Holi, also known as the “Festival of Colors”, is a Hindu religious festival that is held during the spring season, starting on a full moon day in the Bikram Sambat Hindu Calendar that usually corresponds to the period between the end of February and the mid of March. The festival spans over a period of two days with the first day involving a religious bonfire at night accompanied by rituals and praying while the next day, people come down on the streets, spraying colors in the form of colored powders or colored water, chasing each other with water guns and engaging in a “color fight” with colored water filled balloons. Sweets and greetings are distributed in the evening and people visit the homes of relatives, friends and neighbors to celebrate togetherness and love. The festival is primarily celebrated by the Hindus in India and Nepal but has also become highly popular in many other countries of the world for the fun and frolic associated with this color carnival.
In History and Legend
Description of the festival of Holi can be found in the various ancient Hindu texts like the Puranas, the accounts of the famous poet Kalidasa, the Sanskrit drama Ratnavali, the accounts of European traders and explorers, and British officers during the British Raj in India. A very interesting story about the victory of good over evil surrounds the festival of Holi in India. As per legend, a demon king, Hiranyakashipu, the ruler of Multan, had a gift that made him virtually indestructible. The arrogant king thus claimed himself to be the supreme being, above all gods and punished all who tried to worship anyone but him. However, his own son Prahlad, from his childhood, did not believe in his father’s supremacy and instead was a devout follower of Lord Vishnu, a supreme Hindu God. Hiranyakashipu, unable to tolerate his son’s disobedience, tried to torture and kill his son in numerous ways but failed. In the end, his evil sister, Holika, from whose name Holi is derived, decided to help her brother by taking Prahlad on her lap and burning him by fire. She wore a cloak that protected her from the fire but Prahlad was susceptible to burning. While they sat on the pyre, magically, Holika’s cloak came off and covered Prahlad. Hence, while Holika burned to death, the child survived unscathed. Finally, Hiranyakashipu challenged Prahlad to reveal who his God was and whether he did actually exist. Prahlad replied that Vishnu resided everywhere and then the evil king broke open a pillar in his palace to see if Prahlad’s words were indeed true. From the pillar, emerged Lord Vishnu, in his most feared avatar of Narasimha, a half lion-half human form, that picked up Hiranyakashipu, placing him in a laid position on his lap and tore open his belly, instantly killing him. Since that time, every year, a bonfire was burnt to represent the burning of the evil Holika and the ashes from the fire were applied to peoples’ foreheads. The next day was then celebrated with great fun with vibrant colors, symbolizing that good always wins.
The preparations for the Holi festivities start days before the beginning of the festival. People start stocking up colors to be used and means of using them like water-guns and balloons. Raw material like wood and other combustible materials are gathered by the people for lighting the bonfire. On the first day of Holi, typically at or after sunset, a huge bonfire is lit on open grounds, with a straw effigy, representing the evil Holika, at its center. As the effigy burns, people celebrate, beating drums, dancing and singing. The next day, men, women, and children gather on the streets, terraces and verandahs of homes, equipped with colored powders, buckets of colored solutions, and other colored water spraying equipment. The aim is to color all who come in sight so that everyone becomes a canvas of colors at the end of the day. People are seen chasing each other on the streets in a fun game of avoiding the colors to be splashed on them. Some are even taken by surprise when a bucket of colored solution is poured over them from the rooftop terraces by hidden fun-makers. After spending the day playing with colors, people go home to wash off the colors and then visit each others’ homes with sweets and other delicacies, to greet each other and make merry. In some regions like Mathura, believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu God, Lord Krishna, the festival of colors lasts more than a week. The love of Krishna and Radha is celebrated here with colors and other spectacular rituals that offer great entertainment to those visiting Mathura during this time.
Though the festival of Holi is undeniably a lot of fun, some environmental and health threats are associated with this festival. The burning of bonfires often consumes a lot of vegetation, required to gather wood, leaves and other plant matter for burning. In the past, Holi was played using natural colors derived from leaves and flowers of plants, turmeric, sandalwood, and other natural material. However, currently, synthetic colors have gradually replaced the naturally derived colors. These synthetic colors often involve the use of metals which seeps into the waterways near the venues where people play during Holi with these colors. However, these water systems are usually able to recover to their pre-Holi state within a week. The synthetic colors also might cause skin irritation, rashes and inflammation in individuals with sensitive skin. Thus, many people abstain themselves from playing Holi in fear of these toxic colors. In the past few years, several non-governmental organisations have tried to discourage the use of synthetic colors via awareness campaigns.
Today, Holi celebrations are not just limited to the Hindu communities of India and Nepal but the festival is also celebrated in other parts of the world where the Indian diaspora have kept their cultural traditions alive. The fact that the celebrations of Holi do not involve extensive religious rituals renders this festival universally appealing. Hence, together with the Hindus abroad, people of many other communities also participate in the Holi festivities. The festival is celebrated on a large scale in Manhattan and Brooklyn of New York and Spanish Fork in Utah, U.S.A. Many other events have also been inspired by Holi like the "Festival of Colors" musical event that takes place over 4 continents, as well as the "Color Runs".
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