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Guide to the Festival of Colors: Holi

Mar 07, 2022

Tradition

While there are many enticing reasons to visit India, one stands out as universally recognizable: Holi, or the Festival of Colors. The celebration is true to the name — we’ve all seen the photos of smiling faces covered in pink, yellow, and green pigment. The festival is steeped in tradition, bringing people together to dance, eat comfort foods, and of course, throw colored powder and water all around. But the festival is more than just a party. The celebration of Holi is an important holiday in Hindu culture and reflects the triumph of good over evil and has ties to Ayurvedic traditions to rejuvenate celebrants from within. Even if you’re not Hindu, there are still opportunities to be a part of this vibrant festival, whether you’re coming to India or celebrating from across the globe.

What is Holi?

Holi, also known as the Festival of Colors or the Festival of Love (depending on where in India you’re located), is a Hindu celebration of the victory of good over evil, held to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring. There are many legends connected to the festival, but most rituals center around two fables: the defeat of Holika and the love between Lord Krishna and Radha. Aside from the religious element, the festival also symbolizes renewal, forgiveness, and harmony.

When is it celebrated?

Rather than always falling on the same Western calendar date, Holi is marked on the Hindu lunar calendar. The festival typically happens in March, but sometimes as early as the end of February. In 2022, Holi falls on March 18 (with 2023 being set for March 8). The first night of the festival, Holika Dahan, falls on the night of the last full moon before spring, and this is a night to light a bonfire and throw your grievances into it, inviting forgiveness. This evening is more focused on the holy rituals of the holiday. The more well-known and rambunctious Festival of Colors occurs the following day, beginning in the morning and continuing on until nightfall. In some cities, the party lasts beyond a day and can even stretch to a full week.

History of Holi

Holi is named after the demoness, Holika, and marks her defeat at the hands of Lord Vishnu. Holika’s brother, the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was angry that his son Prahlad worshiped Lord Vishnu instead of himself, so he asked Holika to kill him. Holika, wearing a fireproof cloak, took Prahlad and sat in a fire, but Lord Vishnu saved Prahlad by making the cloak cover him instead. Holika burned, and Lord Vishnu prevailed over the demons.

Another Hindu fable that some connect to the festival centers around Lord Krishna, who feared that his blue skin would cause Radha to no longer be attracted to him. His mother’s solution was to throw colors on Radha, and the two remained in love. Some cities, like Mathura — the birthplace of Krishna — focus their festival more on this fable, and celebrate the infinite love of Radha Krishna.

Food of Holi

Along with the eponymous colors, Holi is also full of incredible food. The options at Holi festivities are typically comfort foods, such as gujiya, a fried pocket with sweet or savory fillings. Other dishes include puri chhole (a Chickpea-based breakfast dish), vegetarian pulao or biryani (spiced rice dishes cooked in broth), paneer, dahi bhalle, and desserts like malpua pancakes and rasmalai. The most famous drink is thandai — a cold, Almond-based drink flavored with Rose along with various seeds and spices like Cardamom, Saffron, and Fennel — but others include fermented berry kanji and cocktails like rang rasia. The food of Holi is sometimes incorporated with the Cannabis paste bhang, so make sure that you check to make sure you aren’t consuming too much, especially if you haven’t used Cannabis before.

Where is Holi celebrated?

The largest Holi celebrations are, of course, in India, primarily in the northern region. More traditional iterations of the festival of colors can be found in the Brij region of Uttar Pradesh, where Lord Krishna is thought to have grown up. The holy cities of Mathura and Vrindavan host weeklong celebrations of color. A few hours away, Delhi hosts its own version, which combines traditions with modernism and even has included a music festival component. Other cities, like Mumbai, incorporate specific games like the breaking of the buttermilk pot. If you’re a visitor to one of the larger cities, you can even find a celebration hosted by travel guides, which some may prefer over navigating the festival on their own. No worries if you aren’t able to travel across the globe, though, because you can surely find a Holi celebration closer by. Major cities across Germany, Singapore, the United States, and more host their own Hindu festivals.

How is Holi celebrated?

Holi is celebrated first by observing Holika Dahan, a night for Hindu rituals that include the burning of effigies of Holika, praying, and visiting family. The evening is more subdued than the festival that follows the next day. The next morning, participants don their white clothes and arm themselves with the powders, often made of natural ingredients like rice powder or cornstarch colored with food dye, along with water balloons and water guns. They then begin to play Holi, or throw the colors, as well as dance, enjoy the traditional foods, and even drink alcohol and eat bhang (a Cannabis paste that is incorporated into food and drinks). The party lasts throughout the day, eventually winding down in the evening. The celebrants return home to clean up (and sober up) before visiting family and friends and trading sweets. Some cities include additional elements in their celebrations, but traditions remain strong.

What to expect & how to prepare

If you’re planning on attending Holi, you should expect to get messy! They don’t call it the Festival of Colors for nothing: colored powder and water will surely be thrown onto you, so it’s best to prepare for it so that you can fully immerse yourself into the experience without worrying about the cleanup after. Some of the powders and waters don’t wash out easily, so it’s recommended to wear old or cheap clothes; just make sure they’re white, so that your colors show up! It’s also recommended to rub Coconut Oil into your exposed skin before heading out to the festival. This forms a barrier to prevent the dye from staining your skin and making it easier to wash off later. Many people also cover their hair with bandanas, especially if their hair is lighter, as the colors can also stain the hair. One should always bring water to a festival to stay hydrated, but it can also be handy for rinsing throughout the day. Another important safety note is to keep your mouth and eyes closed when being hit with colors! Following these tips will ensure that you’ll be able to focus less on staying clean and more on joining in the vibrant festivities.

Traditions & self-care

Holi is a day for renewal: Winter turning to spring, evil being vanquished by good, and people showering each other with love and offering forgiveness. There may be modern iterations and new traditions, but it’s an ancient festival that offers Hindus a chance to return to ancient roots and restore harmony in society. It is indeed a Festival of Love and is a beautiful opportunity for anyone, Hindu or not, to immerse themselves in a day of joy.

 

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