Holi: The clouds of colored powder fly far from India now!

Holi celebration at the University of California at Berkeley. Photo by Ben Chaney, released via Wikimedia Commons.

Holi celebration at the University of California at Berkeley. Photo by Ben Chaney, released via Wikimedia Commons.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 27: Those flying clouds of colored powder aren’t limited to India, anymore. In recent years, Holi color-fests have become a sensation on college campuses across the U.S.—and celebrations are popping up in other American communities as well. What’s not to enjoy? It’s officially spring. We just passed the equinox. So, why not head outdoors with a bunch of friends and let loose until everyone looks like a human kaleidoscope!

Traditional Holi powder seller in India. Photo by Midhun Kumar Allu, released via Wikimedia Commons.

Traditional Holi powder seller in India. Photo by Midhun Kumar Allu, released via Wikimedia Commons.

Known alternatively as the Festival of Colors, Holi officially ushers in spring for millions in India, Nepal and in growing numbers of other regions worldwide. Holi rolls around each year despite the weather, but this year India is hot already. In fact, forecasters predict higher Holi temperatures this year than most Indians have seen in a decade!

Festivities kicked off in the cool of the evening last night, with Holika Dahan—the en masse lighting of bonfires. Hindu legend calls for the bonfires based on the story of Holika, the sister of a demon king and the demon king’s son, Prahlada. According to legend, the demon king demanded that everyone worship him instead of the proper gods—yet his son Prahlada was a fervent devotee of Vishnu and refused to worship his father. Despite multiple attempts to kill Prahlada, the demon king could not succeed. Finally, the king ordered Prahlada to sit on a fire with Holika, the “fireproof” demoness. Once the fire started, Prahlada emerged unharmed, while Holika burned. Today, Hindus honor this legend with bonfires and Holika Dahan prayers.

IS HOLI WEDNESDAY OR THURSDAY?

Online updates buzzed over the past week about whether Holi 2013 should fall on Wednesday or Thursday this year. Priests and astrologers debated their calculations. The Times of India features the details of this complex —and continuing—discussion.

HOLI: Many customs; changing customs

Once the sun rises, the bonfires of Holika Dahan fade away and the joyous spirit of Holi ignites. Colored powders fill the air in nearly every region of India, as everyone—young and old, rich and poor—celebrates together. In Western India, a pot of buttermilk is strung high above the street in a tantalizing bid to young boys who may attempt to reach it and break the pot open. The boy who reaches the pot is named Holi King, in remembrance of the playful ways of Krisha. Another link between Krishna and the colored powders of Holi: It’s said that Krishna envied the fair complexion of Radha, and Radha’s mother teasingly suggested that Krishna should color Radha’s face.

For 2-16 days, depending on the region, caste systems evaporate and everyone takes part in Holi festivities together. Even widows, traditionally cast off in Indian communities and often living in seclusion, will participate in Holi this year. Read more in this Huffington Post column.

POWDERS: NATURAL VS. SYNTHETIC

Following longstanding customs, powders used in Holi came from natural sources and supposedly had medicinal qualities believed to play a role in warding off various ills that came with spring. However, as the population swelled in urban areas, natural sources became unavailable, rendering the need for synthetic powders. These products, rather than having soothing powers, often were toxic. Problems included lead poisoning, temporary blindness and skin irritation. Now, advocacy groups and public-health officials encourage a more careful selection of powders for the holiday.

WOMEN CAMPAIGN FOR A SAFER HOLI

Holi may be a fun excuse to frolic and behave immaturely, but more women are reporting on the darker side of such carelessness: violence against the vulnerable. While small group Holi celebrations can be fun, the “excuse” for some men to take the gaiety too far has led activists to warn women about the potential dangers of the event. Social workers and support groups are calling on women to speak up this year, pushing awareness so that everyone can work together toward a safer, more enjoyable Holi.

Want some fun at home? This family-friendly website offers ideas for preschoolers, with links for older kids, too.

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