What is Holi? Everything you need to know about the Hindu festival of colour

The annual festival begins on March 28 this year

Holi festival celebrations are held in March, on the full Moon night known as Phalgun Purnima in the Hindu calendar. EPA
Holi festival celebrations are held in March, on the full Moon night known as Phalgun Purnima in the Hindu calendar. EPA

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 signifies the arrival of spring and, for many Hindus, the triumph of good over evil.

Indian college girls take part in the Holi festival celebrations in Bhopal, India, 24 March 2021. EPA
Indian college girls take part in Holi festival celebrations in Bhopal, India, on March 24. EPA

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 falls on Sunday.

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?

Hindu devotees dance as coloured powder is thrown on them at Ladali, or Radha temple, at the legendary hometown of Radha, consort of Hindu God Krishna, in Barsana, 115 kilometers from New Delhi, India. AP
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, King 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 derived from the name Holika.

People dance during Holi celebrations in the town of Barsana, northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India. REUTERS
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
Students of Allahabad University celebrate Holi, 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 holi festival celebrations in Barsana, India. AP
Indian women from Barsana village beat a villager from Nandgoan with wooden sticks as he teases them during Holi festival 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, is used everywhere.

Holi is also a big festival in Nepal, where it is a national holiday.

Holi outside the Indian subcontinent

Holi celebrations have gone truly global, thanks to the Indian diaspora. 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.

People celebrating Holi festival during the Clorox Holi Beach Party held at JA Beach hotel in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National 
People celebrating Holi festival during the Clorox Holi Beach Party held at JA Beach Hotel in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

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.

Covid-19 and Holi

Celebrations in 2020 were muted because of the social nature of the festival. This year will be no different. State governments in various parts of India have banned any form of public celebrations during Holi, while some have limited public gatherings.

A Hindu devotee takes part in a traditional Holi gathering in Barsana village of India’s Uttar Pradesh state. AFP 
A man takes part in a traditional Holi gathering in Barsana village of India’s Uttar Pradesh state. AFP

The Uttar Pradesh government issued a set of guidelines asking senior citizens and vulnerable groups to stay away from celebrations and said no processions or gatherings will be allowed without prior administrative permission.

The Department of Delhi Disaster Management Authority, meanwhile, said public celebrations for coming festivals such as Holi and Navratri, and gatherings in general will not be allowed. “All district magistrates and concerned authorities should ensure strict adherence to the order,” it said.

Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation on Tuesday announced that Holi celebrations, on Sunday and Monday, will not be permitted in both private or public places.

Updated: March 30, 2021 12:26 PM

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