Holi is a spring festival, also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love. It is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has become popular with non-Hindus in many parts of South Asia, as well as people of other communities outside Asia.
It is primarily observed in India, Nepal, and other regions of the world with significant populations of Hindus or people of Indian origin. The festival has, in recent times, spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colors.
Holi celebrations start with a Holika bonfire on the night before Holi where people gather, sing and dance. The next morning is a free-for-all carnival of colors, where participants play, chase and color each other with dry powder and colored water, with some carrying water guns and colored water-filled balloons for their water fight. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. The frolic and fight with colors occurs in the open streets, open parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes to throw colors on each other; laugh and chit-chat, and then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks. Some drinks are intoxicating. For example, Bhang, an intoxicating ingredient made from cannabis leaves, is mixed into drinks and sweets and consumed by many. In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up, visit friends and family.
There are several cultural rituals associated with Holi:
- Prepare Holika pyre for bonfire
Days before the festival people start gathering wood and combustible materials for the bonfire in parks, community centers, near temples and other open spaces. On top of the pyre is an effigy to signify Holika who tricked Prahalad into the fire. Inside homes, people stock up on color pigments, food, party drinks and festive seasonal foods such as Gujiya, Mathri, Malpuas and other regional delicacies.
- Holika Dahan
On the eve of Holi, typically at or after sunset, the pyre is lit, signifying Holika Dahan. The ritual symbolizes the victory of good over evil. People gather around the fire, sing and dance.
- Play with colors
Holi frolic and celebrations begin the morning after Holika bonfire. There is no tradition of holding Puja (prayer), and the day is for partying and pure enjoyment. Children and youth groups form armed with dry colors, colored solution, means to fill and spray others with colored solution (Pichkaris), balloons that can hold colored water, and other creative means to color their targets.
Traditionally, washable natural plant-derived colors such as turmeric, Neem, Dhak, Kumkum were used; but water-based commercial pigments are increasingly used. All colors are used. Everyone in open areas such as streets and parks are game. Inside homes or at doorways though, only dry powder is used to smear each other’s face. People throw colors, and get their targets completely colored up. It is like a water fight, but where the water is colored. People take delight in spraying colored water on each other. By late morning, everyone looks like a canvas of colors. This is why Holi is given the name “Festival of Colors.”
Groups sing and dance, some playing drums and dholak. After each stop of fun and play with colors, people offer Gujiya, Mathri, Malpuas and other traditional delicacies. Chilled drinks, including adult drinks based on local intoxicating herbs, is also part of the Holi festivity.
- Other variations
In Braj region around Mathura, in north India, the festivities may last more than week. The rituals go beyond playing with colors, and include a day where men go around with shields and women have the right to playfully beat them on their shields with sticks.
In south India, some worship and make offerings to Kaamadeva, the love god of Indian mythology, on Holi.
- The after party
After a day of play with colors, people clean up, wash and bathe, sober and dress up in the evening and greet friends and relatives by visiting them and exchange sweets. Holi is also a festival of forgiveness and new starts, which ritually aims to generate harmony in the society.