In nearly every culture around the world, the season of spring is an eagerly anticipated time of year that comes with a much needed dose of rejuvenation and change. As warmer days arrive and flowers begin to bloom, a renewed sense of hope can be felt in the air. While most of the world’s population commences the seasonal change rather informally, those in India celebrate spring’s arrival in the most extravagant way. In either February or March of each year, citizens across the country partake in one of Hinduism’s most notorious holidays. Holi, or the Festival of Colors, marks a time of celebratory rejoicing for Hindus throughout the holy lands.
Although Holi is one of the least religious festivals found on the Hindu calendar, it none the less is one of the most beloved days of the year. Throughout India, citizens use the occurrence to celebrate the arrival of spring, rejoice in the victory of good over evil, and partake in colorful festival activities that captivate the outside world. Additionally, the arrival of spring is used as a time to repair broken relationships, play, laugh, love, and even disregard social norms that have been around since ancient times. As the famous Holi greeting tells us:
Holi is a time to reach out with the colors of joy. It is the time to love and forgive. It is the time expresses the happiness of being loved and to be loved through colors.”
The History of Holi:
The festival of Holi has deep roots within the religion of Hinduism and has been celebrated throughout India for hundreds of centuries. Originally, the holiday was solely recognized as an important agricultural festival, marking spring’s arrival, but over time has transformed into a joyous national occurrence that is regionally celebrated for a wide variety of purposes and accompanied by a diverse set of rituals and ceremonious practices. In addition to being called the festival of colors, Holi is also commonly called the festival of love because citizens today use the occasion as a time to joyously interact with loved ones, make amends to broken relationships, and drop cultural stereotypes associated with the Hindu castes.
Just as there is an array of Holi rituals and celebratory practices, there is also a variety of religious folklore stories associated with the holiday. One famous Hindu legend, however, is most commonly associated with the beloved festival. The ancient tale tells us that there was an evil and pompous king named Hiranyakashipu who forced the citizens he led to quit worshipping Hindu Gods and instead bow in homage towards him alone. In spite of this request, the king’s own son Prahlad, who was a devout follower of the adored Hindu God Vishnu, refused to honor his father’s wishes.
After becoming enraged with Prahlad, the King cruelly punished his son, hoping to change his uncooperative behavior, but was unsuccessful in his efforts. Eventually, Hiranyakashipu encouraged his equally evil sister Holika, hence the festival name of Holi, to test Prahlad’s religious beliefs by challenging him to sit on a burning bonfire with her. Even though Holika was secretively wearing a cloak that made her immune to fire burns, and Prahlada was not, once the fire began blazing, the cloak miraculously flew off of Holika and encased Prahlada. The fabled story, which is commemorated each Holi, ends as Holika burns while Prahlada survives unscathed, and is used as a celebratory reminder of the enduring victory of good over evil.
The Significance of Holi:
Throughout the various states of India, the festival of Holi takes on special significance for different groups of people, but generally the holiday is celebrated to say goodbye to winter and welcome spring. Additionally, citizens use the festival of colors to start their own lives anew. Just as the spring weather brings about a vibrant and uplifting change to trees and flowers, Hindus use Holi as a fresh start to new beginnings. Here are a few of the most symbolic ways that Hindus use Holi as the spring season of their own lives:
- Let Go of Past Mistakes: One of the chief purposes of the festival of colors is to use the day to forgive and forget past errors made by one’s self and others. For individuals who have made mistakes in the previous year, Holi serves as a perfect time to accept their actions, forgive themselves, and start again with a clean sheet.
- Repair Mended Relationships: Just as Holi is thought of as a time to forgive one’s self and forget personal mistakes, it is similarly considered a time to do the same with other people. Hindus use the festival of love to end conflicts, pay or forgive debts, and restart relationships that were previously mended.
- Forget About Cultural Differences: One of the most notable characteristics of Holi is that whole communities put aside cultural difference that stem from India’s ancient caste system. Holi is the one day each year where individuals of all backgrounds harmoniously coexist without caste driven labels, much of which results from individuals’ inability to distinguish one another while covered in the Holi powder known as Gulal.
- Pray for One’s Inner Goodness to Shine Through: While the festival of Holi is considered to be one of the least religious holidays in India, it still is customary for individuals to pray for their own inner goodness to shine through. Just as Prahlada’s goodness triumped over the evil of Hiranyakashipu and Holika, Hindus ask God to help their inherent goodness triumph over their ego-driven evil.
- Laugh & Have Fun: Overall, the festival of Holi is used as a time to celebrate life, laugh, and have fun with others. The day serves as an much needed break from the rigorous of life and Hindus use the day to let loose, forget about their problems, and enjoy the company of friends and strangers alike.
Celebrating The Hindu Festival of Colors:
Similar to many other Hindu festivals and holidays, Holi is spread out over a multiple day window that is filled with a variety of unique customs and rituals. While some other prevalent festivals like Diwali last nearly a full week, Holi is only a two day occurrence that starts on the full moon night of the Hindu month Phalgun. The specific date of Holi in India will change from year to year, but falls between the middle of February and the end of March on the western calendar.
The festival of colors kicks off the night before the actual day of Holi with a ceremony known as Holika Dahan, or the burning of Holika. During this customary ritual, large public bonfires are set up in neighborhoods to symbolize the legendary Holi story of Holika’s burning and the victory of good over evil. As the sun sets or later in the evening, the bonfires are lit and citizens sing and dance around the flames in preparation of the Holi rituals the following day.
The actual Holi ceremonies begin the following morning when citizens gathers in public places to partake in the playful ritual of throwing and rubbing Holi Gulal, the colored powered that is closely associated with the holiday, on one another. While traditional prayer is almost certainly part of most other significant Hindu holidays, the festival of colors is thought of only as a day for joyous fun. Upon competition of the colorful fun, citizens will clean up and visit with family and friends. Now, to end this article, it is most fitting to supply you with a short video showing the festival of colors unfolding firsthand: