Claim: In 1701, Sikh Guru felt that the Hindu festival of Holi has been losing its meaning over the years, and so he instituted Hola Mohalla, a festival for people to come together, rejoice and marvel at the talent and bravery of Nihang Jatthas, or Warrior Sikh Groups.
There is no primary source that says that Guru Gobind Singh “created” a separate festival named “Hola Mohalla”. This is completely imaginary. Sikh Gurus celebrated Holi and called the festival by its name “Holi”. Hola Mohalla is a myth.
In Guru Granth Sahib, the festival is called by its proper name “Holi”. Guru Arjan Dev proclaims “I celebrate the festival of Holi”. In Suraj Prakash Granth, there is a vivid description of Guru Hargobind celebrating Holi. The festival is against referred to as “Holi” (ਹੋਲੀ ) and colors were used in the celebration. In the Dasam Granth of Guru Gobind Singh, the festival is referred to as “Holi”. The word used is either “Holi” or “Hola” (from Sanskrit Holashtaka). The word “Hola Mohalla” is simply absent in all primary sources of the gurus period well into the 19th century. In Bhai Nand Lal Goya's Ghazal, there is again a reference to Guru Gobind Singh celebrating Holi with colors. The festival is again referred to as “Holi” and not “Hola Mohalla”.
There isn't a single primary source claiming that Guru Gobind Singh said “I created a new festival named “Hola Mohalla”. Henceforth, Sikhs shall not be celebrating Holi. You shall be celebrating Hola Mohalla to stress our break from Hinduism”.
So where does “Hola Mohalla” come from? It comes from the imagination of the modern mind. When the original primary source reads “Holi”, some of these Tat Khalsa backed translators insert “Hola Mohalla” in the translation. Just like that and out of nowhere!
Holi since ancient times has been commemorated in the memory of Prahlad. Prahlad's father, Harnaksh, is remembered in Hindu mythos as a demon and tyrant and is thought to have ruled over what is now Multan in Pakistan Punjab, at the site of the Prahladpuri temple (now ruins). Prahlad was, to the anger of the immortal Harnaksh, a strong devotee of Vishnu who would constantly meditate on him. His father tried many techniques to kill Prahlad, including a plot with Prahlad’s sister Holika trying to kill him. Although Holika plotted to burn Prahlad alive and protect herself from the fire, the plot was thwarted by Vishnu, and Holika herself burned while Prahlad was saved. Holika is the namesake of “Holi”, as the protection of Prahlad and triumph of good over evil is celebrated. The story of Prahlad is recounted in Gurbani multiple times and is recontextualized within Sikhi. Here we see Prahlad's focused meditation on a single Satgur (God) is commemorated as an ideal spiritual practice by Guru Amar Das for its consistency+focus.
ਦੈਤ ਪੁਤੁ ਕਰਮ ਧਰਮ ਕਿਛੁ ਸੰਜਮ ਨ ਪੜੈ ਦੂਜਾ ਭਾਉ ਨ ਜਾਣੈ ॥ dhait put karam dharam kichh sa(n)jam na paRai dhoojaa bhaau na jaanai || The demon's son Prahlaad had not read about religious rituals or ceremonies, austerity or self-discipline; he did not know the love of duality.
The story of Prahlad is also recounted for its inspirational aspect - in the end, Vishnu came in the form of Narsingh/Narasinha, (half man-half lion originally, but half tiger in Punjab), to kill the tyrannical and otherwise immortal Harnaksh by hand and protect Prahlad. This aspect is remembered in Gurbani as well — here Guru Ram Das notes that in the same way that Prahlad’s selfless meditation towards Vishnu physically protected him via Narasinha, true devotees of the Guru will also be protected.
ਸਰਣਿ ਪਰੇ ਸੇਈ ਜਨ ਉਬਰੇ ਜਿਉ ਪ੍ਰਹਿਲਾਦ ਉਧਾਰਿ ਸਮਈਆ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ saran pare seiee jan ubare jiau prahilaadh udhaar samieeaa ||1|| rahaau || Those humble beings who seek the Lord's Sanctuary are saved, like Prahlaad; they are emancipated and merge with the Lord. ||1||Pause||
Holi received a new meaning for Sikhs with the advent of Guru Gobind Singh, who infused it with the Khalsa spirit and added the celebration of “Hola”. This was the masculine word-form of “Holi”, and bears homophonic similarity to “Hulla” meaning military procession. Hola, or Hola Mohalla, would be the time for the celebration of the Khalsa through the reverence of weaponry, war games, and celebrations of martial valor (in addition to standard kirtan and langar). Perhaps on a thematic level, we can see Guru Gobind Singh using Hola to empower his Khalsa Singhs to not only have the spiritual practice that Prahlad, the ideal devotee had, but embody the power and strength of Narsingh, the ideal protector. Even today, Hola Mohalla is celebrated in grand fashion by the Akali-Nihangs in Anandpur Sahib, who celebrate in traditional fashion with war games, gatka, weaponry displays, and the jhatka and preparation of goat-meat. The ancient Indic way of celebrating Holi with large-scale throwing of colors also seems to have been continued by the Sikhs, as Ranjit Singh was noted for hosting massive colorful Holi celebrations in Lahore, and Akali-Nihangs celebrate with colors even today. The visual of Holi was also used poetically by Rattan Singh in his Panth Parkash, noting the splash of the blood of warriors in a battle almost resembling the splash of colors on Holi - a motif used centuries later by Punjabi pop singers.
Right within the Darbar Sahib complex, on the days of Hola/Holi, there used to be a 4-day Indian classical music festival. This festival was acclaimed across India and many famous musicians had played there - such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Paluskar, and Pandit Omkarnath Thakur.
One of the themes of the music that was sung and played was the story of Krishan playing Holi with the gopis; an ancient motif central to many Holi celebrations. The 10th Guru also incorporated this into his own poetry, imbuing it with significance in the Sikh tradition.
However, in the colonial era, this caught the ire of puritan reform movements that were popular among all religious groups - Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. Ruchi Ram Sahni was one such writer who referred to the tradition as “licentious songs being sung in the Darbar Sahib”. This puritan notion as noted by this Hindu writer was certainly common among Sikhs within the SGPC leading the Gurdwara Reform Movement at the time as well - who seem to have put an end to this tradition as they took over Darbar Sahib from the British-protected mahants+sarbrah.