Holi is a popular ancient Hindu festival, also known as the “Festival of Love“, the “Festival of Colours” and the “Festival of Spring”. The festival celebrates the eternal and divine love of Radha Krishna. It also signifies the triumph of good over evil, as it celebrates the victory of Vishnu as Narasimha Narayana over Hiranyakashipu. It originated and is predominantly celebrated in the Indian subcontinent but has also spread to other regions of Asia and parts of the Western world through the Indian diaspora.
Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love and for many, it is a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships. The festival also celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season. It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the Purnima (Full Moon Day) falling in the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna, which falls around the middle of March in the Gregorian calendar. The first evening is known as Holika Dahan (burning of Demon Holika) or Chhoti Holi and the following day as Holi, Rangwali Holi, Dol Purnima, Dhuleti, Dhulandi, Ukuli, Manjal Kuli, Yaosang, Shigmo or Phagwah, Jajiri.
Holi is an ancient Indian religious festival that has also become popular outside of India. In addition to India and Nepal, the festival is celebrated by Indian subcontinent diaspora in countries such as Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In recent years, the festival has spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colours.
Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi (Dhuleti) – a free-for-all festival of colours, where people smear each other with colours and drench each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also used to play and colour each other. 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, parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and other musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes come together to throw coloured powders on each other, laugh and gossip, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks. In the evening, people dress up and visit friends and family.
The Holi festival has a cultural significance among various Hindu traditions of the Indian subcontinent. It is the festive day to end and rid oneself of past errors, to end conflicts by meeting others, a day to forget and forgive. People pay or forgive debts, as well as deal anew with those in their lives. Holi also marks the start of spring, an occasion for people to enjoy the changing seasons and make new friends.
In the Braj region of India, where the Hindu deities Radha and Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated until Rang Panchmi in commemoration of their divine love for each other. The festivities officially usher in spring, with Holi celebrated as a festival of love. There is a symbolic legend behind the festival. In his youth, Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha would like him because of his dark skin colour. His mother Yashoda, tired of his desperation, asks him to approach Radha and ask her to colour his face in any colour she wanted. This Radha did, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. Ever since, the playful colouring of Radha and Krishna’s face has been commemorated as Holi. Beyond India, these legends help to explain the significance of Holi (Phagwah) are common in some Caribbean and South American communities of Indian origin such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. It is also celebrated with great fervour in Mauritius.
History and rituals
The Holi festival is an ancient Hindu festival with its cultural rituals. It is mentioned in the Puranas, Dasakumara Charita, and by the poet Kālidāsa during the 4th century reign of Chandragupta II. The celebration of Holi is also mentioned in the 7th-century Sanskrit drama Ratnavali.The festival of Holi caught the fascination of European traders and British colonial staff by the 17th century. Various old editions of Oxford English Dictionary mention it, but with varying, phonetically derived
Days before the festival, people start gathering wood and combustible materials for the bonfire in parks, community centers, near temples and other open spaces. On top of the pyre is an effigy to signify Holika who tricked Prahalad into the fire. Inside homes, people stock up on pigments, food, party drinks and festive seasonal foods such as gujiya, mathri, malpuas and other regional delicacies.
On the eve of Holi, typically at or after sunset, the pyre is lit, signifying Holika Dahan. The ritual symbolises the victory of good over evil. People gather around the fire to sing and dance.
Playing with colours
In North and Western India, Holi frolic and celebrations begin the morning after the Holika bonfire. Children and young people form groups armed with dry colours, coloured solution and water guns (pichkaris), water balloons filled with coloured water, and other creative means to colour their targets.
Traditionally, washable natural plant-derived colours such as turmeric, neem, dhak, and kumkum were used, but water-based commercial pigments are increasingly used nowadays. All colours are used. Everyone in open areas such as, streets and parks is game, but inside homes or at doorways only dry powder is used to smear each other’s face. People throw colours and get their targets completely coloured up. It is like a water fight, but with coloured water. People take delight in spraying coloured water on each other. By late morning, everyone looks like a canvas of colours. This is why Holi is given the name “Festival of Colours”.
Groups sing and dance, some playing drums and dholak. After each stop of fun and play with colours, people offer gujiya, mathri, malpuas and other traditional delicacies. Cold drinks, including drinks made with marijuana, are also part of the Holi festivity.
In the Braj region around Mathura, in north India, the festivities may last more than a week. The rituals go beyond playing with colours, and include a day where men go around with shields and women have the right to playfully beat them on their shields with sticks. It is known as Latthmaar Holi, traditionally celebrated in the Barsana village. Barsana is the village of Radha and women assume the role of gopikas (Radha’s friends) and men as gopas (Krishna’s friends).
In southern India, some worship and make offerings to Kamadeva, the god of love in Indian mythology.
Later in the day
After a day of play with colours, people clean up, wash and bathe, sober up and dress up in the evening and greet friends and relatives by visiting them and exchanging sweets. Holi is also a festival of forgiveness and new starts, which ritually aims to generate harmony in society. Many cities in Uttar Pradesh also organise Kavi Sammelan in the evening.