Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, is now celebrated around the world, marked by raucous parties where people throw and smear coloured powder on each other.
The festival, the celebrations for which began on March 17 in many parts of India, signifies the arrival of spring and, for many Hindus, the triumph of good over evil.
Held in March on the full moon night known as Phalgun Purnima in the Hindu calendar, the date changes slightly every year. This year, it fell on the evening of Thursday, March 17.
While the first night is usually dedicated to more sombre rituals, it’s on the second day when the vibrant celebrations begin.
Where did Holi begin?
There are varying accounts of the festival’s origins but it has been celebrated in the Indian subcontinent for centuries, as documented in ancient Indian literature.
According to Sushma Jansari, who works as the Tabor Foundation curator: South Asia, in the Department of Asia at the British Museum, there are three main myths associated with Holi.
One of the most popular stories concerns the Hindu deity Vishnu and his devotee Prahlada, she writes on the museum's blog.
According to one version of this story, Prahlada was the son of an evil king named Hiranyakashipu, who demanded that everyone should worship only him. Prahlada refused to worship his father and instead continued to pray to Vishnu. Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, grew angry at Prahlada because of his devotion to Vishnu and decided to kill him. She had been previously blessed by the gods so that she would not be harmed by fire, so she tricked Prahlada into sitting on her lap while she sat in a fire.
Prahlada survived this ordeal because he prayed to Vishnu, while Holika perished. Holi, the name of the festival, is thus derived from the name Holika.
In different parts of India and Nepal, bonfires are lit on the first night of the festival to signify the demise of evil.
Another story is linked to the god Krishna’s love for Radha, Jansari writes. Krishna’s skin was dark blue because a demoness had tried to poison him when he was a baby, and Krishna was worried that Radha wouldn’t like him because of his appearance.
His mother, Yashoda, playfully suggested that he smear some brightly coloured powder on Radha’s face. After Krishna did this, Radha fell in love with him and they were later married.
Some people also believe the Holi colours came from Krishna mischievously throwing coloured water on his subjects, which became part of the celebrations.
How is it celebrated?
In different parts of India, where it’s a national holiday, Holi is adapted to various cultures. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, women playfully hurl sticks at men, who use shields to protect themselves.
In parts of Punjab, Holi fairs are held and can go on for days, while in the north-eastern state of Manipur, young people perform a group folk dance called thabal chongba on full moon night, and celebrations usually last for six days. The fun and games with colours, however, is used everywhere.
Holi is also a big festival in Nepal, where it is a national holiday.
Holi in the UAE
Holi celebrations have gone truly global, thanks to the Indian diaspora. Colour marathons, where participants are doused with coloured powders, have become popular around the world. Some critics, however, say these events destroy the religious significance of the festival.
In the UAE, for example, the festival is usually marked by concerts and outdoor parties. Restaurants have also cashed in on festivities, launching special Holi menus and deals. And after two years of muted celebrations owing to the coronavirus pandemic, events seem to be back in full force this year.
In Dubai, Deira Islands' waterfront marketplace Souk Al Marfa is hosting a celebration on Saturday featuring performances by singers Harrdy Sandhu, Money Aujla and Funky Boyz. From 10am until 6pm, there will be kiosks and stalls selling Holi specials as well as dance performances and the smearing of coloured powder. Tickets, priced at Dh50, are available at Platinumlist.net.
La Mer is also hosting a Colour Beach Party on Sunday, with 12 hours of music, dance, comedy and food and drinks events planned. A line-up of Indian DJs is set to play, including DJ Akbar Sami, DJ Paroma and DJ Zubair. Tickets starting at Dh99 are available at lamerdubai.ae.
— This article was first published on March 16, 2021