience of Holi in Central India wherein a procession was being led through the streets amidst singing, dancing and spraying of red powder.

Holi, Happy Holi, Holi 2018, Holi in India, When is Holi, Holi history, Holi holiday, Holi special, Holi news, India news, Indian Express Louis Rousselet was a French traveller, writer and photographer who was in India between 1864 and 1868. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The most remarkable incident of the day was a procession. The principal figure in it was a fat merchant, who having been fully intoxicated, represented the companion of Holica. Bestriding a small donkey, his face smeared with ochre, a string of the most heterogenous objects round his neck, and his head covered with flowers, he moved along, held upon the donkey by two staggering acolytes. His cortege consisted of a drunken and vociferous crowd of half-naked men and women, who howled and rolled themselves on the ground, like the chorus of the antique Silenus, and naked children, decked with flowers, ran in front, blowing earthenware horns or beating cracked tomtoms (drums). In this order the procession traversed the mela, or fair, swollen by all the vagabonds on its route, and assailed by a shower of harmless projectiles, such as sacks of purple powder or rotten fruit.”

Dr John Fryer

Documenting the Holi festival, Dr John Fryer wrote the following in his accounts:

“In their Hooly, which is their other seed-time, I observed they cut a whole tree down to the roots and lopped off the under-branches till it became straight. They shouldered it with great clamour, the Brahmins beginning a note which they all followed. Thus, they brought it into the pale of their pagoda, before which, easing it down at one end, the foremost made a salam, and hoisted it with the same noise again, and about they went three or four times repeating the same; which being finished, the Brahmin digs a hole and baptises it with holy water, wherein they fix the tree, crowning it with flags aloft, and about the body upto the green boughs they bind wisps of straw, to which they put fire and look earnestly at the flame. They then offer rice and flowers, painting their bodies with ashes, departing with a mace of flowers carried before them, beating drums.”

This article draws upon the work of W. Crooke, titled "The Holi: A vernal festival of the Hindus," published in March, 1914.

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