More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Holi
Americans love anything that breaks the monotony of the everyday routine. A trip to any Hallmark store reveals that we get fired up about any excuse for festivity that comes our way. Months in advance, our senses and supermarket aisles are flooded with a multitude of cards, candies and decorations. We put up Christmas lights before the Thanksgiving turkey is even out of the oven and start preparing for Halloween in August. We'll make a holiday out of almost anything. This past month, for example, we've celebrated everything from the births of two of our greatest leaders to the emergence of a small weather-forecasting rodent.
When it comes to March holidays, though, the Hindus of India and Nepal have got us beat. While we're drowning ourselves in green beer and digging through the remainders of the snow to hide little plastic eggs, they are taking to the streets in celebration of the festival called Holi.
The roots of Holi extend back thousands of years, and records of early celebrations have been discovered in ancient religious texts and medieval temples. Several different myths and written histories exist that offer various explanations of its origins. The most famous of these depicts the story of an evil king who demanded everyone in his kingdom to worship him – and only him. When his own son began to worship a religious Lord, the king commanded his immortal sister to walk into a pit of fire carrying the son. A higher Lord struck down the sister for her selfish act, and the son was in turn celebrated for his extreme devotion to his faith. This devotion is the cause for the Holi holiday. Many of the other ‘founding myths' also emphasize the allusions to fire and the triumph of good over evil that this tale proclaims.
Holi typically takes place around the full moon, which coincides with the arrival of the springtime season – another cause for commemoration. During the beginning, only married women partook in the celebrations, and they did so with the intentions of securing eternal happiness and good fortune for their families. Today, however, Hindus of all social backgrounds and ages celebrate Holi. Like many American holidays, much of the traditional significance has been lost and the character of the festival more often resembles a raucous street party than a religious observance.
The celebration of Holi begins the night before, on Holi Eve or Holika Dahan, when bonfires are constructed and lit in reference to Holika, the demoness from the myth who took the king's son into the fire. Effigies are often fashioned after these two characters and placed on top of the pile of sticks, twigs and firewood. Some celebrants take burning embers from this communal fire and use them to light small altar fires in their own homes. Others smear ash from the fire on their limbs, which is considered an act of purification. This entire process is known throughout India as the Holi Pooja, though each individual region practices a slightly different form of its observation.
The following day, known as Dhuleti, participants take to the streets and spend the morning throwing water and colored powders all over each other. This practice gives Holi its Western name – The Festival of Colors. Though it is a playful ritual, it also has a more practical significance. Since this time of year is traditionally associated with the onset of viral infections, the colored powders are prepared from herbs believed to have special medicinal and healing properties according to Ayurvedic custom. While it is increasingly becoming more common to buy the powders from a market, some families still choose to make their own at home.
Though both young and old alike enjoy the enthusiasm of Holi, children receive special attention on this day and take particular pleasure in the fun atmosphere of the festivities. Typically, people cheerfully sing and dance in the streets, accompanied by chanting and the beating of drums and other musical instruments. Songs from Bollywood movies are particularly popular, as well as the phrase “Holi Hai!” which means “It is Holi!” in Hindi. Often, vendors spread along the sidewalks and alleys to serve a sweet and refreshing drink called thandai. It is made from a mix of sweetened water, sugar, watermelon juice, almond oil and other fragrances and spices, and it is commonly laced with the intoxicant bhang - which really livens up the day. After cleaning up, families and friends traditionally gather together to share a meal and continue the merrymaking into the evening.
The exact date of Holi varies every year, depending on the lunar calendar. This year Holi is being celebrated in India on March 22. This is one holiday so festive and focused on fun that even the most holiday-hating Grinch or Scrooge won't be let down!