Holi is a Hindu festival to celebrate the arrival of the Spring season and happy times, the departure of the cold dark of winter. The festival is held on the day after the first full moon in the month of March, or Phalgun. In 2016, that day is March 24. Holi Hai, also known as the “Festival of Colors,” is an ancient ritual that has been in place in Hindu culture since A.D. times. Its tone and purpose has changed over the centuries, as it was originally a festival of fertility and harvest, celebrated by married women worshipping the full moon, Raka, to bring happiness to their families. It gradually became a festival to celebrate the incoming spring season, full of merrymaking and energy.
“You can’t be unhappy at the Festival of Colors, it’s impossible,” Caru Das
The festival begins in the evening, before the day of color play, with the ritual of Holika Dahan. This involves the burning of Holika, the devil-minded sister of the Demon King Hiranyakashyap. According to legend, Prahalad was the son of the king and an avid devotee of the God Vishnu. The king tried to murder his son for being more devoted to his god than his king. After many failed attempts, Hiranyakashyap asked his sister Holika to kill Prahalad. She had been given a magic power by the gods that made her immune to fire, so she grabbed the boy and sat inside a bonfire intending to burn him to death. However, since she used her power for evil her plan backfired. Prahalad prayed fervently to Vishnu while in the fire, and was spared while his aunt burned to ashes. Shortly afterwards Vishnu killed the demon king and allowed Prahalad to rule in his place. The Holika Dahan ritual celebrates the triumph of good over evil by burning bonfires with a dummy figurine of Holika.
The next day is the “Festival of Colors,” or Dhuleti. This is the main day of the Holi Hai celebration, and is a day of joyous celebration. From Holi Hai Festival:
The holiday is intended to bridge social gaps, bringing together people of all classes, genders, status, and age. Social restrictions are loosened, so polite behavior and social norms are bygone for the day. Merriment and lewd language often take control, with the saying “Holi is burna na mano, Holi hai,” (don’t feel offended, it’s Holi) being prevalent amongst the festivities. Women in India and around the world can enjoy the freedom of the relaxed norms and join in the revelry with enthusiasm. In Northern India, in a tradition called ‘Lath Mar’ women playfully hit men with sticks, who guard themselves with shields. Men are expected to take whatever women dish out during the Holi festivities. Pollution, obscenities, and societal norms are not important on Holi hai, it is a day for the people to release the heat that has built up inside them over the winter and relax into the coming spring.
“Holi is burna na mano, Holi hai … Don’t feel offended, it’s Holi”
The celebration includes the legend of the love between Lord Krishna and Rhada. Young Krishna, a playful boy with dark blue skin, was jealous of young Radha’s fair complexion. He was known for playing pranks, such as throwing colored powder on the cowgirls. One day, when he complained to his mother Yashoda about Radha’s fair skin, she advised him to go apply his prankster colors to Radha’s face. He did, and colored her complexion as he liked. The game of applying colors became popular- a tradition, a festival, and even a declaration of love. At Holi images of Krishna and Radha are often carried through the streets throughout the festival, getting plastered with the colors that began the exciting festival.
The festival as it is celebrated today includes colored powders, called ‘aabir’ and ‘gulal,’ that are thrown in the air and smeared on faces and bodies. Water balloons, filled with color, are thrown at revelers, and powder is smeared on the statues and pictures of Krishna and Radha. Color is sprinkled on the feet of elders as they dance with the crowd through the streets. Songs are sung loudly and without care for pitch or tune. The cheerful spirit of the festival is what has carried it throughout the centuries.
The rainbow of colors is not just for spirit and merriment, each color carries significance. Red is the color of love, passion, power and opulence. It is the color to smear on the face of your loved ones, with the greeting “Holi Hai!” Yellow is India’s holy color, it is the color of sunshine, happiness, and healing and its brightness is preferred amongst festival-goers. Blue is the color of calmness and serenity, but during the Holi Hai festivities it adds excitement and vibrancy. Green is the color of new beginnings, happiness, and harvest and it is also associated with Lord Krishna. Green gulal is the most favorite color of the celebrations. Finally, Pink has been added to the Holi Hai festivities. It does not have cultural significance but is a favorite amongst women and children.
In modern celebrations, sometimes the gulal colors are made from chemicals and metals that can cause skin reactions in sensitive skin. You can visit the Holi Hai chemical colors breakdown to see what the colors are typically made from. However, you can make your own natural colors that can actually enhance the skin with inclusions of natural herbs and flowers, such as turmeric, hibiscus flowers, and spinach. Also, many events that are put on in the USA require participants to use colors the festival itself has provided, that have been checked by the FDA for safety. These are mostly water-based commercial pigments.
Holi Hai has spawned many similar, secular, events throughout the USA, including the Color Run and the Color Fun Fest. For Holi Hai events near you, check with local Hindu social media groups or (for USA residents) visit Festival of Colors USA. Local NYC residents can catch the Disinfo team at the Holi Hai festival in Midtownm, put on by NYC Bhangra:
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