If you visit India sometime in the early spring, you might come across what looks to be a commercial for a television set. Hindus everywhere are throwing abeel and gulal all over, powders of bright red, magenta, green, and blue collecting on the streets. Children are painting different hues on their parents and loved ones.
Welcome to Holi, the Festival of Colors. It is a celebration of renewal across India, Nepal, and other parts of the subcontinent, a time of strengthening communal ties.
One of the most popular Hindu myths surrounding the Holi Festival tells of a demon-king named Hiranyakasyapu who asked for a boon from Hindu God Brahma that he be made invulnerable from harm. With each demonstration of his new-found power, the king became reckless, forcing his subjects to abandon the old gods and worship him alone. Only his son Pralad remained devoted to Lord Vishnu. The king threatened Pralad with poison, massive elephants, and venomous snakes but Pralad remained unharmed. At last, the King set him on the lap of his sister, the demoness Holi, who was wearing a fireproof shawl. They were both put on a pyre to burn, but as Pralad continued to pray for protection, the shawl magically transferred from Holi to himself. This saved the prince while his aunt burned.
Holi marks the start of spring for Hindus, a ritual that brings back color from the bleak winter season. The first day is marked by singing and dancing around bonfires on the main squares of communities, to symbolize the fiery destruction of Holi and the victory of good over evil. The second day is the application of color to people and places. All the activities and fun snap people from the indolence. There is even a medicinal aspect to the festivities, as the colors are customarily made from Kukum, Neem, and other herbal remedies, which ward off fever and other illnesses associated with the changing of the seasons. Kids especially delight in applying gulal and abeer, small pieces of crystal or paper, on their families and loved ones. Colors abound in the marketplace, though some families still keep the tradition of making their own colors from tesu and palash flowers.
Holi is also a time when social restrictions are relaxed, when employers party with subordinates, when peers of the opposite sex exchange gifts, and when people of different classes intermingle. This is remarkable for a society that lives under the shadow of the caste system. Sweets, flowers, and packets of colors are common gifts.
Each region in India celebrate Holi in their own way, using different names for the festival. Some communities have son-in-laws playfully attacked by their women relatives with sticks, while men from other towns are lashed with whips made of cloth. Youths in certain villages climb human pyramids for a chance to smash a pot of buttermilk hung high in the air.
Recent environmental awareness has called attention to the trend of using synthetic colors, which is more affordable and convenient compared to the traditional way. Studies have found out the factory-produced tints have several toxic components in them. Health officials are encouraging people to go back to the traditional, organic process of acquiring the colors from flowers. Other issues are the massive bonfire displays, which consumes thousands of firewood with each festival.
Nevertheless, Holi will continue to be celebrated, because it is not about the colored powder or the fires in the night. The festival of colors is about Hindus gathering every year and rejoicing that dreary winter is over and once more, the colors are back in the world.