Holi is one of India’s great festivals and is renowned around the world as the “festival of colour”. It is an auspicious occasion which celebrates the end of a long winter and the beginning of a sunny spring. It symbolises victory of good over evil and is celebrated in true Indian style.
Holi itself starts on the evening of the first day of the full moon (Purnima), in accordance with the Hindu calendar. The festival runs over two days with the first day is known as Chhoti Holi and the second-day being Rangwali Holi.
Chhoti Holi begins just after sunset with a Holika bonfire (Holika being Prahlada’s evil aunt). The bonfire is central to religious rituals, prayer and devotees gather at the edge of the fire with a focus on destroying any internal evils one possesses. They say that any quarrel that has taken place in the previous year are all forgiven and forgotten after Holi, the slate is wiped clean.
There is one particular ritual that I adore and have only observed in certain areas of India. It takes part later in the evening when the crowd start to disperse. It is when the babies born from the previous year are dressed up in their finest threads, heads are shaved and fashioned with a crown made from flax and security flora, their eyes are decorated with Kohl (a natural eyeliner said to ward off any evil spirits), while the fathers carry them around the fire 9 times and the families look on. From what I understand, this is said to thank Lord Vishnu for protecting the child during its first year of life, as well as to ensure good luck and a healthy future of the infant. It is a beautiful ritual to watch.
You must be careful, though. These bonfires are often stuffed with fire crackers so it never pays to stand too close to the edge, or at least wait until the fire dies down.
The festival has different meanings to different devotees within the Hindu religion but the main consensus is it is a celebration of good over evil and the worship of Vishnu, one of three main GODs in the Hindu religion.
According to one of the ancient scripts, the Bhagavata Purana, Holi is about Prahlada defeating his evil aunt. Of good triumphing over evil.
Prahlada was the son of King Hiranyakashipu who was the king of demonic Asuras (demons). Due to a special boon that he had earned during a battle he had been given superhuman powers. The boon had five commands its owner; could not be killed by human being nor animal, not indoors or outdoors, not during the nor during the night, not by a projectile or handheld weapon, and not on land nor in water or air. As time went by Hiranyakashipu grew conceited and began to believe he was a god. As a result, he began to demand that his people worship only him.
Prahlada was a devoted follower of Lord Vishnu and refused to worship his father in such a capacity. Angered by his son’s insolence he subjected Prahlada to cruel and unusual punishments, none of which had any effect on his son or change the boy’s opinion.
It was Holika, Prahlada’s evil aunt who finally decided how to teach the boy a lesson. She conjured up a fire of pure unimaginable evil. She then draped herself in a magical clock which was resistant to the demonic flames and tricked the boy into sitting on her lap. She then carried the boy into the flames while he tried desperately to resist her grasp. As they descended into the flames, Holika had a smile on her face and laughter on her lips when suddenly the clock which she was wearing flew off her shoulder and wrapped around Prahlada instead. Holika was burned alive an agonising death which she had intended for her nephew and Prahlada was safe.
Lord Vishnu is known in Hindu beliefs as the restorer of dharma. In this case he took the of Narasimha, a mythical being, half human and half lion (not human being nor animal), at dusk (not during the night or during the day), he took King Hiranyakashyipu to a doorstep (not indoors nor outdoors), picked him up and placed him on his lap (not on land nor in water or air), then disembowel and killed the king with his lions claw (not by projectile nor handheld weapon).
This is why the Holika bonfire on Chhati Holi is of such significance in the Holi festival.
The following day is a colourful blur. It is an absolutely amazing phenomenon to observe. People from all walks of life, different castes, different ages, men, woman and children just come together and, well, play. It is a great concept which brings so many people together and perhaps the only time of the year where you will see a businessman and a beggar rolling on the ground laughing at each other. This is known as the Rangwali Holi (Rang means colour). Colourful powders named gulal are made out of flowers and natural ingredients and are used to throw at each other, ensuring that you resemble some kind of miss-matched rainbow by the end of it. To add insult to injury there is also a lot of colourful water thrown around a massive water fight which ensues, ensuring that the colourful powder turns into a thick paste which can literally take weeks to get out of your hair. You literally end up in so much pain by the end of the day, mainly from smiling and laughing.
Although the Holi festival has many reasons to celebrate, as a tourist you must be vigilant. It can be very dangerous and there are many parts of Holi which my Indian friends will not allow me to participate in. It is a time of year when I am quite literally locked away unless I am with a trusted member of the community. It is a time where drugs and alcohol are tolerated and sexual assaults skyrocket. If you get caught at the wrong place it can be a very, very horrible experience.
Avoid the afternoon and evening celebrations, most cities will have special tourist areas which are policed and monitored for explicit behaviour so stick to the tourist areas. Or better, make friends with a local family (preferably with children) and let them show you how they celebrate.
Don’t stand too close to the bonfires. As I mentioned they tend to stuff them with firecrackers which explode in every which direction.