A kaleidoscopic cloud hangs over India, where revellers mark the arrival of spring by throwing powdered dye with abandon, spraying water, and flooding the streets for raucous fun. Holi may be traditionally Hindu, but everyone is equal during this holiday. Color hides all class lines, the caste system disappears, and foreigners join the locals.
Underneath the dancing and colorful chaos lies unique culture and deeply rooted tradition. Here’s what you need to know about Holi.
The colorful party makes up just one part of Holi. The night before on Holika Dahan, Hindus light dung and wood in a symbolic effigy to commemorate the demise of Holika. People throw the famed, colored powder on Rangwali Holi, the second day of the festival and most famous. People prepare much earlier by purchasing the powder and kids excitedly practice their aim. Certain groups focus more on the solemn, religious aspects: In the Braj region of India, for example, Holi celebrations stretch for 16 days.
Good triumphs over evil
Holi gets its name from Holika, the demoness sister of evil King Hiranyakashyap in Hindu mythology. As the story goes, the villainous king tried to forbid his son Prahlad from worshiping one of the Hindu gods, Vishnu, but Prahlad persisted despite his father. So the king ordered Prahlad and Holika (who was immune to fire) to sit on a pyre, a wooden structure for burning a body as part of a funeral or execution. When the flames struck, Holika burnt to death in spite of her immunity to fire, and miraculously Prahlad prevailed because he called on the help of Lord Vishnu. So Holi celebrations serve as a reminder of the triumph of good over evil, reflecting the Hindu belief that faith and devotion leads to salvation that can be attained by everyone who believes.
Families across India lovingly prepare gujiya, a dumpling-like sweet that filled with dried fruits and nuts spiced with cardamom. Countless variations exist, but common fillings include pistachios, cashews, coconut, and raisins, which everyone enjoys during fiery Holika Dahan.
Toasting with cannabis milk
Some people toast Holi with a bhang–a milky beverage mixed with a paste of the buds and leaves of cannabis grown high in the Himalayas. Consumed for 3,000 years, this weed milkshake connects through mythology to the powerful monk god Shiva–and sold in government-run bhang shops.
Why the dye
Legend holds that after being cursed with blue skin by a demon, Krishna worried that his fair-skinned consort, Radha, would no longer hold affection for him. When he complained to his mother Yashoda, she teasingly replied for Krishna to paint Radha’s face whatever color he chose, so he did. The flying multihued pigments, called gulal, remind of the story of Krishna.
Natural roots, modernized
Back in the day, gulal was made from flowers, spices, and other natural materials like the brilliant Indian Coral Tree and the Flame of the Forest plants, offering medicinal properties and benefits for the skin. Synthetic dyes became common in the mid-19th century, offering higher profits. Today, most gulal used during Holi is synthetic from China, although the Indian government promotes national products and return to plant-based dyes. In 2012, around 200 people were admitted to a Mumbai hospital suffering from color poisoning.
Much more than painting a pretty picture, the colors hold special significance. Red dye symbolizes love, fertility, and matrimony. Blue represents Krishna while green stands for new beginnings.
To preempt disaster, Hindus are advised to moisturize hair and skin well to help prevent the gulal from staining. Clothes typically do not survive.
Joining the fun
Holi expands well beyond the Indian continent. Hindus celebrate in Bangladesh and Pakistan, plus other countries with large diaspora populations like Suriname, South Africa, and Malaysia. The United Kingdom and the United states also hold parties, concerts, and events across the country, making it possible for many to join the festivities.
Correction: This article, which originally published February 28, 2018, misstated Radha’s relationship with Krishna. It was updated on March 9, 2020.