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A Color-Saturated Cultural Tradition: Playing Holi

by Janine Boylan on March 25, 2013

A Young Boy Playing Holi, a Hindu Cultural Tradition

A young boy laughs with glee during Holi.
© Nitesh Chakravarti

Painting the Town Red (and Yellow and Green and Blue . . .)

Not long ago, richly-hued photos of people rejoicing during Holi, a Hindu tradition, caught my eye.

What is this crayon-colored holiday all about?

After some research, I learned that Holi is celebrated to welcome spring (this year it is celebrated on March 27). It is observed primarily in India and Nepal, but its popularity is growing world-wide. And it has been celebrated for centuries.

A centuries-old cultural tradition that I knew nothing about? There has to be an Oh, I See moment in this!

How Is Holi Celebrated?

In most areas, Holi lasts two days. On the first day, people gather around a public bonfire, lit near midnight, to sing and dance. They smear the ashes on their faces as a protection against evil.

This tradition is linked to Hindu mythology. One legend tells this story:

  • Once, a harsh, egotistical king demanded that everyone worship him. But the king’s son, Prahlad, refused and prayed to Lord Vishnu instead.
  • The evil king attempted to murder his son numerous times, but Lord Vishnu protected Prahlad. Finally, the evil king conspired with his sister, Holika. Knowing she was immune to fire, the king asked his sister to enter a bonfire with Prahlad in her lap.
  • Holika tricked her nephew to enter the flames with her. But, unknown to even her, Holika’s immunity worked only when she entered fire alone, so she was consumed in the flames. Prahlad’s unceasing prayers to Lord Vishnu protected him from the fire.

The word Holi comes from Holika and is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. The bonfires on the first night of the Holi holiday celebrate Prahlad’s escape from the flames.

And Day Two?

On the second day of Holi, people throw dry colored powder, or gulal, on one another. They also spray one another with colored water, or rang. These flying colors are why people call Holi, “The Festival of Colors.”

People Playing Holi, a Hindu Cultural Tradition

Bright powder fills the air during “The Festival of Colors.”
© Nitesh Chakravarti

This color-throwing tradition is rooted in another Hindu story.

As a youngster, the deity Krishna wailed how unjust it was that he had dark skin while his playmate Radha had fair skin. To soothe him, his mother suggested that Krishna color Radha’s face any color he desired. The mischievous god smeared color all over Radha’s face, making her look like him.

Now part of the Holi celebration is to joyfully drench others in color, as Krishna did to Radha.

A Crowd Playing Holi, a Hindu Cultural Tradition

Gulal, colored powder, engulfs a crowd.
© Nitesh Chakravarti

A Holiday for Everyone

Holi has another tradition: people who usually are separated for social reason— young and old, men and women, rich and poor—all come together to dance and play and have fun.

The video illustrates how beautiful the cultural tradition can be.

If the video does not display, watch it here.

Around the World

As people move and carry their rich cultural traditions to their new homes, they introduce others to celebrations like Holi.

This year large Holi celebrations are planned worldwide, including:

  • In Palo Alto, CA, Asha for Education has a large Holi celebration. Proceeds will benefit education in India.
  • In New York City, NYC Bhangra is helping organize a Holi festival. NYC Bhangra is an Indian dance organization with the goal of promoting a better understanding of Indian culture through education and performance.
  • Throughout Europe, Holi One offers Holi events throughout the spring. The events include music and dance and lots of color.

Oh, I see! Sharing in the riches of this colorful Hindu tradition gives people all over the world a vibrant way to celebrate the colors of spring!

VIA holifestival.org

Note: In the past decade, groups like Toxics Link have been raising awareness about the dangers lurking in the synthetic powders sold on the streets in India during Holi. These powders may contain toxins that cause eye problems, skin allergies, and even kidney failure.  People encourage using natural-based colors during Holi. (The specific events listed above will have safe colors.) In addition, due to severe drought, groups are encouraging a dry Holi in India this year. 

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