NEW DELHI: Clouds of colour in the air, faces unrecognisable but for big smiles, frenzied dancing, and the sweetest of sweetmeats...India Monday immersed itself in Holi - a festival that leaves few untouched, be it young or old, rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim.
Heralding the onset of spring and like most other Indian festivals embedded in legend, Holi saw common people spill out onto the streets to smear each other with coloured powder and even mud! Some politicians though kept it low key this year on account of the Pune terror blast and the Kabul mujaheedin attack that claimed Indian lives.
The neighbourhoods of the capital erupted into celebrations. Elders hugged, laughed, drank 'thandai' -- an intoxicant made of 'bhang' or cannabis -- and offered sweet gujiyas to visitors.
Children did what they do best -- played pranks by spraying coloured water with 'pichkaris' or waterguns and hurled water-filled balloons at passersby from the safety of rooftops and the balconies of their houses.
Youngsters were seen riding motorbikes, throwing colours in the air and chanting 'Holi hai' even as police patrolled neighbourhoods and main roads to keep miscreants at bay, as the revelry can sometimes turn violent.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi celebrated the day with schoolchildren at her residence in 10 Janpath. Party sources said there was no fanfare in view of the loss of lives in the Feb 13 Pune blast and last week's Kabul attack in which nine Indians were killed.
The festival also remained a low-key affair for some Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders following the death of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Nanaji Deshmukh. BJP leader L.K. Advani cancelled the celebrations Saturday.
Politicians from Bihar like Rashtirya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar did not celebrate to mourn the suicide of Janata Dal-United legislator Abhay Singh.
Bonfires had been lit Sunday night as 'Holika Dahan' or 'Chhoti Holi' (Little Holi) is marked a day before the festival. It invokes the legend of Prahlad, whose devotion to Lord Vishnu angered his father and demon King Hiranyakashipu. In the end, Prahlad survives while the king perishes.
Holi also showcases Indian traditions of communal harmony as Muslims, Christians and Sikhs play it in large numbers with their Hindu brethren.
In Orissa's Kandhamal district, that was hit by anti-Christian violence two years ago, this was more than evident. Christians joined Hindus to celebrate with enthusiasm.
"They buried their differences and smeared colour on each other, distributed sweets and danced to drum beats," a police officer told IANS.
Hundreds of Muslims also joined celebrations at Narayanpur village in Subarnapur district and at Fakirtakia village in the coastal district of Jagatsinghpur.
Scenes in Uttar Pradesh were no different. Hindus and Muslims in the most populated state of India came together and took out a procession, a Holi Baraat, in Lucknow to celebrate the festival.
This is a decades old tradition followed by members of both communities. The procession had camels, horses and elephants pulling small, decorated chariots on which the revellers stood and danced.
The procession was led by Lucknow MP and senior BJP leader Lalji Tandon, who from an open jeep threw `abir' and `gulal' - coloured powder - in the air.
"For more than 40 years, the Holi baraat is being organised in our locality. The baraat holds special significance as it projects Hindu-Muslim brotherhood," Tandon told reporters here.
Shariq Ameen, a Muslim tailor in the Chowk locality, said: "It just feels great. Our Holi baraat which projects communal unity should be a lesson to those who always attempt to widen the rift between Hindus and Muslims."
In pilgrim destinations associated with the Sri Krishna legend such as Goverdhan, Barsana, Mathura and Vrindavan, a cloudy morning failed to deter Holi revellers who were out in full force.
Along the Yamuna river banks, groups of Hindu priests huddled together singing Holi songs and dancing after drinking 'thandai' - a preparation that contains the intoxicant 'bhang' or cannabis.
Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow was a riot of colour. Traditional delicacies like gujiya, khumra and pua were in demand.
"Of all the festivals, Holi is the most exuberant and playful," Anjali Srivastava, principal of a Lucknow school, said.
In West Bengal , the festival was celebrated a day earlier as "dol". People across the state erupted marked it with colours, songs, dances and special dishes.