A Guide to India’s Colourful Holi Festival

It’s mayhem. Vivid, colourful mayhem. The Festival of Colours is in full swing, the air is infused with coloured powder and clouds of vibrant hues erupt over the boisterous crowd.

Joyful people arm themselves with colored powder to smear on each other’s faces and water guns spraying neon coloured water. All around, people sing and dance to jolly music, play lively games and consume Bhang, a traditional drink made from cannabis plants, almonds and milk.

The Holi festival is a joyous spring affair celebrated by vast cities and villages throughout India, albeit a little differently in each part. Most importantly, Holi is a rejoicing over the triumph of good over evil, a celebration of love and fertility and a thanksgiving season. Visit India in the month of March (specifically the day after the full moon in March) and enjoy the glorious festive spirit!  

Spraying coloured water at each other in the spirit of Holi

Various Hindu legends surrounding Holi’s origin abound, from the story of Holika Dahan and the Hindu god of preservation, Lord Vishnu, to the childhood love story of Lord Krishna and Radha.

The former follows a powerful demon king, Hiranyakashipu, who wanted his kingdom to worship him like a God. When his son, Prahlada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused, he tried to kill his son but to no avail. He then had his evil sister, Holika, help him.

Holika, being immune to fire, tricked Prahlada into sitting on a pyre with her. However, her evil intentions made her power turn against her and she was burnt to ashes. Prahlada gained her power and was saved. To celebrate this victory of good over evil, the first day of Holi is known as Holika Dahan.

A major deity of Hinduism, Lord Krishna, is also featured in a local Holi tale. As a baby, Krishna acquired a blue skin colour after drinking the poisoned breast milk of demon Putana. He became worried about whether fair-skinned Radha and the other village girls would ever like him because of his skin.

Eventually, his mother told him to colour Radha’s face any colour he wished and when he did so, they finally became a couple. In remembrance of this love between Krishna and Radha, people began to play with colours like Krishna did.

Lath Mar Holi – where women beat the men with sticks in playful jest

Different regions of India observe Holi celebrations differently with quirky traditions unique to each. Lath Mar Holi in Uttar Pradesh is an exuberant affair its people partake in with utmost gusto. The women smear coloured pastes on the men and don brightly-coloured traditional garb to dance for the crowds.

The next day, you’ll see where Lath Mar Holi gets its name which literally translates to ‘stick’ and ‘beat’. When the men try to retaliate with coloured powder, the women take out sticks to beat at men who then defend themselves with shields. This is all done in jest and it is great fun when everyone participates.

In other places like Goa and Manipur, traditional folk dances and indigenous customs dominate the Holi celebrations, with the latter performing its famed Manipuri folk dance, Thabal Chongba.

A Northern city in particular, Jaipur, used to kick off the eve of Holi with their Elephant Festival. Complete with elephant parades, beauty contests and entertaining elephant tug-of-war, the magnificence of the event was undoubted. However, the festival fell under scrutiny upon animal cruelty protests by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

On the other hand, the fifth day after Holika Dahan is the day for Rang Panchami in the state of Maharashtra. The Matka ceremony is an exciting event: an earthern pot of milk is hung high and young men form a human pyramid to reach the pot to break it.

Credit to the Free Press Journal

Beyond India, Holi is being celebrated as a music and colour festival in the United States of America and Europe. Thousands gather in American cities like Houston and Boston for their own rendition of Holi. Brightly coloured powder and water are similarly tossed, similar Indian food passes from hand to hand but there is rich culture lost in its depths.

The significance of the Indian Holi festival falls on deaf ears as people simply play with colours and groove to loud music. Therein lies the question: cultural appropriation or cultural diversity? Holi Festival is an integral part of Indian culture and festivities that becomes unduly diluted into an underappreciated event simply for a good time.

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