I’ve never been fortunate enough to time my visits to “the Motherland” around the time of Holi, so my only real experiences with the festival in the US were organized by an extracurricular Indian language and culture program that had permission to use a local school’s campus on the weekends. Regardless, the playful magic of Holi was present in the sparse plumes of colored powder that were strewn at friends and strangers in the parking lot of an east Massachusetts public school on a random Sunday in May (in the interest of celebrating during warmer weather).
Many non-Hindus are tangentially aware of the festival of Holi and its famously colorful traditions. Large cities across the United States and around the world have their own dedicated Holi celebration on the closest weekend, and more and more college campuses are including the festival in their annual activities calendar. Like Diwali and other Hindu festivals, Holi doesn’t have the same date annually per the adherence to the lunar Hindu calendar. But what is Holi exactly?
Holi is largely known as the Festival of Color, but also has a reputation as the Festival of Spring and the Festival of Love. The celebration, lasting one night and one day, occurs on a full moon night in the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna, usually lining up around late February to mid-March. On the eve of Holi, people gather at bonfires to perform religious rituals and set their internal evils ablaze, referencing the Hindu story of demon king Hiranyakashyap and his son Prahlada.
Hiranyakashyap sought immortality and divinity by any means necessary and was threatened by those who wouldn’t observe his supremacy. The king was largely successful in this pursuit, but his own son, Prahlada, refused to recognize him as a deity, choosing to focus his devotion on Lord Vishnu (one of the three principal gods of Hinduism). Enraged, Hiranyakashyap convinced his sister, Holika, to take her nephew on her lap and sit on a burning pyre. Holika believed she was invincible after receiving a blessing and that Prahlada would perish, but she was incinerated immediately as Vishnu protected Prahlada from harm. The death of Holika signifies the triumph of good over evil.
The story of Radha and Lord Krishna, eternal lovers of mutual infatuation, was said to be the origin of Holi’s colorful daytime element. There are some variations to the storytelling, but the premise is that Krishna, known for his blue complexion, was insecure and jealous of the beautiful Radha’s fair skin. Paying heed to his mother’s advice, Krishna applied color to Radha’s face to make her more like himself, and the gesture became folded into the festival.
Naturally, the festival is celebrated on a much grander scale in South Asia with regional differences throughout. The most ubiquitous form of the celebration is when anyone and everyone, clad in cheap light clothing, launches colorful powders and pigmented water at each other. Welcoming spring and the season of harvest, Holi is inherently playful and joyous as it channels the love between Radha and Krishna.
While the festival is purported as an inclusive holiday for anyone to participate in, it must be said that for centuries, members of lower caste groups have been routinely excluded. Some have been harassed, assaulted, and killed by upper caste members across South Asia during Holi over clashes regarding the sanctity of upper caste “purity” being compromised by lower caste inclusion.
It’s also worth noting that despite its reputation for harmony and joy, Holi is frequently used as an excuse for mischief and misbehavior as it’s typically regarded as an “anything goes” holiday. Go with an open mind, have fun, and as always, watch your step and don’t take anything too far.