Science Behind Holi: The Festival of Colors

Have you ever thought that there could be a reason why we celebrate festivals? Let's explore the science behind the festival of Holi

By National Council of Science Museums

Krishna and Radha Celebrating the Holi Festival with Companions (circa 1750) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Holi, the festival of Colors, is celebrated in different corners of India on full moon day in the month of Phalgun, which is the month of February/March as per the Gregorian calendar. ‘Holi’ marks the onset of Spring. Throwing of colours to each other is the signature of this festival. Therefore, it is often referred to as the Festival of Colours.

Narasimha Disemboweling Hiranyakashipu, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Stories of the Lord) Narasimha Disemboweling Hiranyakashipu, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Stories of the Lord)Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Mythologically, Holi is associated with the legend of the demon King Hiranyakashyap and his son Prahlad and sister Holika . Mythology apart, this festival has a great scientific significance behind it. Holi is a science in itself. Let's trace the science behind the festival of Holi.

Todi Ragini, Second Wife of Hindol Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1775-1800) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Changing seasons and health

Holi is played in the Spring Season, which is a period between end of winter and advent of summer. In older times or even now also, those people not taking a bath regularly during winter often develop some skin eruptions leading to even severe infections. Also unwanted particle accumulations on the human body happen. This needs rinsing out. The science of using natural colours like turmeric is to cleanse the body and remove unwanted accumulation on the skin.

Holika Dahan BonfireNational Council of Science Museums

Holika Dahan, on the other hand, is performed to burn all that is dry and dirty to pave the way for new life in the spring.

Holika Dahan parikrama by womenNational Council of Science Museums

Following the tradition when people perform Parikrama (go around the bonfire/pyre), the heat coming from the bonfire kills the bacteria in the body and cleanses it.

Holika Dahan parikrama by menNational Council of Science Museums

In some parts of the country, after Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) people put ash on their forehead and also mix Chandan (paste of sandal wood) with the young leaves and flowers of the Mango tree and consume with a believe that it would promote good health.

This is the time, when people get the feeling of tardiness. This is quite natural for the body to experiences some tardiness because of change in weather from cold to the hot in the atmosphere.

A Holi festival (19th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

To counter this laziness, people sing Songs (Phag, Jogira etc.) with Dhol, Manjira and other traditional instruments. This helps in rejuvenating the human body. Their physical movement while playing with colors also helps in the process.

Celebration of Holi in a Palace (1775-1800) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Plant based sources of colors

Traditionally, Holi colours were derived from natural sources and are either particulate powders or liquid splashes. In ancient times, when people started playing Holi, the colours used by them were made from plants like Neem, Haldi, Bilva, Palash (etc). 

Krishna and Gopis Celebrating the Holi Festival (circa 1700-1720) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

The playful pouring and throwing of color powders made from these natural sources has a healing effect on the human body. It has the effect of strengthening the ions in the body and adds health and beauty to it.

Let's explore some of the shades and the natural ingredients that can be used...

Green Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Green

Mehendi in its powder form, dried leaves of Gulmohur tree, leaves of spring crops and herbs, rhododendron leaves and pine needles can be used to make green color. Or, you can go healthier and use spinach leaves!

Yellow Ingredients for Holi Yellow Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Yellow

Turmeric (Haldi) in its powder or juice from the fresh root, Bael fruit, amaltas, or even gram flour can be used for shades of yellow.

Yellow Ingredients for Holi Yellow Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Many flower species are yellow, such as chrysanthemums, marigold, dandelions, sunflowers, daffodils, and dahlias.

Yellow Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Flowers of Tesu tree (Palash) can give you hues of yellow and orange.

Orange Ingredients for Holi Orange Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Orange

Saffron, barberry, or mixing lime with turmeric powder will give you orange shades.

Another option is to soak mehendi in water which will give you the orange hue.

Red Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Red

Rose, dried hibiscus flowers, madder tree, the bark of crab apple trees, and fragrant red sandal wood can be used for reds.

Red Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Peels and the seeds of pomegranate, or even radish are a great source of red color.

Red Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Red and Violet

Indian berries such as the Barberry, Blueberry, and Wildberry can be made into a paste.

Purple Ingredients for Holi Purple Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Violet

Of course, the beetroot, is a strong natural dye. Both in its powder form, and the juice mixed with water can be used.

Blue Ingredients for Holi Blue Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Blue

Indigo, Indian berries, species of grapes, blue hibiscus, and jacaranda flowers could be used in powder, paste, or liquid forms.

Brown Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Brown

Katha or the catechu, which is an extract of acacia trees, generally used as an ingredient in paan is a brown source.

Red maple trees are also a source for brown color.

Brown Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Another easily available ingredient is your everyday dried tea leaves or coffee. Feel free to brew some in warm water!

Black Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

Black

Some species of grapes, and the dried fruit of Gooseberry (Amla) can create a black color.

Natural Ingredients for HoliNational Council of Science Museums

If the natural ingredients has piqued your interest in Ayurveda, you can learn more about certain plant properties in the exhibit Ayurveda: Indian Contributions to Medicine.

Fortune Color June 1941 (1941) by Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

Effects of synthetic colors

Coloured Powder in MarketsNational Council of Science Museums

These days, the market is mostly flooded with synthetic colors, which are cheaper.

They usually comprise of toxic components such as lead oxide, diesel, chromium iodine, and copper sulphate which lead to rashes on the skin, allergies, pigmentation, and eye irritation.

Coloured Powder in MarketsNational Council of Science Museums

Green might contain copper sulphate and can cause problems like eye allergy and temporary blindness.

Red might contain mercury sulphide, which can lead to skin cancer, mental retardation, paralysis, and impaired vision.

Purple might contain chromium iodide leading to health problems like bronchial asthma and allergies.

Blue might contain Prussian blue, which can cause contract dermatitis.

Silver might contain aluminum bromide, which is carcinogenic.

Black might contain lead oxide leading to health problems like renal failure and learning disability.

Allergy (1946-08) by Sam ShereLIFE Photo Collection

Synthetic colors can cause serious skin diseases and clogging of hair cuticles resulting in severe hair damage.

It's safer and healthier to deliberately opt for herbal colors even if it is costly. If demand increases, the cost would naturally come down.

Emperor Muhammad Shah (reigned 1719-48) Presides Over Celebrations of the Spring Festival of Colors (Holi Utsava) (circa 1725-1750) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Top tips for Holi Festival

How to prepare and protect yourself from the ill effects of the synthetic colors used throughout the celebrations

Body

It’s a good idea to apply a thick layer of moisturizer, petroleum jelly, or coconut oil on your face and other exposed parts of the body to prevent colors from coming into direct contact with your skin.

Hair

Oil your hair and scalp with olive, coconut, or castor oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice to prevent dandruff and infection triggered by the chemical colors.

Lips and eyes

Don’t wear lenses. Mostly people are interested in applying surprise colours on your face and you may get your eyes hurt by the lenses. Use a sun glass to protect your eyes from a misfire of color filled darts or water jets. Apply a lip balm for your lips.

Maharana Shambhu Singh of Mewar Playing Holi (1868 - 1869) by ParasuramThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Clothing

What you choose to wear should cover maximum parts of your body. Wear dark colour-full sleeves cotton clothes. Synthetic cloth would be sticky and denims would be heavy once you have a bucket full of colors/water splashed on you.

Krishna and Radha Celebrating the Holi Festival with Companions (circa 1750) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Keep hydrated with water

Drink plenty of water before you start playing Holi. This will keep your skin hydrated. Also keep sipping water carefully while playing Holi.

Credits: Story

Artworks courtesy respective institutions.

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