Celebrate Holi, the festival of colors!

Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors

Holi celebrations captured in poetry date back to the 4th century CE. Also known as the Festival of Colors, Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil and the changing of the seasons from winter to spring. I asked some creative peers near and far, and they shared their knowledge and experiences:

“Also known as the Festival of Love, it celebrates the eternal and divine love between Radha Krishna. It also celebrates the significance of love, forgiveness, and building bridges in human relationships. Traditionally, it also signifies the triumph of good over evil. It is a festival carrying multiple messages submerged in its vibrant colors,” said Megha Sood, an award-winning Jersey City poet.

Unmesh Mohitkar, International Poet from Pune, Maharashtra, noted that Holi is the victory of good vs. evil that leads to “…burning of all the negative thoughts in your mind, represented by Holika bonfire, in which people contribute small pieces of wood… We also play colours. This is a day of equality. Anyone from any strata (level) of society can share their views about others openly and play colours.”

According to the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India website, in 2022 Holi is celebrated on March 18th and 19th and is one of the major festivals of India.

The Holi legend of good defeating evil is most notably told in the story of the burning and destruction of a demoness named Holika; made possible with the help of the Hindu god of preservation, Lord Vishnu.

Holi got its name as the "Festival of Colors" from the childhood antics of Lord Krishna, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who liked to play pranks on the village girls by drenching them in water and colors. In parts of India, Holi is also celebrated as a spring festival to provide thanksgiving for an abundant harvest season.

Holi takes place according to the Hindu lunar calendar. The festival begins with Holika Dahan on the night of the full moon (purnima) in March each year and concludes with the throwing of colors the following day.

The emphasis of Holi rituals is on the burning of demoness Holika. On Holika Dahan, large bonfires are lit to mark the occasion. As well as conducting a special puja (worship ritual), people sing and dance around the fire and walk around it three times. In some parts of India, people even walk across the hot coals of the fire! Such firewalking is considered sacred.

The “Color Run” or “Playing of Colors” refers to the healing effect of pouring and throwing of colored powders made from natural sources, such as from flowers and herbs, on the human body.

Photo credit: Megha Sood & Son

Each color carries its own meaning:

For example, blue is a reminder that evil exists but can be contained, through courage and right actions and representative of Vishu, the preserver, in the form of Nilakantha, the blue-necked one. Krishna is a manifestation of Vishnu. His name means “dark,” and like Vishnu he is portrayed with blue skin. Blue, then, is the spiritually complex color of the gods.

Green, the color of nature and happiness, is another manifestation of Vishnu, Prince Rama, who spent most of his life in exile in the forest. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in central India, married women often wear green bangles and a green sari in Rama’s honor. Since there is no naturally green dye in India, cottons and silks would be double dipped in indigo and in turmeric or pomegranate peel, which leads us to yellow.

Yellow is associated with the third caste of Vaisyas, or merchants. The 3,500-year-old Rig Veda book of sacred hymns refers to Lord Vishnu as tantuvardhan, or weaver, because he is said to have woven the rays of the sun into a garment for himself. He and Krishna are almost always shown dressed in yellow.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Mag (2016)

Nirupa Umapathy, from Chennai (previously Madras), India, Jersey City based Radical Everything founder, changemaker and writer brings awareness that Holi is not celebrated by everyone in or from India. Growing up in the south of India she left India at the age of 18 and admits to not celebrating Holi neither in Madras or the USA.

What does celebrating Holi look like across communities?

I asked this of some of the creatives in my circle, and they each offered these insights:

Priya Kumari is the founder of Eternal Tree books and is currently based in New Jersey. She provided these details about celebrating Holi:

“Holi is mainly celebrated across two days in our community. The celebrations begin on the night before Holi with Holika Dahan where we light a bonfire and offer prayers to Fire god. This fire is cleansing in nature and takes away all evil and regenerates our system. This is the time when gods are thanked for a good harvest, and some wheat corns are offered into fire as a symbol of making an offering to gods. Later we smear each other with gulal (dry color powder).

"The next day is Badi Holi which is a fun filled affair of colors. The air fills up with flying colors, sounds of folk songs and drums. We splash water and children often fling water balloons on each other. It is a fun time especially for children who carry water guns to squirt water on anyone passing by. This is the day when no one feels offended and everyone unleashes the inner child in themselves. It’s also the day when we set aside all the differences and immerse ourselves in the color of harmony and unity. Later in the evening, families gather for festive meals and gorge on specially prepared delicacies like gujiya, thandaai, chaat etc.”