Asian and African studies blog

24 March 2013

A nobleman celebrating the festival of Holi

A magnificent 18th century painting in the current exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire depicts the celebration of the spring festival of Holi. This Hindu festival typically falls during the month of March and symbolizes fertility and spring harvests. This year, the Holi festival falls on March 27th.


A young nobleman enjoying Holi with his consort
Attributed to the artist Nidhamal, Lucknow, 1760-5
British Library, Add.Or.5700  noc

The Emperor Akbar, one of the greatest rulers of the subcontinent (ruled from 1556-1605) advocated religious tolerance. The peace and well-being of the empire depended on maintaining a balance between the interests of the Hindu majority and those of the Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jain, Sikh  and other religions. One of Akbar’s greatest political accomplishments was to abolish the poll tax levied on non-Muslims. He also won over the rulers of the Hindu Rajput kingdoms by marrying their daughters into his family. Akbar himself married Princess Manmati; she was the daughter of Raja Bhagwandas of Amber (today Jaipur).

Study of Akbar's head
Attributed to Govardhan, 1600-5
British Library, Add.Or.1039  noc

Akbar and Manmanti's son Jahangir wrote in his memoirs about this religious festival:
‘Their day is Holi, which in their belief is the last day of the year. This day falls in the month of Isfandarmudh, when the sun is in Pisces. On the eve of this day they light fires in all the lanes and streets. When it is daylight they spray powder on each other’s heads and faces for one watch and create an amazing uproar. After that, they wash themselves, put their clothes on, and go to gardens and fields. Since it is an established custom of among the Hindus to burn their dead, the lighting of fires on the last night of the year s a metaphor for burning the old year as though it were a corpse.’ - from the Jahangirnama

Details of Jahangir

Detail from Portrait of Prince Salim (future emperor Jahangir)
Mughal, c. 1620-30
British Library, Add.Or.3854  noc

In our exquisite painting of the celebration of Holi, a young ruler from the Mughal province of Avadh, is featured enjoying a dancing performance on a terrace with his favourite womenfolk, nine of whom sit alongside him. They are sharing several hookahs. Piles of sweetmeats are placed in front of them while attendants behind them bring more. Across the terrace a young woman performs a solo dance to the accompaniment of female voices and male musicians. In the foreground other members of the navab’s entourage enjoy the performance. Two yoginis or female ascetics stand out with their darker skin and pink and green garments. Otherwise everything is coloured red and yellow from the powders (called abira) and liquids that they have all been hurling at each other in the riotous spring festival of Holi. Even the fountains and the lakes have turned red. In the fairytale world of Avadhi painting, all men are young and handsome and all girls young and beautiful. There is little room for the old or not quite so beautiful, so the old duenna beside the women and a grey-haired musician opposite strike a somewhat unexpected note.

Further reading:

Ifran Habib,Akbar and his India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997

Jahangir, Emperor of Hindustan, The Jahangirnama, Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, trans. and ed. W.M. Thackston, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1999


Malini Roy   ccownwork
Visual Arts Curator, British Library


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