Holi - The festival of colours

Holi - The festival of colours

March 17, 2014

Holi is a spring festival also known as the festival of colours. It is primarily observed in India, Nepal, and other regions of the world with significant populations of Hindus or even people of Indian origin. The festival has, in recent times, spread in parts of Europe and North Americas as a spring celebration of love, frolic and colours.

In many places, Holi celebrations start with a Holika bonfire (called Holika dahan in Hindi) on the night before Holi where people gather, sing and dance. The next morning is the carnival of colours, where everyone plays, chases and colours each other with dry powder and coloured water, with some carrying water guns and coloured water-filled balloons for their water fight. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. The frolic and fight with colours occurs in the open streets, open parks, outside temples and buildings.

Late in the morning, groups carrying drums and musical instruments go from place to place, singing and dancing. People visit relatives and friends; even foes can become friends for a day. Various Holi delicacies, food and drinks, are shared. In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up to again visit friends and relatives. The day of Holi is a national holiday in India.

Preparing for Holika dahan in Kathmandu, Nepal

Holika dahan in Udaipur, by the royal family of Mewar

Click here for a video of the Holika dahan ceremony held at the City Palace Complex in Udaipur in March 2012

There is a symbolic legend to explain why Holi is celebrated. The word ‘Holi’ originates from ‘Holika’, the name of the evil sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu. King Hiranyakashipu had earned a boon that made him virtually indestructible. The special powers blinded him, he grew arrogant, felt he was god, and demanded that everyone worship only him. His own son, Prahlad, however, disagreed. He remained devoted to Vishnu. This infuriated his father, who subjected Prahlad to cruel punishments, none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika – Prahlad's evil aunt – tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. Holika was wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlad was not. As the fire roared, however, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada. Holika burned, Prahlad survived. Vishnu appeared in the avatar of the lion-man Narasimha (fourth avatar) and killed Hiranyakashipu. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlad over Hiranyakashipu, of the fire that burned the evil Holika. The day after the Holika bonfire is celebrated as Holi.

Vishnu as Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu (from the 10th-c. temple of Bantey Srei in Angkor, Cambodia)

There is another myth on Holi, related to Krishna. It is said that the baby Krishna transitioned into his characteristic dark blue skin colour because a she-demon, Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his youth, Krishna despaired whether fair-skinned Radha and other gopikas (milkmaids, friends of Radha) would like him because of his skin colour. His mother, tired of the desperation, asked him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he did, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. The playful colouring of the face of Radha has henceforth been commemorated as Holi.

Holi around the world

Holi is celebrated not only in the subcontinent but in far-off places as well, where Indians have gone and settled, in some countries for centuries.

GUYANA: Located on the north-east coast of South America, Guyana celebrates Holi with great fanfare. Holi or Phagwa, as the Guyanese better know, is celebrated by the singing of special songs called chowtaals and by the spraying of coloured powder (gulal) and coloured water.

SURINAME: Holi is celebrated with lot of mirth and excitement in Suriname which has a large number of Indians. Hindus constitute about 35-40% of the population, an important part of which is people who immigrated from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is they who started the celebration.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Holi is celebrated with a lot of pomp and eclat in the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago which has a large Indian diaspora. Here, though, it is largely known as Phagwa.

There is a similarity in the way Holi is celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago and in Suriname and Guyana. Here too, people plant a castor oil plant weeks before the festival and this plant is burnt later as Holika. On these days, people engage themselves in nightly singing chowtaal and taan in each other's homes or in temples.

Delicacies like bara, gulgula, phulourie, bigany, mango or tamarind chutney, potato ball, channa, ghoja, mahambhoog, kheer and sweet rice, and beverages are prepared and served at the temples where large Holi gatherings takes place.

MAURITIUS: The large Indian majority celebrate Holi with a lot of enthusiasm in the island of Mauritius. Holika dahan, drenching with colours, exchanging sweets in the evening, everything is done with great enthusiasm.

NEPAL: Holi is celebrated with great pomp and show in Nepal. Celebrations last for a week in which the entire country gets drenched in the coloured water. Though the play of colours takes place on the last day, a ceremonial pole called chir is installed on the first day. Chir is a bamboo pole with strips of cloth tied to it, representing good luck charms. As the pole is put up on the street in Basantapur, the festivities and worship commences for the week. At the end of the festivities, the chir is taken to a bonfire.

There is a popular legend behind the installation of chir. The story is again about the mischievous nature of Krishna who loved to pray pranks with the milkmaids or gopis. Playful as he was, it is said that once he seduced all the local girls with his dashing good looks. He then danced with them all and when they fully engrossed in him, he thought they were ripe for a tease. He doused them in coloured water and stole all their clothes while they were bathing in the water of river Yamuna. The naughty Krishna then hung their clothes on a tree to tease them. Chir symbolises that very tree.

SOUTH AFRICA: Indians take immense delight in celebrating the festival of Holi, wherever they may be. The vibrant Gujaratis and other Indians settled in South Africa have made it a point to keep the tradition of celebrating Holi alive in the country. The majority of Indians in South Africa are Hindus, and so a lot of Hindu festivals are celebrated there, Holi being one of them.

UNITED KINGDOM: Hindus settled in UK do not miss out on the excitement of Holi celebrations and enjoy to the hilt. Zeal for the festival is particularly marked in this country as Indians constitute the second largest ethnic minority. The city of Leicester is particularly known for its love for celebrating Holi and other Indian festivals.

USA: With a large population of Indians settled in the United States of America, Holi is celebrated with gaiety and lot of fanfare, just like in the UK. Holi celebrations are particularly marked in the city of New York. Here Holi parades are taken out. People can be seen having a lot of fun in these parades as they play with colour in the midst. There is so much revelry here that it becomes difficult to imagine that New York is not a part of India.

Holi celebration at Battersea in London

Celebrations at a Holi parade in New York

A festival of joy

The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair ruptured relationships.

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