Holi - Festival of Colors

3 March 2013

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If you live in a large, multi-ethnic city virtually anywhere in the world it is a possibility that in the next few weeks you will see groups of people in parks merrily spattering each other with paint. While you might be excused for thinking that it is a new form of corporate team building – and what a great one that would be – you would be wrong. The throwing of multi-colored water and powder is in fact the popular Hindu spring Festival of Colors, also known as Holi.

This festival has been conducted in India and Nepal for hundreds of years but as the Hindu diaspora grows other countries as far afield as the UK and the US are getting involved in the fun. It may be that outside of the Hindu communities, however, that is religious aspect has been somewhat diluted - some Holi celebrations look more like a rock concert! However, as a rite of spring, most agree it can hardly be beaten.

Holi takes place in the month of Falugna and always on the first full moon day. In western terms that means that it takes place either in late February or early March Holi but this year is late - falling on March 27. The fun starts the day before, however, with the Holika Fahan. This is the celebration of the miraculous esacpe a young boy, Prahlad, had from the demoness Holika. Holika was a devotee of Lord Vishnu – the supreme god in Vaishnavite Hinduism and he was carried in to the fires by the demoness. She was burned but due to his devotion, young Prahlad escaped unharmed.

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Prahlad was actually the son of the king of demons, Hiranyakashipu makinh Holika his aunt. Hiranyakashipu was annoyed that despite his orders to the contrary, Prahlad continued to pray to Vishnu – hence the fire episode. When this did not work, Vishnu later came down and killed the almost invincible Hiranyakashipu by what amounts to assassination by sleight of hand.

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The greater emphasis of this spring festival is the Holika, or the holy fire and the bonfires represent the burning of Holika and other such demons. Yet, Holi is a festival of Teja, or radiance, the waves of which travel the universe and bring forth the colors that feed and complement the elements of the atmosphere.

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Holi is celebrated with varying differences throughout the Hindu diaspora. In Nepal it is combined as a national festival. In the Punjab the celebrations are on such a grand scale that people travel from all over the world to participate. In Uttar Pradesh, again a vast celebration, women (traditionally) get the chance to beat up men with sticks to celebrate the festival. The men sing bawdy songs in an attempt to lure the women away from purity and the women, in return, beat them with sticks. Fortunately, the men do get to protect themselves with shields (and often get their own back with the odd bucket of water).

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As with most spring festivals throughout the year, the changing seasons signify change in other areas of life. In many Christian festivals it is associated with rebirth but in traditionally Hindu areas the spring season with the associated changes in the weather, is believed to bring with it colds and viruses. So, the throwing of different colored water and power represents the medicinal cure for these illnesses – people are literally wishing each other well.

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Of course, when you are young and male, holiday festivities like this are always a good excuse to go out, carouse, get drunk and drive four on a motorcycle in search of fun.

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As with Christmas this festival has become more and more commercialized over the last few decades. While traditionally the colors are produced by using medicinal herbs such as Neem and Bilba, more and more people buy ready made mixtures which have been found to contain scarily high amount of toxins. The holika bonfires are also said to have greatly contributed to deforestation in some areas.

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The festivals can now be seen throughout the world as the Hindu minority in many western countries gain confidence in their right to express their unique religion and culture. Although it would add to the commercialization of the holiday, it would be huge fun if the holiday was extended to encompass the wider communities there too.

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