A kaleidoscopic cloud hangs over India, as revelers mark the arrival of spring by throwing powdered dye with abandon, spraying water, and flooding the streets. While Holi is traditionally a Hindu festival, everyone is equal during it. On March 8, the color hid all class lines, the caste system disappeared, and foreigners joined the locals.
A unique culture and deeply rooted tradition lie beneath the dancing and colors of Holi. Here’s what you need to know…
1. The fun starts early
There are many parts to Holi, including the colorful party. On Holika Dahan (the evening of bonfires), revelers burn a symbolic effigy to commemorate Holika’s death. On Rangwali Holi, the second and most famous day of the festival, people throw colored powder. In Braj, Holi celebrations last for 16 days in India. People purchase the powder much earlier and kids practice their aim eagerly.
2. Good triumphs over evil
In a Hindu myth, Holika, the sister of the evil King Hiranyakashyap, gives the name to Holi. Prahlad was forbidden to worship one of the Hindu gods, Vishnu, by the evil king, but he persisted nonetheless. As a consequence, the king ordered Prahlad and Holika to sit on a pyre (a wooden structure used for the burning of bodies as part of funerals or executions).
Although Holika was immune to fire, she burnt to death when the flames struck, but Prahlad miraculously prevailed after calling on Lord Vishnu’s assistance. As a result, the Hindu belief that faith and devotion lead to salvation, which anyone who believes can attain, Holi celebrations serve as a reminder of the triumph of good over evil.
3. Stuffing yourself
Indian families prepare gujiya, a sweet that is filled with raisins, pistachios, cashews, coconut, and cardamom. Countless variations exist, but pistachios, cashews, coconut, and raisins are common fillings.
4. Toasting with cannabis milk
During Holi, some people drink bhang, a milky beverage infused with cannabis buds and leaves grown in the Himalayas. It has been consumed for 3,000 years and is sold in government-run bhang shops. It is linked to the powerful monk god Shiva through mythology.
5. Why the dye?
Supposedly, Krishna worried that Radha would no longer love him after being cursed by a demon with blue skin. When he complained to his mother Yashoda, she teasingly replied for Krishna to paint Radha’s face whatever color he chose, so he did. The flying multihued pigments, called gulal, remind of the story of Krishna.
6. Natural roots, modernized
In the past, gulal was made from flowers, spices, and other natural materials, including the brilliant Indian Coral Tree and Flame of the Forest plants.
The Indian government promotes national products and a return to plant-based dyes, but most gulal used during Holi today is synthetic from China. Synthetic dyes became more common in the mid-19th century. Around 200 people were hospitalized with color poisoning in Mumbai in 2012.
7. Meaningful colors
Much more than painting a pretty picture, the colors hold special significance. Red dye symbolizes love, fertility, and matrimony, blue represents Krishna, and green represents new beginnings.
8. Cleaning up
Hindus are advised to moisturize hair and skin well to prevent the gulal from staining. Clothes usually do not survive staining.
9. Joining the fun
Besides India, Hindus also celebrate Holi in Bangladesh and Pakistan, plus other countries with large diaspora populations like Suriname, South Africa and Malaysia. As well as hosting parties, concerts, and events throughout the country, the United States and the United Kingdom also allow many people to attend and enjoy the festivities.
Holi and religious tensions in India
It is not uncommon to see Hindus and Muslims opening up their homes for religious celebrations on Holi, despite its Hindu roots.
During this year’s Holi festivities, Indians are experiencing some of the worst religious violence in years as a result of mounting religious tensions. Narendra Modi’s government invoked a controversial citizenship law, sparking nationwide protests and deadly clashes.
Holi has always been about breaking boundaries. While it is often seen as a colorful festival, Sippy, the religion professor, says it often has involved much more violent forms of letting loose. She points to past instances of sexual harassment and assault during Holi celebrations.
Why has Holi become popular outside India?
Due to the millions of Indians and other South Asians living abroad, Holi has become increasingly popular outside of India. Communities with South Asian heritage living abroad often celebrate Holi together, as they do with Diwali, another Indian festival.
As a Mumbai-born Londoner who moved to London in 2003, Minal Jaiswal says that we want the future generation to be connected to the culture at home. For London’s South Asian community, Jaiswal organizes a not-for-profit Holi event every year that features dance performances and short plays about the story of Holi. Parents can teach their children what this festival stands for by celebrating as a community.
However, some commercial Holi events have faced criticism of cultural appropriation. People have complained about the gimmicky nature of some events and “color marathons” organized in the U.S. and Europe. Organizers are accused of exploiting the famous colored powder used in Holi by ignoring the festival’s religious significance and making it a mere raucous party, according to critics.
Shana Sippy, assistant professor of religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, says Holi has been commodified and exotified.
Some, however, claim that expanding the appeal of Holi is good for cultural understanding. Caru Das, who organizes Holi festivals in the U.S., says that celebrations help bring people of different cultures together.
Das, who follows Hinduism, but is not South Asian in descent, says that this is a breath of fresh air in an era of deteriorating politics and divisiveness around the world.