“Equipment and color quality would only take you so far … awareness of your surroundings, loyalty to your team/group, and sneakiness are the most important things when trying to survive a day of Holi.”
Abhishek Iyer, on childhood memories of Holi in India, via Chicago Now
MONDAY, MARCH 17: Spring has arrived in India with flying colors—literally—as Hindus (and anyone who enjoys a good time) celebrate Holi. Sometimes called the “Festival of Colours,” Holi events can last up to 16 days in some regions of India, as participants throw the caste system to the wind and celebrate together.
In some cases, paint, powder or colored water are thrown at friends, family and passersby, reminding all involved of the vibrant hues of spring. Bonfires, dancing and tasty delicacies are all a part of the joyous Holi. While Holi religiously recalls the story of Holika, the evil sister of a demon king, and Sri Krishna, a growing number of Holi’s participants are not Hindu at all: Holi is becoming increasingly popular among non-Hindus in South Asia, parts of Europe and in North America.
BONFIRE THAT (ALMOST) TOUCHES THE SKY
Though the festivities have spread across the globe, no population observes Holi as fervently as Hindus. In India, Nepal and other regions with large Hindu populations, events often begin the evening before Holi, with a massive Holika bonfire. (Learn more from Hinduism Today.)
Attendees—most of whom have been gathering wood for several days—sing and dance around the fire, some throwing corn or coconut into the flames and others tossing stalks from other local crops. In some regions of India, effigies of Holika are burnt, and it’s believed that the ashes from the bonfire offer protection from evil.
Holika stories often are retold in association with the Holika Dahan bonfire. One version goes like this: There once was a demon king, Hiranyakashipu, who had the good fortune to become indestructible—but this only made him conceited and sparked all kinds of problems. Hiranyakashipu’s son, Prahlada, remained devoted to Vishnu—something that made his father livid. His father tormented his son, until Prahlada’s aunt, Holika, finally tricked him into walking across a bonfire with her. Yet when the two walked across the fire, Prahlada was spared and Holika was burned. Vishnu intervened and ended Hiranyakashipu’s evil reign.
COLORS OF SPRING
The morning following Holika Dahan, the young and old, the rich and poor frolic in the streets, in parks and in temples, squirting one another with (colored) water guns and pummeling one another with (colored) water balloons. Singing and dancing fills the streets and everyone feasts. (Learn more from the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.)
Family and friends visit one another, and all celebrate the triumph of good over evil. For many, Holi is also an occasion to forgive others of past trespasses and ask forgiveness for their own.
In the Braj region of India—where Krishna spent his childhood—Holi is observed for 16 days. In Braj and in some Caribbean and South American communities, Holi is explained this way: As a youth, Krishna was embarrassed about his dark blue skin color. Krishna worried that Radha and other girls would not like him, until his mother suggested that he color Radha’s face, too. Krishna did, and the two became a couple. (Other legends tell that Krishna playfully threw color at the faces of milkmaids.) Holi is, therefore, the festival of “coloring” one another.
Beyond Braj, other regions of India have their own customs and rituals. (Wikipedia has details.) In Western India, a pot of buttermilk is strung on high until young boys form human pyramids to reach it. In Barsana, men sing provocative songs and women beat the men away with sticks, while thousands gather to watch the goings-on. In South India, devotees worship Kaamadeva, the god of love and passion.
IN THE NEWS:
Traditionally, the colored powders of Holi have medicinal qualities, since changing seasons often bring allergies and sickness. Neem, Kumkum, Haldi and Bilva were all prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors and thrown during Holi. In most rural regions of India, colored powders are still crafted from natural sources, but in urban regions, synthetic colors have caused concern: skin irritation, inflammation, eye irritation and respiratory issues have all been linked to the dyes used in synthetic colors. In response, several campaigns arose, and groups began testing herbal and more natural dyes. Some participants wear masks and sunglasses to avoid synthetic exposure, but as a precaution, the Times of India offers safety tips for Holi.
This year, as fashion designer Surily Goel launches a color-infused line of clothing for Holi, textile workers in India are being offered extra wages to work through Holi instead of traveling home to visit family and friends. Meanwhile, Holi parties are raging worldwide, from the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, to participants of Holi-inspired 5Ks across the United States: The Color Run, Run or Dye, Color in Motion and Color Me Rad names just a few. Several events take place in Chicago and in world cities, and last year’s Holi Festival of Colours in Europe gathered nearly 250,000 attendees.