Holi – The Hindu Festival of Color

holi in India

If you happen to be in India towards the end of Feb or in the month of March, you are likely to witness one of the most colorful celebration in the world…the Hindu festival of color- Holi.

The festival of Holi which was originally a symbolic commemoration of a legend from Hindu Mythology, is now a days more of an exuberant show of goodwill and cheer, with all classes of society mixing up and celebrating the festival by playing and putting color on each other, painting the town rainbow shades!

Here’s a look at the religious significance of Holi and how it is celebrated today:

What is Holi and why it is celebrated?

Holi, otherwise known Phagwa or the festival of colours is a spring time celebration of the triumph of good over evil, a carnival of colors and a community festival that is celebrated on a full moon day annually between the months of February and March. The dates vary every year because the Hindu calendar is based on solar cycles.

The festival of Holi actually starts the night of the full moon with a bonfire made up of dried leaves, branches and wood from the winter months. It is a way of clearing these and making way for spring. Metaphorically though, the fire is meant to signify the destruction of evil – the burning of the ‘Holika’ – a mythological character. The heat from the fire is also a subtle reminder that winter is behind and that the hot summer days are ahead.

The story of the demoness Holika from which the name ‘Holi’ came from goes like this. Holika believed herself to be immune from death by fire. She once questions her nephew Prahlad’s devotion to the ultimate of Gods, Vishnu and challenges the prince to walk through fire with the intent to destroy the prince, but she is herself is consumed by the fire whereas the prince comes out unscathed. This is the Holika that is burnt the night before Holi as the triumph of the good over evil.

The following morning of burning Holika, begins with worshiping the Hindu God Krishna by lovingly smearing his idol with ‘gulal’ – the colors used to play Holi. The festival is also said to celebrate the season of love as Krishna was known as the ultimate lover with his ‘gopikas’, who are a bunch of beautiful women that Krishna forever seemed to be chasing. And yet this icon of love spends most of his time seeking out his only lover Radha.

Holi celebrations

Days before the festival of Holi, the market start flooding with colours in every hue; which appropriately sets the festive mood for the people leading up to the actual day of celebration itself. All over the streets you will find impressive piles of brightly colored gulal (coloured powder) that come in the varying shades of red, yellow, orange, magenta, pink, green, purple and blue, all of which patrons are busy buying to take home with them in preparation for the festivities.

On the Holi day itself it’s like a carnival of colors. Children, friends and family all gather in large numbers with the spirit of fun and togetherness out on the streets, ready to celebrate the festival by spreading and disseminating the colors. Smearing colors on friends and dear ones is the basic idea of Holi and absolutely no one is spared. Both the young and the old enjoy throwing water balloons, dry colored powders, spraying washable dyes on anyone in sight on the day of the Holi.

What may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the festival is that though instinctively you would think people wouldn’t wear their best outfits or white for the occasion, it is actually tradition to be dressed in all white attire which become unrecognizable after!

People exchange good wishes, sweets and gifts. Holi parties are organized in large grounds where people dance to the rhythmic beats of the drums and sing Holi songs. Light snacks and milk-based cool drink known as ‘Thandai’ are symbolic to this festival. The ‘Thadai’ often served in these parties may be intoxicated or spiked with ‘bhaang’ (Cannabis/Marijuana).

With the streets filled with people running, shouting, giggling and splashing water and color on each other….it is quite a sight. Everybody is welcome in the celebrations and no one in sight is spared!

In the afternoon an exhausted and contented silence falls over India when the craziness comes to an end and no one even remotely resemble themselves. The walking pieces of art head off to wash the color off and spend the rest of the holiday inside to relax the day away

More about Holi

While Holi is a festival celebrated all across the country, Uttar Pradesh is the best place in India to experience the true flavor of the festival of colors. Celebrations in Mathura and Varanasi, where the Lord Krishna & Radha are believed to have spent a major part of their lives, are the most exciting amongst all of the celebrations in the state. The celebrations in these northern parts of the country usually last for over a week.

Earlier, Gulal (coloured power) was all natural – made out of the dried seed of some tropical flowers such as the Palash, and dried silt from the riverbed. However as the yearning for more exotic colours to join the celebration grew, these natural options were replaced with the cheaper and more easily available synthetic and chemical colors. But recently in the wakes of experiencing the alarming effects of its usage (chemical colourings), Indians are now more cautious and are slowly but surely returning to the roots of tradition to homemade or eco-friendly powders and pastes.

What makes Holi significant and one of the most loved festivals in India is it’s ability to bring people from all classes of society, all religions, all ages, men and women together in it’s fun and colorful festivities.

When is Holi?

The dates of Holi and other Hindu festivals vary every year due to the fact that the Hindu calendar is based on solar cycles. Holi is celebrated on the first full moon right after winters so it usually falls towards March or sometimes in the end of February.