Holi is a popular ancient Hindu festival, originating from the Indian subcontinent.

It is celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal but has also spread to other areas of Asia and parts of the Western world through the diaspora from the Indian subcontinent.

Holi is popularly known as the Indian “festival of spring”, the “festival of colors”, or the “festival of love”.

The festival signifies the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.

The festival also celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season. It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the Purnima (Full Moon day) falling in the Vikram Samvat Calendar, a Hindu calendar month of Falgun, which falls around the middle of March in the Gregorian calendar.

The first evening is known as Holika Dahan (burning of demon Holika) or Chhoti Holi and the following day as Holi, Rangwali Holi, Dhuleti, Dhulandi, or Phagwah.

Holi is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has become popular with non-Hindus as well in many parts of South Asia, as well as people of other communities outside Asia.

In Mughal India, Holi was celebrated with such exuberance that commoners of all castes could throw color on the Emperor.

In addition to India and Nepal, the festival is celebrated by Indian subcontinent diaspora in countries such as Jamaica, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mauritius, and Fiji.

In recent years the festival has spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colors.

Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil is destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire.

The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all festival of colors, where people smear each other with colors and drench each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also used to play and color each other. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children, and elders.

The frolic and fight with colors occur in the open streets, open parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and other musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance.

People visit family, friends, and foes to throw colored powders on each other, laugh and gossip, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks.

Some customary drinks include bhang (made from cannabis), which is intoxicating. In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up and visit friends and family.

Vishnu legend

There is a symbolic legend to explain why Holi is celebrated as a festival of triumph of good over evil in the honor of Hindu god Vishnu and his follower Prahlada.

King Hiranyakashipu, according to a legend found in chapter 7 of Bhagavata Purana, was the king of demonic Asuras, and had earned a boon that gave him five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by Astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons), and neither on land nor in water or air.

Hiranyakashipu grew arrogant, thought he was God and demanded that everyone worship only him.

Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, however, disagreed. He was and remained devoted to Vishnu. This infuriated Hiranyakashipu.

He subjected Prahlada to cruel punishments, none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika, Prahlada’s evil aunt, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her.

Holika was wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada was not. As the fire roared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada, who survived while Holika burned.

Vishnu, the god who appears as an avatar to restore Dharma in Hindu beliefs, took the form of Narasimha – half human and half lion (which is neither a human nor an animal), at dusk (when it was neither day nor night), took Hiranyakashyapu at a doorstep, placed him on his lap (which was neither land, water nor air), and then eviscerated and killed the king with his lion claws (which were neither a handheld weapon nor a launched weapon).

The Holika bonfire and Holi signifies the celebration of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.

Krishna legend

In the Braj region of India, where the Hindu deity Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated until Rang Panchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna.

The festivities officially usher in spring, with Holi celebrated as a festival of love. There is a symbolic myth behind commemorating Krishna as well.

As a baby, Krishna developed his characteristic dark skin color because the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk.

In his youth, Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha would like him because of his dark skin color. His mother, tired of his desperation, asks him to approach Radha and ask her to color his face in any color she wanted.

This she did, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. Ever since the playful coloring of Radha and Krishna’s face has been commemorated as Holi.

Beyond India, these legends help to explain the significance of Holi (Phagwah) are common in some Caribbean and South American communities of Indian origin such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. It is also celebrated with great fervour in Mauritius.

Kama and Rati legend

Among other Hindu traditions such as Shaivism and Shaktism, the legendary significance of Holi is linked to Shiva in yoga and deep meditation, goddess Parvati wanting to bring back Shiva into the world, seeks help from the Hindu god of love called Kamadeva on Vasant Panchami.

The love god shoots arrows at Shiva, the yogi opens his third eye and burns Kama to ashes. This upsets both Kama’s wife Rati (Kamadevi) and his own wife Parvati.

Rati performs her own meditative asceticism for forty days, upon which Shiva understands, forgives out of compassion and restores the god of love.

This return of the god of love is celebrated on the 40th day after Vasant Panchami festival like Holi. The Kama legend and its significance to Holi has many variant forms, particularly in South India.

Traditional sources of colors

The spring season, during which the weather changes, is believed to cause viral fever and cold.

The playful throwing of natural colored powders, called gulal has a medicinal significance: the colors are traditionally made of Neem, Kumkum, Haldi, Bilva, and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedic doctors.

Many colors are obtained by mixing primary colors. Artisans produce and sell many of the colors from natural sources in dry powder form, in weeks and months preceding Holi. Some of the traditional natural plant-based sources of colors are:

Orange and red

The flowers of Palash or tesu tree also called the flame of the forest, are a typical source of bright red and deep orange colors.

Powdered fragrant red sandalwood, dried hibiscus flowers, madder tree, radish, and pomegranate are alternate sources and shades of red.

Mixing lime with turmeric powder creates an alternate source of an orange powder, as does boiling saffron (kesar) in water.

Green

Mehendi and dried leaves of the gulmohur tree offer a source of green color. In some areas, the leaves of spring crops and herbs have been used as a source of green pigment.

Yellow

Haldi (turmeric) powder is the typical source of yellow color. Sometimes this is mixed with chickpeas, gram or other flour to get the right shade.

Bael fruit, amaltas, species of chrysanthemums, and species of marigold are alternate sources of yellow.

Blue

Indigo plant, Indian berries, species of grapes, blue hibiscus and jacaranda flowers are traditional sources of blue color for Holi.

Magenta and purple

Beetroot is the traditional source of magenta and purple color. Often these are directly boiled in water to prepare colored water.

Brown

Dried tea leaves offer a source of brown colored water. Certain clays are an alternate source of brown.

Black

Species of grapes, fruits of amla (gooseberry) and vegetable carbon (charcoal) offer gray to black colors.

Synthetic colors

Natural colors were used in the past to celebrate Holi safely by applying turmeric, sandalwood paste, extracts of flowers and leaves.

As the spring-blossoming trees that once supplied the colors used to celebrate Holi have become rarer, chemically produced industrial dyes have been used to take their place in almost all of urban India.

Due to the commercial availability of attractive pigments, slowly the natural colors are replaced by synthetic colors. As a result, it has caused mild to severe symptoms of skin irritation and inflammation.

Lack of control over the quality and content of these colors is a problem, as they are frequently sold by vendors who do not know their origin.

Health Impact

A 2007 study found that malachite green, a synthetic bluish-green dye used in some colors during Holi festival, was responsible for severe eye irritation in Delhi if eyes were not washed upon exposure.

Though the study found that the pigment did not penetrate through the cornea, malachite green is of concern and needs further study.

Another 2009 study reports that some colors produced and sold in India contain metal-based industrial dyes, causing an increase in skin problems to some people in the days following Holi.

These colors are produced in India, particularly by small informal businesses, without any quality checks and are sold freely in the market.

The colors are sold without labeling, and the consumer lacks information about the source of the colors, their contents, and possible toxic effects. In recent years, several nongovernmental organizations have started campaigning for safe practices related to the use of colors.

Some are producing and marketing ranges of safer colors derived from natural sources such as vegetables and flowers.

These reports have galvanized a number of groups into promoting more natural celebrations of Holi. Development Alternatives, Delhi and Kalpavriksh, – Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, Pune, The CLEAN India campaign and Society for Child Development, through its Avacayam Cooperative Campaign have launched campaigns to help children learn to make their own colors for Holi from safer, natural ingredients.

Meanwhile, some commercial companies such as the National Botanical Research Institute have begun to market “herbal” dyes, though these are substantially more expensive than the dangerous alternatives.

However, it may be noted that many parts of rural India have always resorted to natural colors (and other parts of festivities more than colors) due to availability.

In urban areas, some people wear nose mask and sunglasses to avoid inhaling pigments and to prevent chemical exposure to eyes.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.