You’ve probably seen photos or videos online of huge crowds of people jubilantly throwing brightly colored powder and paint at one another as part of the Holi Festival (March 28 and 29).
But do you know why this glorious rainbow display happens every year? Or where the name comes from?
It’s a Celebration of Good Triumphing Over Evil
Marking the arrival of spring, Holi is a national holiday in India and Nepal, held to coincide with the last full moon day of winter, according to the Hindu lunar calendar.
The religious origin centers around the legend of Holika (hence the name Holi). The sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, Holika was killed in a fire after she attempted to murder her nephew Prahlad, who prayed to the God Vishnu and was saved from the fire.
It Starts with Bonfires
Symbolizing the fire that killed Holika, in India the festival starts the night before Holi with the lighting of bonfires (called Holika Dahan). People gather around the fires – sometimes topped with an effigy of Holika – celebrating the coming of spring (the heat of the flames is said to represent the onset of warmer weather).
The Colors Symbolize Equality
Also known as the ‘festival of colors’, Holi honors the vibrant hues of spring, and the bright powders and color waters symbolize flames as well, but there’s a deeper meaning behind why people cover each other with pigmented ‘abir’ powder and ‘gulal’ paste.
The colors act as a great leveler, making everyone equal (or equally messy) no matter their caste, culture, or religion.
Food Is an Important Part of the Celebrations
No party would be complete without a delicious spread, and during Holi it’s all about sweet treats.
To fuel all that energetic paint throwing, big batches of desserts are served up. These include such delicious treats as gujiya, flaky pastry parcels filled with dried fruit, served with sugar syrup; malpua, deep-fried mini pancakes; and thandai, a sweet, milky drink flavored with the likes of cardamom, saffron, fennel seeds, and rosewater.
Nepal Has Its Own Holi Traditions
In Nepal, Holi begins when a ceremonial bamboo pole, called a ‘chir’, is erected in the capital Kathmandu. Strips of cloth are tied to the pole as good luck charms, and it is later burned in a bonfire.
As well as the usual paint and powder, in Nepal people also pelt each other with water balloons called ‘lolas’.
It’s Celebrated All Over the World
While the biggest celebrations take place in India and Nepal, people around the world gather each year to mark the festival, some for religious reasons, others just for fun, from Berlin to Barcelona, Singapore to Suriname (pandemic restrictions allowing).
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