Holi: A Hindu Festival

Hinduism contains a number of different festivals. The festivals are often used to celebrate pivotal occasions that have occurred in the lives of the gods. The festivals also celebrate locations and specific dates that are important to farmers. Hindu festivals are full of colour and are meant to be enjoyed by the celebrants (Mayled 14). The importance of Hindu festivals in everyday life can be seen reflected by the actions of the provincial governments, which recognize certain festivals as general worship and declare public holidays allowing for the closure of public offices. The observance of public holidays varies throughout India with some festivals observed as public holidays throughout most of India and some only being observed locally. Festivals are marked by different characteristics that include but are not limited to: fasting, feasts, purification rituals, singing and object worship. The number of celebrants can be limited to a small group of people or a single village or there can be hundreds of thousands of people celebrating together (O’Malley 121-122).

Holi, also known as the festival of colors, is one of the festivals celebrated in the Hindu tradition that takes place every year in the month of Phalguna (February—March). Holi, originally celebrated in the spring as a fertility festival (Ghosh, Bandyopadhyay & Verma 1385), is a celebration to mark the coming of spring (Basak 97). Holi is very popular and is characterised by the use of different colours in different types of mediums such as powders, pastes and water. Traditionally, different types of flowers considered to have valued medical properties are used as ingredients to produce the colours needed for the festival. Today technology has allowed for the development of inexpensive and synthetic colours that can meet the large demand in today’s world. There are many different colours with many different ingredients; Mica dust is used to add sparkle, black contains lead oxide, blue contains Prussian blue, cobalt nitrate, indigo and zinc salts and red contains mercury sulphate. The colours are smeared on the face as well as thrown at other people and can be diluted in water and used in water balloons and water guns as delivery devices (Ghosh, Bandyopadhya & Verma 1385).

Preparing for the festival can vary from area to area but the Hindu lunar calendar plays an important role in marking when the festival begins and on the full moon of Phalguna the festival starts with a fire (Crooke 56). The communal fire is prepared by taking wood from any sources available (trees, houses, fences) and if a piece of wood is removed unknowingly from personal property and is placed in the fire then the owner is unable to remove it (Crooke 294). The bonfire marks the start of the festival by celebrating the cremation of Holika (Marriott 24). Holika was the sister of Hiranyakasipu who is said to have lived in a palace in Deokali in the District of Jhansi. The story tells of Hiranyakasipu being a ruler who tried to kill his son Prahlada because of his worship to Visnu. Prahlada was a firm devotee of Visnu and performed many miracles, this made his father angry and with the help of his sister Holika he tried to kill his son many different times but Prahlada was saved by Visnu each time. Finally, a fire was prepared and Holika tried to tie herself and Prahlada together in an attempt to kill him. Visnu once again intervened and saved Prahlada from the fire while Holika burned to death instead. Another story accounting for the origin of Holi is of the witch Pootana who, under orders from Kamsa, tried to kill the infant Krsna by offering her poisoned nipple. A third story tells of Holika or Holi as the sister of Sanvat and when Sanvat died, Holika’s love for her brother was so great that she threw herself on his funeral pyre and he was restored to life (Crooke 293-294). All of the stories represent good over evil and the burning of the Holi fire is seen as a way to prevent harm being done to the crops and the ashes of the fire are used against diseases (Crooke 296). Whichever story is believed to have been the origin of the festival, to commemorate people dance around the fire and mothers carry their babies around the fire clockwise asking the god of fire Agni to bless them. Certain foods such as coconuts, popcorn, dates, and lentils are roasted and eaten (Mayled 15). Everyone is able to participate in Holi and around the fire all different castes can be seen together including Brahmin priests. The homes of the celebrants have extinguished fires and when they return to their homes they carry with them coals from the bonfire to restart the fires in their homes to represent the New Year. Throughout the night groups of younger people will shout “Holi”, running after each other and even throwing large mud bricks. In the morning old pots are broken, usually thrown against a house, and young men will push and shove each other to embody Krsna’s cowherd companions (Marriott 25).

The day after the bonfire is marked by the throwing of coloured powders (Crooke 295). The throwing of colours is associated with Krsna commemorating his play with milkmaids (gopis) and cowherds while they threw red power (kum-kum) at each other (Mayled 15). When celebrating Holi the idea of “play” is important as it is meant to invoke lila, “the divine presence on earth” (Sandford 41). In consequence, Holi is usually described as “being played” (Marriott 24) or “playing with Holi” (Ghosh, Bandyopadhya & Verma 1385) than as being celebrated. When celebrants play at Holi there is not a prescribed set of rules or instructions as there would be in a regulated game, rather people must participate in the festival and experience what is happening (Marriott 24). Holi is a time when social barriers are temporarily lifted and different types of people can be observed engaging in nonconventional behaviour (Sanford 40). During Holi women can be seen hitting men of high standing, such as the Brahmin, who are important figures in the community. Men and women of lower status in the community engage in hitting the wealthy or those with a higher status. A latrine sweeper can hit a Brahmin man and it is all part of the festival’s role reversal. The role reversal is not seen as a burden nor is revenge supposed to be sought out later; the targets of the beatings can be seen to encourage the behavior and appreciate the prominence that arises from the attention of being sought out (Marriott 27). Throughout the day there are songs, dances heavy with sexual innuendo, and special drinks made from almonds, sugar, curds of milk, anise, and juice from the hemp leaf (bhang) (Marriott 26).

Playing Holi is not without consequence and can result in injuries from the beatings, enthusiastic mobs and flying objects (Marriott 25). Even skin problems can arise because of the colourful powders used during the festival. The substitution of natural dyes for the less costly synthetic dyes, the drying properties the powders can have on skin and the amount of scrubbing it can take to remove the powders from the body are all possible culprits that can create skin problems such as: lesions, scaling, abrasions and cause pre-existing skin conditions to worsen (Ghosh, Bandyopadhya & Verma 1386). These consequences do not keep people from participating in Holi but are seen as part of the festival. Even the injuries and bruises can been seen as “expressions of love” (Marriott 26).

Holi is associated with Krsna (Mayled 15) but it is the breaking down of social constraints during Holi that gives the festival another name “The Festival of Love” (Marriott 28). The conventional expressions of love and respect between parents and children, siblings, neighbours, and different castes are all shattered and take on a new intensity. The festival of love is meant to represent limitless love and dramatize the concept by acting it out with as much joy and passion as possible. Even though Holi can differ from area to area there is a general theme of balance between destruction, renewal, pollution and purification (Marriott 28).




Crooke, William (1983) “The Holi – It’s Origin and Significance.” Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, Vol. 2: 293-297.

Ghosh, Sudip, Bandyopadhyay, Debabrata and Verma, Shyam (2012) “Culture Practive and dermatology: the “Holi” dematoses.” The International Society of Dermatology, Vol. 51: 1385-1387.

Marriott, McKim (1978) “Holi: The Riotous Rites of Love.” Asia, Vol. 1, No. 4: 24-32.

Mayled, Jon (1987) Religious Festivals. East Sussex: Wayland Limited.

Morgan, Kenneth (1953) The Religion of the Hindus. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

O’Malley, L (1935) Popular Hinduism. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation.

Sanford, Whitney (2010) “Don’t Take It Badly, It’s Holi: Ritual Levity, Society, and Agriculture.” In Sacred Play. Selva Raj and Corinne Dempsey (ed.). Albany: New York Press. pp. 37-56.

Sarma, Deepak (2008) Hinduism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Tribhuwan, Robin & Tribhuwan, Preeti (1999) Tribal Dances of India. New Delhi: Discovery    Publishing House.


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Article written by: JenniferAnn Morrison (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.