Hindu: Get colorful, laugh out loud, be merry on Holi

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SUNDAY, MARCH 20: Watch your back and wear old clothes today—it’s Holi, the Hindu festival of colors! (Get Holi 2011 articles, advice and gossip at Times of India.) Across India and in Hindu communities around the world, devotees welcome spring by throwing a rainbow of colored powder and water at one another, forgetting age and caste and painting their world in visual merriment. (Get the picture with 37 large, colorful photos of Holi last year, courtesy of the Boston Globe.) In some places, the festivities associated with Holi can last up to 16 days.

Fiery Story on Holika Dahan (Holi Eve)

For this ancient festival that predates Christianity by centuries, participants begin preparations days in advance. Families collect firewood from their homes and surrounding land, bringing what they’ve collected to the site of a huge bonfire on Holi Eve—known also as Holika Dahan. On Holika Dahan, Hindus remember the miraculous legend of Prahlad, a strict devotee of Lord Vishnu who was spared his life when the Demoness Holika carried him into a fire. (Wikipedia has details.) Prahlad’s wicked father opposed his devotion to Vishnu so strongly that the father tried to burn his son with Holika’s help. Instead, Prahlad prayed to Lord Vishnu and escaped unscathed—while Holika burned to death. On Holika Dahan, Hindus burn effigies of Holika and celebrate the triumph of good over evil. If this fiery story sounds exotic to Westerners, stop and think about stories of goodness surviving fires in ancient Western traditions—and we’re sure you’ll come up with a few connections if you think about it. (Hint: Early chapters of the book of Daniel contain one example still honored by Westerners. Native American lore has more.)

Another legend associated with Holi tells of the mischievous Lord Krishna applying color to his beloved Radha and others, making popular the “coloring” associated with Holi today. (HoliFestival.org has more.) Hindus dash into the streets donning white clothes—colored powders or spray guns in hand—and begin dousing their friends and neighbors, wishing all a happy Holi. (Learn all about Holi rituals, history and more at I Love India.)

Is Holi healthy? Mixed answers depending on dye mixtures

How healthy is all of this? Well, some hold that the ancient rite of throwing colored powder has medicinal benefits. As spring is a common time to contract a cold or flu, the plants used to color the powder often have medicinal benefits and inhaling these medicinal herbs could protect the immune system. Unfortunately, many of today’s powder and water-based dyes have just the opposite effect of the original dyes, and some of the synthetic products are toxic. Many Indians are turning back to the natural dyes or purchasing nontoxic (albeit more expensive) powders. HoliFestival.org has eco-friendly powder recipes.

Concerns about Preserving Water in Holi

The Indian government has this year asked its citizens to embrace a water-free Holi, as water is scarce during summers in India and an average of 100 liters of water is wasted per participant on Holi bathing and playing. (Read a full article in Times of India.) Although water is an integral part of Holi’s most-loved event, officials are asking Hindus to “act responsibly” and frugally now, thereby avoiding widespread dehydration in coming months.

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