Happy Holi 2023: What is the Indian festival of colour and why do we celebrate it?

The annual festival began on March 8 this year

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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 Wednesday in many parts of India, signifies the arrival of spring and, for many Hindus, the triumph of good over evil.

epa09093022   Indian college girls take part in the Holi festival celebrations in Bhopal, India, 24 March 2021. Holi is celebrated on the full moon day and marks the beginning of the spring season. Holi will be celebrated as the Hindu spring festival of colors across the country on 29 March.  EPA/SANJEEV GUPTA
A girl enjoys holi celebrations in Bhopal, India. EPA

Held in March on the full moon night known as Phalgun Purnima in the Hindu calendar, the date changes slightly every year.

While the first night is usually dedicated to more sombre rituals, it’s on the second day that the vibrant celebrations begin. Across India and Nepal, for instance, streets will be filled with colours as powdered dyes are thrown by people at each other and coloured water is sprayed for raucous fun.

Revellers are often advised to moisturise their hair and skin well, to avoid the dye from staining the skin and clothes worn do not usually survive the day.

Deeply rooted in tradition and observed now for hundreds of years, the celebrations are set to be bigger than ever this year, following two years of Covid-19 bans and restrictions.

Where did Holi begin?

Hindu devotees dance as colored powder is thrown on them at Ladali, or Radha temple, at the legendary hometown of Radha, consort of Hindu God Krishna, during Lathmar holi, in Barsana, 115 kilometers (71 miles) from New Delhi, India, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. During Lathmar Holi the women of Barsana beat men from Nandgaon, the hometown of Krishna, with wooden poles in response to their teasing. (AP Photo)
Hindus dance as coloured powder is thrown on them at a Radha temple. AP

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.

People dance as coloured powder is thrown during Lathmar Holi celebrations, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the town of Barsana, northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, March 23, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Holi is a springtime festival celebrated with much colour and revelry. Reuters

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.

Students of Allahabad University celebrate the Holi, the spring festival of colours, inside their campus, in Allahabad on March 24, 2021. / AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA
Students of Allahabad University celebrate the spring festival of colours, on March 24, 2021. AFP

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.

Indian women from Barsana village beat a villager from Nandgoan with wooden sticks as he teases them during Lathmar holi festival celebrations at the legendary hometown of Radha, consort of Hindu god Krishna, in Barsana, India, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. During Lathmar Holi the women of Barsana beat men from Nandgaon, the hometown of Krishna, with wooden sticks in response to their teasing as they depart the town. (AP Photo)
Indian women beat a villager with wooden sticks as he teases them as part of holi celebrations, in Barsana, India. AP

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, are followed 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.

A 12-hour Colour Beach Party is being held in Dubai, featuring top DJs from the UAE and India.

The event will be held at North Beach, La Mer, on Saturday. Performers at the event will include Bollywood DJ Aqeel, India's top-ranked female DJ Paroma and Dubai DJs Shadow, Zubair, Karan and Ziya. There will also be a special live performance by Punjabi singing sensation Kaka.

Tickets for Colour Beach Party start at Dh100 and are available on platinumlist.net.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , March 13 – 2020 :- People celebrating Holi festival during the Clorox Holi Beach Party held at JA Beach hotel in Dubai. Holi is a popular ancient Indian festival. Some guests from UK also celebrated Holi at the Holi Beach Party. (Pawan Singh / The National ) For Weekend Photo Project
People celebrate during the Clorox Holi Beach Party held at JA Beach Hotel in Dubai in 2021. Pawan Singh / The National

— This article was first published on March 16, 2021