• Pallavi Nair

Holi: The celebration of Love, Laughter and Togetherness

The one thing that most immigrants living in the United States miss about their birth country is the celebration of festivals back in their homeland. They celebrate their festival in the U.S., but they miss the enthusiastic celebrations in their homelands. Especially for Indians living in the United States, there are many festive celebrations that they reminisce. One such festival is Holi, the festival of colors.

India is a diverse country due to its various religions, traditions, and culture. As a result, there are many festivals, and Holi is considered one of the most revered and celebrated festivals in the entire country. It is celebrated in the month of Phalgun (between February and March) on the last full moon of the Hindu calendar. This year, the joyous festival will begin from March 28 to March 29, 2021.

The festival marks the beginning of the spring season after a long winter in India, and with that, there are various other traditions associated with this festival. India and its subcontinent have celebrated this festival for centuries, as noted in history books and poems that date back to the 4th century CE.

Image 1: Indian girls playing with dry colors

Source: www.pixabay.com

History and Mythology of Holi

Holi, originally known as Holika, is an ancient festival and was found in the detailed description in ancient religious works. Legends say that Holi existed for several centuries before the birth of Christ. Through the years, the meaning and beliefs of these festivals have changed. In earlier days, this festival was not about playing with colors. Instead, married women celebrated by worshipping the moon god for the health and happiness of their families.

According to mythology, a demon king named Hiranyakashipu (He-ran-ya-ka-shipu: translates to “clothed in gold”) was gifted a boon by Lord Brahma. The gift meant that he would remain immortal, and no human or animal would ever kill him. This advantage led him to become arrogant of his powers and ordered the people of his kingdom to worship him as a god and not worship any other god. However, his son Prahlad (praa-luhd), a devotee of Lord Vishnu, disagreed and worshipped his lord. Infuriated by his son’s action, the king called his sister, Holika, to punish his son. She tricked young Prahlad to sit on her lap on a pyre. Holika was blessed with a cloak that prevented her from burning in fire. As she sat with young Prahlad and her cloak wrapped around her, the fire lit the pyre. And as the flames grew, the cloak flew from Holika to Prahlad, protecting him from burning and killing Holika, despite her immunity.

Image 2: Depiction of Holika sitting with young Prahlad on a burning pyre

Source: www.depositphotos.com

Later, Lord Vishnu appeared in the avatar of Narasimha (half man and half lion) and killed the king. Since then, locals celebrate Holi by Holika bonfire, which marks the end of evil, and started this fun tradition of playing with colorful powder. To this day, many worshippers cleanse the air of evil spirits by igniting a bonfire the night before Holi.

Another story says that Lord Krishna played Holi in his younger days with his divine love Radha (raa-duh). Legend says that one day young Lord Krishna (krish-nuh) complained to his mother Yashoda (Yaa-Show-dh-ah) about his dark skin and asked why his friend Radha has a fairer complexion. Then his mother playfully suggested to him that he could smear any color on Radha’s face and change her complexion to any color he wanted. Enthralled by this idea, lord Krishna started to do so, and thus the festival of colors began. Today, this festival is incredibly famous in cities like Vrindavan and Mathura and is known as “Holi of Braj (b-r-uh-j),” the places where Lord Krishna used to play.

How is Holi played?

The Holi ritual begins the night before when an elder within the community places a small statue of young Prahlad with a pyre and lighting it. Before burning it, the elder removes the statue and starts the rituals by lighting up the bonfire called Holika Dahan, symbolizing this process as the triumph of good versus evil as per the story. Each community organizes its bonfires.

Image 3: Rituals performed at the time of Holika bonfire

Source: www.dreamstime.com

The next morning revelers come on the streets and chant ‘Holi Hai’ (Its Holi in Hindi). People cover their family, friends, and even strangers in rainbow-hued powder. Some even douse random people they encounter with colored powder. Others drench random passersby using water guns, water-balloons filled with colored water, or large buckets of water from their balconies or rooftops, which can sometimes be dangerous. The fun lasts until noon, and later on, people enjoy the delicious feast. Most city streets turn red, blue, green and people dance on the roads with colored faces.

Image 4: Picture of dry colors sold in market

Source: www.dreamstime.com

Some colors represent meaning, such as how red represents love, green depicts new beginnings, blue symbolizes Lord Krishna, and yellow portrays something auspicious.

Later that day, some people visit their relatives or friends for festivity meals, while some follow the tradition of distributing Indian sweets to their neighbors and friends. Though this is the most common method played in Indian households, there are other ways that parts of India celebrate Holi.

Image 5: Revelers playing with water guns and water buckets in the streets of India.

Source: www.dreamstime.com

Types of Holi celebrations

· In a town called Barsana in the Indian state Uttar Pradesh, there is an incredibly famous (and somewhat violent) form of Holi known as Lathmar Holi. In this, the women beat up men with sticks, though men cover themselves with big shields and all chant “Sri Radha-Krishna.” Legend has it that Lord Krishna visited his beloved Radha, who lived in the neighboring village of Barsana, on this day and teased her and her friends, who chased him away with sticks. This event is a reenactment of the story; men from Lord Krishna’s village arrive at Barsana once a year to stage a mock battle with women. The women "attack" the men with bamboo sticks, while the men protect themselves with shields and try to fight back with the only weapon at their disposal — colored powder! The men cannot retaliate, and the unlucky ones get captured by the women. As punishment, the women force the captives to wear female attire and dance for their captors, all in the spirit of Holi.

Image 6: Men and women playing "Lathmaar Holi"

Source: www.dreamstime.com

· In the same state but in another city called Vrindavan, widows and estranged women are immersed in colors.

· In West Bengal and Assam, Holi is known as Basanta (bas-ant) Utsav (Uu-t-s-uh-v), or “Spring Festival.” Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore started the celebrations at the Shantiniketan (Shan-ti-nike-tan) University, which he founded.

Image 7: Woman performing a dance during "Basant Utsav"


· Another form of Holi is Dhulandi Holi, which the northern states celebrate. In this version, the wife (bhabhi in Hindi) can scold or beat her husband’s younger brother (devar in Hindi) for all the pranks he brother played on her the entire year. The brother-in-law runs or hides from his sister-in-law. When caught, he is supposed to bring sweets and gifts to her.

· In states like Maharashtra, there is also a tradition of breaking the pot (Matki Phod) of “buttermilk,” which is hung high in the street. A group of men or women climb up by forming a human pyramid, and the one who breaks it is named Holi King or queen and is rewarded with money.

· While in the Punjab state, Sikhs celebrate Holi as Hola Mohalla, which is celebrated a day after Holi. This event is a large-scale, annual fair at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. The celebration strengthens the Sikh community, and it showcases various military and dare-devil acts, like bareback horse-riding, standing erect on two speeding horses, etc., followed by music and poetry.

· Holi in other states, like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, is also known as Rangpanchmi. It is celebrated on the fifth day of Holi, where people throw fragrant red powder (Gulal in Hindi) and splash color water on others. · In Goa, people call Holi Shigmo in their local dialect, Konkani. In this other than playing with colors, people carry a huge procession in the streets performing mythological dramas and religious stories related to Holi. Followed a feast which included local specialties like spicy chicken, goat curry known as Shagoti.

Holi Special Food

Some people wait for this festival only to savor the delicious food and snacks prepared for this day. So after a long day of playing with colors, people love to indulge in cold beverages and hot snacks.

· The most popular drink is Thandai, a cold refreshing made from milk and various spices. Bhaang, a spice made from the bud of cannabis, is added to enhance the flavor. This element makes people a little woozy and merry, which escalates the spirit of Holi.

Image 8: Picture of "Thandai" drink


· The other favorite snack is a Gujiya, a fried dumpling filled with a sweet stuffing of milk solids, dried fruits and nuts, and coconut. · Another savory snack is Dahi Vada, which are deep-fried lentil flour balls served with yogurt, chili powder, and chutneys.

· In southern India, Puran-Poli is a popular dish. It is a traditional, sweet flatbread made from wheat flour, cardamom, nutmeg, and jaggery or sugar.

· Barfi, small treats made from condensed milk, sugar, and ground nuts or flour, are also popular in northern India. They are cooked until solidified, resulting in a dense sweet layer. The layer is then cut into pieces and decorated with sliced nuts or fruit.

Image 9: Picture of popular Holi snacks


Festival of Love

Different parts of India celebrate Holi differently, but the theme of the celebrations is love. It is sometimes called the “Festival of Love,” since people unite, forgetting all bitterness, animosity, and hatred. The vibrancy of colors brings joy and positivity. Even though Holi is a famous Hindu festival, people of other religions in every part of India celebrate it with utmost joy and enthusiasm. Hindus and Muslims come together on this day to celebrate the festival of togetherness and love.

Image 10: Children covered in Holi colors

Source: istock

This festival is becoming very popular in other countries as well. The South Asian community living in the U.S., U.K., and Australia has made these celebrations popular. As a result, they have spread awareness of the Indian culture, and they teach the younger generations about the culture.

In the U.S., the most popular place to celebrate this festival of colors is at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna temple, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Due to its popularity, people now celebrate it in other states like California and Nevada. This event, which started in 1989, receives around 35,000 ethnically diverse revelers each year. People stay there for two days, where they play with organic dry colors, enjoy Indian food, Bollywood dance, yoga, and other various activities.

Image 11: Holi celebration at Krishna temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

Source: www.dreamstime.com

Several Holi events occur in Washington DC, Seattle, West Virginia, Houston, New York City, and a few others where the South Asian community resides.

So regardless of the various myths believed by the people, Holi is a day of love when people of all ages, caste, religion, and cultures come together, setting aside their worries and past feuds and enjoy this festival.

If you enjoyed learning about this aspect of Indian culture, check out the ReDefiners World Languages! We offer online and in-person language classes, as well as group and individual classes, for kids and adults. Students have the opportunity to learn about the language and explore the surrounding cultures and influences. For more information about our classes, please visit www.redefinerswl.org or email us at info@redefinerswl.org.

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