The festival of Holi is an annual Hindu celebration beginning on the day of the full moon in March. It is often referred to as the festival of colours and is celebrated throughout the Hindu world, but predominately in Northern India. Taking place at the same time in Southern India, is a festival in honour of Kama the god of love; both are a celebration of spring’s arrival and of love (Reiniche 4081). Though Holi is celebrated in many different ways, the main ritual centres on the lighting of a bonfire, with the rising of the full moon. This ritual symbolizes the burning and subsequent annihilation of the demoness Holika, and the survival of young Prahlada, an earnest worshiper of Lord Krsna [an incarnation of Visnu] (Reiniche 4081); thus, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. Furthermore, the cheerful spirit of Holi has spread throughout the globe and is celebrated in numerous cultures in a variety of ways.

The festival begins on the last full moon of the Hindu lunar month of Phalguna, usually occurring in late February or early March. The end of Phalguna marks the end of the winter season and announces the commencement of spring (Crooke 55-56). William Crooke describes the spring season as a joyous and hopeful period indicating a time of leisure from field work, as crops from the spring harvest begin to reach their maturity (56). Furthermore, Hindu poets commonly regard the season as jubilant and fertile, as it represents the season of marriages. Thus, the festival of Holi is a time for celebration and rejoicing. Generally, the celebration extends over three days, but various regions have differing observances: approximately twenty days in Mumbai, fifteen days in Pune and a week or more among the Bihl people of Western India (Crooke 56-57).

Celebrations of Holi vary and range widly in different villages and so forth however, the spirit of fellowship remains constant. Primarily, the festival takes place in the Northern states of India, but celebrations are observed all around the country (Reiniche 4081). The region of Braj located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, holds particular significance for the festival as it is associated with the birth place and childhood of Lord Krshna (Marriott 106-107). Though not as grand as the Northern celebrations, the states in Southern India do display a communal harmony, and participate in festivities. The Southernmost state of Tamil Nadu celebrate Holi around the myth of Kamadeva, the god of love (Reiniche 4081). Thus, Holi is a celebration of love in addition to the arrival of spring.

The literal meaning for the word ‘Holi’ is ‘burning’ (Reiniche 4081). There are numerous myths regarding the orgin of the word, the most notable however is the legend of the demon king Hiranyakasyapa and his son Prahlada. Much to Hiranyakashyap’s dismay, Prahlada became a devout worshiper of the Hindu god, Visnu, who his father hated severely (Wilkins 150). As a result of his unconditional devotion to Visnu, Prahlada refused to worship his father. Enraged by his son’s persistent apparent betrayal, Hiranyakashyap’s condemned Prahlada to death (Wilkins 151). Wilkins goes on to describe the demon king’s subsequent attempts of killing his son, who is continually unaffected. From bites by poisonous serpents, to being trampled by elephants, Prahlada emerges unharmed, professing his belief in Visnu each time (152). Finally, Hiranyakashyap summoned his demoness sister Holika, who had been granted a boon [a wish] that prevented her from being harmed by fire (Marriott 99). She was commanded to sit in a bonfire with Prahlada on her lap in the hope that this attempt would finally kill him. However, it was unknown that the boon only allowed Holika to withstand flames, if entered alone. Thus, as Prahlada chanted Visnu’s name, he was saved from the flames, while Holika burned to death for her evil desires (Marriott 99). For this reason, the festival of Holi is a celebration symbolizing good over evil and the power of devotion.

From this legend comes the symbolic Holi tradition of ‘Holika Dahan’, which refers to the lighting of a bonfire (Reiniche 4081). Typically, preparations for the fire begin days in advance of the full moon, such as the gathering of wood and cow dung piles. Subsequently, the fire is lit with the rising of the full moon, marking the beginning of the festival (Reiniche 4081). In addition to it symbolism of the Holika legend, the fire often represents the foretelling of the coming harvest by the direction of the flames. Additionally, coals and embers are taken from the Holi fire to rekindle household hearths, as the ashes are believed to be sacred and protect against evil forces and disease (Reiniche 4081).

Another legend prominent in the celebration of Holi is of Krsna and his beloved wife Radha (Williams 239). Young Krsna was envious of Radha’s fair complexion, as his was dark; mischievously, one day Krsna applied colour to Radha’s face to make her more like himself. As a result of this myth comes the ritual of the ‘playing of colours,’ symbolizing the immortal love of Krsna and Radha (Marriott 107). Colour playing, perhaps the most notable feature of the Festival of Holi, begins on the day following the bonfire and consists of drenching others in various coloured waters and powders, in addition to mud and cattle urine (Reiniche 4081). The colours are often composed of gulal, a natural powder, and abeer, fragrance, and are sold by street vendors.

Holi is a festival accompanied by pranks and tricks in the spirit of Krsna’s “roisterous personality” (Marriott 106), and is often observed as violent. For example, McKim Marriott recounts his Holi experience and portrays the initial night following the Holika Dahan, as one of chaos and pandemonium (101): mobs throwing cow dung, smashing pots and breaking through loose doors are just some recollections by Marriott (101). Additionally, the women’s harassment of the men is another common observance of Holi. Women will drag, beat with sticks and dress the men in female attire yet, all in the playful spirit of Holi (Reiniche 4081). Marriott’s recollection illustrates this practice: “I know that I witnessed several hysterical battles, women rushing out of their houses in squads to attack me and other men with stout canes…” (104). The festival is also occasionally regarded for its erotic nature; erotic dancing takes place in the streets, as a symbol of spring’s connection with fertility (Jackson 203).

Perhaps most unique of the festival of Holi is its encouragement of social role reversal. Marriot suggests the festival provokes leniency for typical Hindu inter-caste and inter-sex norms. For example, “the servile wife acts as the domineering husband, and vice versa; the ravisher acts the ravished; the menial acts the master; the enemy acts the friend; the strictured [sic] youths acts the rulers of the republic” (110-111). For the duration of the festival an overflowing of the usual traditional hierarchies of age, sex, caste, wealth and power are replaced with love and indifference (Marriott 110).

As a result of globalization, today the Festival of Holi is observed in various forms all across the world among the Hindu population, and also other various races and religions (Reiniche 4082). As the trees traditionally used to make natural coloured powders have become increasingly rare, synthetic, chemically produced dyes have been manufactured (Biswas, et al. 204). Consequently, controversy has recently emerged over the use of these chemicals used in modern powders and dyes, and their potentially severe health impacts (Biswas, et al. 204). Nevertheless, Holi has had a considerable impact on various cultures, as the playing of colours has appeared in numerous settings. Notably in North America, is Colour Me Rad: a five-kilometer race where participants begin in all white attire and are doused in a different vibrant colour every kilometer. Various expressions of the Festival of Holi have appeared all across the globe, differing significantly from place-to-place; however, remaining persistent throughout all practices is the joyous, celebratory spirit of Holi.















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Crooke, W. (1914) “A Vernal Festival of the Hindus.” Folklore. Vol. 25, No. 1: 55-83.

Jackson, Robert. (1976) “Holi in North India and in an English city: Some adaptations and anomalies.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Vol. 5, No. 3: 203-210.

Marriott, McKim (1966) “Holi: The Feast of Love.” In The Life of Hinduism, by John

Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan, 99-112. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Reiniche, Marie-Louise (2005) “Holi.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 6, No. 2: 4081-4082.

Wilkins, W. J. (2009) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Williams, George M. (2008) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford

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Holika Dahan

Gulal and abeer


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Article written by Alayna Small (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.