The Shades of Holi

The festival of colors

St+art India

Svabhu Kohli, Viplov Singh

Holi - Gatherings & Friendships (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India


Traditionally a Hindu festival, Holi is celebrated with much pomp and splendor on the full moon day of the month of Phalgun (around late February or March). It is largely celebrated in India and Nepal, along with parts of Sri Lanka. On Holi, communities come together to dance, smear coloured powder and throw water balloons at each other.

Holi - The Legend (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

The legend

A primary reason for celebrating Holi is its linkage to a story in Indian mythology that most children have grown up listening to.

According to lore, there once was an asura (a demigod figure with superhuman abilities) king named Hiranyakashyap. He had a son named Prahlada, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap’s brother Hiranyaksha had been slain by Vishnu, because of which Hiranyakashyap loathed Vishnu.

In one of the many attempts to kill Prahlad, Hiranyakashyap sought the help of his sister, Holika.

Holika had been granted a boon by Lord Brahma, of being immune to fire. In the guise of conducting a ritual to please Lord Vishnu, Holika convinced Prahlad to sit on a bonfire and pray with her.

Being unaware of her true intentions, Prahlad dutifully agreed. Soon, Holika and Prahlad were engulfed in flames. But to both Holika and Hiranyakashyap’s shock, the fire did not touch Prahlad, singeing Holika instead.

Prahlad’s devotion to Vishnu protected him from the fire, while Holika - due to her sinister intentions - was reduced to ashes.

Holi - The Bonfire Night (Holika Dahan) (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

Holika Dahan: The Bonfire Night

A ritual arose from this legend called ‘Holika Dahan’, in which people would light a bonfire on the full moon night of Phalgun.

Fire is believed to be a symbol of purification. On the full moon night, people come together and ignite a bonfire as an act of ridding oneself of evil thoughts and intentions.

The next day, people embark on a new beginning with colors and festivities.

Holi - The Colours (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

Celebrating friendship with colours

Holi celebrations generally begin early in the morning. It is welcomed with enthusiasm across communities. Families and neighbourhoods invite each other to gatherings, spray and smear each other with water and powders of different colours.

While most Indian festivals are colourful and bright, Holi goes the extra mile with its focus on colours. Streets are splayed with green, yellow, red, pink, purple and blue hues. Plates are stacked with coloured powders and buckets are filled with coloured water.

One popular legend surrounding the colours of Holi talks about Lord Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, pulling a prank on his beloved consort, Radha. Jealous of Radha’s fair complexion, Krishna, who was dark skinned, smeared her body with coloured powder in a playful attempt to make her resemble him. Soon, this exchange between Radha and Krishna reached the jealous ears of gopis (female cattle herders). They joined in this playful exchange by smearing each other with colours. As time progressed, this episode between Radha, Krishna and the gopis is said to have snowballed into a festival celebrated by all Hindu communities - Holi.

When covered a multitude of colours, the true colour of one’s skin is neither visible, nor relevant. The legend highlights this uniformity created through colour, hinting at the advocacy of racial equality.

As celebrations continue in many parts of India, traditional folk songs are sung with percussion instruments like the dholak. More popular in urban areas is to have selective Bollywood songs that resonate with the festival. And of course, where music is, dancing follows.

The spirit of Holi is reflective of the new blossoms of Spring. As a new season starts, so does new friendships.

Holi - Gatherings & Friendships (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

Holi sets aside all differences and there is social harmony in an abundance of color and joy. It has been celebrated historically by people belonging to all communities and religions, making it one of the most inclusive festivals in India. And now, it's not just India.

The festival is not exclusive to family and friends, and is an opportunity to bond with those outside the usual circles.

It is common sight to see children throwing colored water balloons at strangers on the street during Holi. People react benevolently to being smeared with colours as a gesture of trust and forgiveness.

While there are synthetic pigments available in the market now, natural herbs are still widely used. They are safer and also prove beneficial due to their medicinal and cosmetic properties. There are many plant-based sources of these colours. Yellow powder is prepared from turmeric (an antiseptic), green from henna (a natural coolant) and red from kumkum (which improves complexion). Blue coloured powder can be prepared from dried indigo flowers or blue hibiscus. Similarly, popular colours like purple and saffron are prepared from dried beetroot and mixing with lime with turmeric, respectively.

Heavy water consumption is also a modern concern during Holi. Many have resorted to playing dry Holi as an alternative.

Holi - The Food (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

Food and festivities

What’s a festival without mouth-watering food? Families wake up early in the morning to prepare a galore of savoury delicacies. Children and adults alike flock to tables laden with food items to gorge into after a morning and afternoon of dance and celebration.

Dishes like gujia (sweet fried dumpling), puran poli (sweet bread preparation), dahi bhalle (ground and soacked lentil balls served with yogurt) and papri (thin wheat biscuit) are traditionally prepared on Holi.

During the celebrations, it is common to eat savory delicacies, and drinked a chilled milk preparation called thandai with the option of combining it with bhaang, a traditional ingredient.

After a day filled with celebration, evenings are spent with family and friends by exchanging greetings along with Indian sweet preparations like barfi and thandai.

Holi - Lathmaar Celebrations (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

Regional celebrational styles

Due to the diversity in its regional cultures, Holi celebrations are interpreted differently across the country. It is traditionally celebrated in all its splendour in the northern, western and eastern parts of India.

Hindus in and from South India pray to Lord Krishna in his infant form (Balkrishna), while those in North India are inclined to worship him in his teenage or adult avatar. This marks a tremendous difference in the way devotees celebrate festivals dedicated to Lord Krishna.

As the legend around Holi and Krishna involved Lord Krishna as a teenager, the festival is inclined to be a North Indian custom, although Hindus in southern Indian states do mark the festival with a small puja for Lord Krishna.

The village of Barsana in Uttar Pradesh is considered the birthplace of Radha, hence hosts Holi celebrations of tremendous vigour.

The tradition is that the menfolk of Nandgaon village - considered the birthplace of Krishna - come by to play Holi with the women in Barsana. They’re greeted, however, with sticks by the women!

According to practice, men are not allowed to retaliate to such a welcome. The festival gets a particular name from this tradition here, called ‘Lathmaar Holi’ or the Holi played by hitting with sticks.

The next day, this celebration takes place between the men of Barsana and the women of Nandgaon. Although it appears to be violent on the surface, this style of Holi is celebrated in playful candour.

In West Bengal, Holi is celebrated by the name of ‘Basant Utsav’ or Spring Festival, a tradition initiated by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan. On the morning of Holi, locally called ‘Dol Purnima’, people parade a palanquin enshrining the statues of Radha and Krishna across town. The streets are filled with dance and song, lost in celebration.

Holi - The Colours (2017-03) by Svabhu Kohli and Viplov SinghSt+art India

In Maharashtra, Holi is celebrated differently. Smearing of colours does not take place on the full moon day in Maharashtra. Instead, it celebrated five days after full moon day. Hence, it goes by the name of Rangpachami, where rang means ‘colour’ and panchami stands for ‘fifth day’.

Celebrate Holi! (2017-03-13) by Svabhu Kohli, Viplov SinghSt+art India

With all these different ways of celebration, we invite you to gather your friends, family, and neighbours and play a safe Holi!

Credits: Story

Illustrations: Svabhu Kohli and Viplov Singh

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