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Holi, also called the Festival of Colors, is a popular Hindu spring festival observed in Indiamarker, Nepalmarker, Bangladeshmarker, Pakistanmarker, Srilankamarker, and countries with large Hindu diaspora populations, such as Surinamemarker, Guyanamarker, South Africa, Trinidadmarker, the UKmarker, USAmarker, Mauritiusmarker, and Fijimarker. In West Bengalmarker of India and Bangladeshmarker it is known as Dolyatra (Doul Jatra) or Basanta-Utsab ("spring festival"). The most celebrated Holi is that of the Braj region, in locations connected to the god Krishna: Mathuramarker, Vrindavanmarker, Nandagaonmarker, and Barsanamarker. These places have become tourist destinations during the festive season of Holi, which lasts here to up to sixteen days .

The main day, Holi, also known as Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing colored powder and colored water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in Andhra Pradeshmarker.

Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna (February/March), (Phalgun Purnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March. In 2009, Holi (Dhulandi) was on March 11 and Holika Dahan was on March 10.

Rangapanchami occurs a few days later on a Panchami (fifth day of the full moon), marking the end of festivities involving colors.


In Vaishnava Theology, Hiranyakashipu is the king of demons, and he had been granted a boon by Brahma, which made it almost impossible for him to be killed. The boon was due to his long penance, after which he had demanded that he not be killed "during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or on sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra". Consequently, he grew arrogant, and attacked the Heavens and the Earth. He demanded that people stop worshipping gods and start praying to him.

Despite this, Hiranyakashipu's own son, (Prahlada), was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from Hiranyakashipu, Prahlada continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. He was poisoned but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and survived. All of Hiranyakashipu's attempts to kill his son failed. Finally, he ordered young Prahlada to sit on a pyre on the lap of his sister, Holika, who could not die by fire by virtue of a shawl which would prevent fire affecting the person wearing it. Prahlada readily accepted his father's orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as the shawl flew from Holika, who then was burnt to death, while Prahlada survived unharmed, after the shawl moved to cover him. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.

Later Lord Vishnu came in the form of a Narasimha (who is half-man and half-lion) and killed Hiranyakashipu at dusk (which was neither day nor night), on the steps of the porch of his house (which was neither inside the house nor outside) by restraining him on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth) and mauling him with his claws (which are neither astra nor shastra).

In Vrindavanmarker and Mathuramarker, where Lord Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days (until Rangpanchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna). Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the festival by playing pranks on the gopis here. Krishna is believed to have complained to his mother about the contrast between his dark skin complexion and Radha's (Shakti or energy that drives the world) fair skin complexion. Krishna's mother decided to apply colour to Radha's face. The celebrations officially usher in spring, the celebrated season of love.

There is alternate story detailing the origin of Holi. This story is about Kamadeva, a god of love. Kama's body was destroyed when he shot his weapon at Shiva in order to disrupt his penance and help Parvati to marry Shiva. Shiva then opened his third eye, the gaze of which was so powerful that Kama's body was reduced to ashes. For the sake of Kama's wife Rati (passion), Shiva restored him, but only as a mental image, representing the true emotional and spiritual state of love rather than physical lust. The Holi bonfire is believed to be celebrated in commemoration of this event.

Holi is a festival of radiance (Teja) in the universe. During this festival, different waves of radiance traverse the universe, thereby creating various colours that nourish and complement the function of respective elements in the atmosphere.

Rituals of Holi

Earliest textual references regarding celebration of Holi have been found the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnavali . Holi has certainly perennial rituals attached to it, the first is smearing of coloured powder on each other, and throwing water, coloured and scented using pichkaris, shaped like giant syringes or squirt guns. Though the festival really begins many days in advance, with 'Holi Milan' or Baithaks, musical soirees, where song related to the festival, and the epic love story of Radha Krishna are sung; specially type of folk songs, known as “Hori” are sung as well. Some classical ones like Aaj biraj mein Holi re rasiya, have been present in the folklore for many generations.

Food preparations also begin many days in advance, with assemblage of gujia, papads, kanji and various kinds of snack items including malpuas, mathri, puran poli, dahi badas, which are served to Holi guests. The night of Holi, the baithak turn into event of churning bhang ( cannabis) to make intoxicating milk shakes.

Holika Dahan: The Holi bonfire

The main emphasis of the festival is on the burning of the holy fire or Holika. The origin of the traditional lighting of Holi is attributed by some to the burning of demonesses like Holika, Holaka and Putana who represent evil, or to the burning of Madan according to others.

Traditionally a bonfire on the day of Holi, marks the symbolic anhilation of a demoness Holika the sister of demon, Hiranyakashipu, in Hindu mythology, while trying to kill, a devotee, Bhakta Prahlad .

This is akin to other festivals where effigies are burned, like Ravana Dahan on Vijayadashami (Dusshera) day, also in many other religions across the world, signifying end of dark or demonic forces, though with Holika Dahan, the effigy has now been all but vanished or present in a symbolic form, except in few areas in the Braja region, where effigies are still seen on street corners and public squares, piled on top of an assemblage wood. This set to fire after ritualistic worship, and people make pradakshina of the bonfire. The next day this victory is celebrated as the day of Dulhendi.


Principal ingredients of celebration are Abeer and Gulal, in all possible colours. Next comes squirting of coloured water using pichkaris. Coloured water is prepared using Tesu flowers, which are first gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground up, and later mixed with water to produce orange-yellow coloured water. Another traditional Holi item now rarely seen is a where a red powder enclosed in globes of Lakh, which break instantly and covering the party with the powder. .


Regional rituals and celebrations

Dol-Purnima (Rang Panchami), the festival of colour is celebrated with great festivity and joy. On this day, people come out wearing pure white clothes and gather together in a common place where they play it with gay abandon.


Holika Dahan, Kathamandu, Nepal.
In Nepalmarker, Holi is regarded as one of the greatest festivals, as important as Dashain (also known as Dussehra in Indiamarker) and Tihar or Dipawali (also known as Diwali in Indiamarker). As more than 80% of people in Nepalmarker are Hindus, most of the Hindu festival is celebrated as the national festival and almost everyone celebrates it regardless of the religion i.e. even Muslims celebrate it. Christians may also join in although Holi mostly falls during their Lent season and many would not join in the festivities. The day of Holi is also one of the national holiday in Nepalmarker.

People walk down their neighbourhoods to celebrate Holi by exchanging colours and throwing and splashing water to each other. One of the most famous activities is throwing water balloon to each other also called Lola (meaning water balloon). Also a lot of people mix 'bhang' in their drinks and food as done in Shivaratri. It is believed that the combination of different colours played at this festival take all the sorrow away and make life even more colourful .


In Punjab Sikhs celebrate a similar festival known as Hola Mohalla. It is played on grand scale. In fact, the Holi celebration at Anandpur Sahibmarker is famous all around India. Even people from abroad go to Punjab to celebrate Holi in northern style.

Uttar Pradeshmarker

Barsanamarker is the place to be at the time of Holi. Here the famous Lath mar Holi is played in the sprawling compound of the Radha Rani temple. Thousands gather to witness the Lath Mar holi when women beat up men with sticks as those on the sidelines become hysterical, sing Holi Songs and shout Sri Radhey or Sri Krishna. The Holi songs of Braj mandal are sung in pure Braj Bhasha.

Holi played at Barsanamarker is unique in the sense that here women chase men away with sticks. Males also sing provocative songs in a bid to invite the attention of women. Women then go on the offensive and use long staves called lathis to beat men folk who protect themselves with shields.In Sultanpur UP Holi is fun.All villages are involved to enjoy altogether.

In Mathuramarker, the birth place of Lord Krishna, and in Vrindavanmarker this day is celebrated with special puja and the traditional custom of worshipping Lord Krishna, here the festival last for sixteen days . All over the Braj region and its nearby places like Hathrasmarker, Aligarh, Agramarker the Holi is celebrated in more or less same way as in Mathura, Vrindavanmarker and Barsana.

In Gorakhpurmarker, the northeast district of Uttar Pradeshmarker, this day is celebrated with special puja in the morning of Holi day. This day is considered to be the happiest and colorful day of the year promoting the brotherhood among the people. This is known as "Holi Milan" in which people visit every house and sing holi song and express their gratitude by applying colored powder (Abeer). Holi is also considered as the end of the year as it occurs on the last day of last Hindu calendar month Phalgun. People also kickoff for the next year planning with new year Hindu calendar (Panchang) at the evening of Holi.
Holi celebrations, Pushkar, Rajasthan.

Holi is celebrated with the same fervour and charm in Biharmarker as in rest of north India. It is known as Phagwa in the local Bhojpuri dialect. Here too, the legend of Holika is prevalent. On the eve of Phalgun Poornima, people light bonfires. They put dung cakes, wood of Araad or Redi tree and Holika tree, grains from the fresh harvest and unwanted wood leaves in the bonfire. Following the tradition people also clean their houses for the day.

At the time of Holika people assemble near the fire. The eldest member or a purohit initiates the lighting. He then smears others with colour as a mark of greeting. Next day the festival is celebrated with colours and lot of frolic.

Children and the youth take extreme delight in the festival. Though the festival is usually played with colors at some places people also enjoy playing holi with mud. Folk songs are sung at high pitch and people dance to the tune of dholak and the spirit of Holi.

Intoxicating bhang is consumed with a variety of mouth watering delicacies such as pakoras and thandai to enhance the mood of the festival. Vast quantities of liquor are consumed alongside ganja and bhang, which is sometimes added to foodstuffs.

On the Dol Purnima day in the early morning, the students dress up in saffron-coloured clothes and wear garlands of fragrant flowers. They sing and dance to the accompaniment of musical instruments like ektara, dubri, veena, etc. presenting an enchanting view to the onlookers and a memory to cherish for years.Holi is known by the name of 'Dol Jatra', 'Dol Purnima' or the 'Swing Festival'. The festival is celebrated in a dignified manner by placing the idols of Krishna and Radha on a picturesquely decorated palanquin which is then taken round the main streets of the city or the village. The devotees take turns to swing them while women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs. All this while men keep spraying coloured water and coloured powder, abir, at them.

The head of the family, observes fast and prays to Lord Krishna and Agnidev. After all the traditional rituals are over, he smears Krishna's idol with gulal and offers "bhog" to both Krishna and Agnidev.

In Shantiniketan, holi has a special musical flavour.

Traditional dishes include malpoa, kheer sandesh, basanti sandesh(of saffron),saffron milk, payash,etc.

The people of Orissa celebrate Holi in a similar manner but here the idols of Jagannath, the deity of the Jagannath Temple of Purimarker, replace the idols of Krishna and Radha.

Festival of colours, Holi is celebrated with great fanfare in the Gujarat state of India. Falling on the full moon day in the month of Phalguna, Holi is a major Hindu festival and marks the agricultural season of the Rabi crop.

Bonfire is also lit in the main squares of the villages, localities and colonies. People collect at the time of bonfire and celebrate the event, which is symbolic of the victory of good over evil by singing and dancing. Tribals of Gujarat celebrate Holi in great enthusiasm and dance around the fire.

In Western India, Ahmedabadmarker in Gujaratmarker, a pot of buttermilk is hung high on the streets and young boys try to reach it and break it by making human pyramids while the girls try to stop them by throwing coloured water on them to commemorate the pranks of Krishna and cowherd boys to steal butter and 'gopis' trying to stop them. At this time the men soaked with colours go out in large procession to mock alert people of the Krishna who might come to steal butter in their homes. The boy who finally manages to break the pot is crowned the Holi King of the Year for that community.

At some places, there is a custom in the undivided Hindu families that the women of the families beat their brother-in-law with her sari rolled up into a rope in a mock rage as they try to drench them with colours and in turn the brother-in-law bring sweetmeats for her in the evening.

In Maharashtra, Holi is mainly associated with the burning of Holika. Holi Paurnima is also celebrated as Shimga. A week before the festival, youngsters go around the locality, collecting firewood and money. On the day of Holi, the firewood is arranged in a huge pile at a clearing in the locality. In the evening, the fire is lit. Every household makes an offering of sweets and a complete meal to the fire god. Puran Poli is the main delicacy and children shout " Holi re Holi puranachi poli ". Shimga is associated with the elimination of all evil. Fun of playing with colours traditionally takes place on the day of Rangapanchami unlike North India where it is done on the second day itself.

Manipuris in northeastern part of India celebrate Holi for six days. Introduced in the eighteenth century with Vaishnavism, it soon merged with the centuries-old festival of Yaosang. Traditionally, the festival commences with the burning of a thatched hut of hay and twigs. Young children go from house to house to collect money as gifts on the first 2 days. The youths at night perform a group folk dance called 'thaabal chongba' on the full moon night of Phalgun along with folk songs and rhythmic beats of the indigenous drum. However, this moonlight party now has modern bands and fluorescent lamps. In Krishna temples, devotees sing devotional songs, perform dances and play with 'gulal' wearing traditional white and yellow turbans. On the last day of the festival, large processions are taken out to the main Krishna temple near Imphalmarker where several cultural programs are organized.

South India
In Mattancherry area of Kochi, there are 22 different communities living together in harmony. Moreover, the Gaud Sarawat Brahmins (GSB) who speak Konkani also celebrate Holi in Cherlai area of West Kochi. They locally call it as Ukkuli in Konkani or Manjal Kuli in Malayalam. It is held around the majestic Konkani temple called Gosripuram Thirumala temple. This year Ukkuli will be celebrated on March 23, 2008 in Cherlai.

Holi is celebrated with much fervor. Schools and colleges declare holiday that day and in Bangalore 2009 some MNC's like Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant Technology Solutions had declared holiday for Holi.Children, Adults alike play Holi. There is also a tradition followed in rural Karnataka, where children collect money and wood for weeks prior to Holi, and on Kamadhanam all the wood is put together and lighted.

Civilians as well as the Indian security force officers celebrate Holi in Kashmir. Holi, a high-spirited festival to mark the beginning of the harvesting of the summer crop, is marked by the throwing of coloured water and powder and singing and dancing.
Holi celebrations by the India Student Association at University of New Mexico

Haryana, Rural Delhi & West UP
The region also has its own variety of Holi, the festival is celebrated with great jest and enthusiasm.

Indian diaspora

Over the years, Holi has become an important festival in many regions wherever Indian diaspora had found its roots, be it in Africa, North America, Europe and closer home in South Asia.

Traditional Holi

The spring season, during which the weather changes, is believed to cause viral fever and cold. Thus, the playful throwing of natural coloured powders has a medicinal significance: the colours are traditionally made of Neem, Kumkum, Haldi, Bilva, and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedic doctors.

A special drink called thandai is prepared, sometimes containing bhang (Cannabis sativa). For wet colours, traditional flowers of Palash are boiled and soaked in water over night to produced yellow coloured water, which also had medicinal properties. Unfortunately the commercial aspect of celebration has led to an increase in the use of synthetic colours which, in some cases, may be toxic.

Synthetic colours

A young man celebrating Holi
As the Spring-blossoming trees that once supplied the colours used to celebrate Holi have died, chemically produced industrial dyes have been utilized to take their place in almost entire urban India. In 2001, a fact sheet was published by the groups Toxics link and Vatavaran based in Delhi on the chemical dyes used in the festival. They found safety issues with all three forms in which the Holi colours are produced: pastes, dry colours and water colours.

In investigating the pastes, they found toxic chemicals with potentially severe health impacts. The black pastes were found to contain lead oxide which can result in renal failure. Two colors were found to be carcinogenic: silver, with aluminium bromide, and red, with mercury sulphate. The prussian blue used in the blue paste has been associated with contact dermatitis, while the copper sulphate in the green has been documented to cause eye allergy, puffiness and temporary blindness.

A Natural Holi in Pune, a perfect alternative to synthetic colours
The colourant used in the dry colours, also called gulals, was found to be toxic, with heavy metals causing asthma, skin diseases and temporary blindness. Both of the commonly used bases—asbestos or silica—are associated with health issues.

They reported that the wet colors might lead to skin discolouration and dermatitis due to their use of colour concentrate gentian violet.

Lack of control over the quality and content of these colours is a problem, as they are frequently sold by vendors who do not know their origin.

The report galvanized a number of groups into promoting more natural celebrations of Holi. Development Alternatives, Delhi and Kalpavriksh, Pune, The CLEAN India campaign and Society for Child Development, through its Avacayam Cooperative Campaign [56218] have both launched campaigns to help children learn to make their own colours for Holi from safer, natural ingredients. Meanwhile, some commercial companies such as the National Botanical Research Institute have begun to market "herbal" dyes, though these are substantially more expensive than the dangerous alternatives. However, it may be noted that many parts of rural India have always resorted to natural colours (and other parts of festivities more than colours) due to availability reasons.

An alleged environmental issue related to the celebration of Holi is the traditional Holika Dahan bonfire, which is alleged to contribute to deforestation. A local tabloid had a view published that 30,000 bonfires each burning approximately 100 kg of wood are lit in one season. Several methods of preventing this consumption of wood have been proposed, including the replacement of wood with waste material or lighting of a single fire per community, rather than multiple smaller fires. However, the idea of lighting waste material antagonizes large sections of a certain community who take it as a Western attack to their cultures and traditions citing several examples of similar festivities elsewhere.

See also


  1. Scientific information of Holi
  2. Origins of Holi BBC.
  3. The Festival of colours BBC.
  4. CIA - The World Factbook - Nepal
  6. Holi - the festival of colours Indian Express.
  7. Holi Festival as Celebrated in Western United States
  8. [1]
  9. Festivities trigger skin cancer
  10. Festivities trigger asthma and blindness
  11. The safe Holi campaign - Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, Pune
  12. CLEAN India campaign
  13. No real attempt to save trees-Ahmedabad-Cities-The Times of India

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