Holi is one of the most joyous and widespread Hindu festivals, taking place over the course of a single day and night each year between March and April.
Often called the “festival of love” or the “festival of Spring”, Holi symbolizes the arrival of Spring and the triumph of good over evil. Holi draws its roots from many Hindu legends, and the most prominent is that of King Hiranyakashayap, who believed he was the ultimate ruler and superior to all the Hindu gods. However, his son, Prahlad, followed the god Vishnu, known as the protector of the Universe. This made King Hiranyakashayap angry, and he employed the services of a female demon, Holika, to kill his son. Holika possessed a shawl that made her her immune to fire, so her plan was to take Prahlad into a bonfire, where he would be burnt but she would survive. However, Vishnu protected Prahlad, and Holika’s immunity only worked when she was alone, so she was destroyed in the fire while Prahlad survived. Later, Vishnu killed King Hiranyakashayap and Prahlad became the new king.
Holi’s additional nickname, the “festival of colors”, is derived from its most recognizable tradition: the wild throwing of colored pigment that occurs throughout the festival. This colored powder, called gulal, bears particular significance in Holi festivals. The transition from winter to spring is thought to cause colds and other viral sicknesses, and traditional gulal powders were often made from Ayurvedic ingredients intended to ward off disease. Each color also bears significant meaning in Hindu culture, with blue representing the gods, green representing nature and new beginnings, and red representing love and fertility.
Holi celebrations begin the evening before the gulal toss with the lighting of large pyres intended to signify the burning away of evil spirits. After the gulal, people visit families for elaborate meals and often exchange sweets with friends and neighbors. Holi is viewed as a day to set aside differences, so in addition to settling relational disputes, Hindus find themselves free of the caste system on Holi and often welcome individuals from different religions or backgrounds to celebrate along with them.
Since Holi is almost universally celebrated across India by Hindus and many non-Hindus alike, it has also made its way to Western cities and countries with large Indian populations. While some festivals are legitimate and appreciative, other events have made use of colored powder without recognizing its cultural significance and symbolism. If you plan to attend any colored powder event, check the rationale to make sure it’s not being used disrespectfully.
This year’s Holi celebration takes place on March 28th-29th.
About the Author
Cat Wheelehan is an administrative assistant in the real estate industry. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently pursuing her graduate degree through Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication Custom Leadership Program. She lives in Chicago with her partner, Chris, and golden retriever, Cooper.
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