Five facts about Holi, the festival of colors – DW – 03/07/2023

1. The origins of Holi

According to the Hindu calendar, Holi falls on the last full moon of winter. Traditionally, it is celebrated in the northern parts of India, but is now popular across the country.

Legend has it that a king of the demons — Hiranyakashyipu — demanded that everyone worship him as a god. But his son, Prahlad, opposed him, which made the king angry. Hiranyakashyipu devised many evil plans to kill his son, but failed miserably.

Finally, the king’s sister, Holika, who was a sorceress, decided to make it her mission to kill the boy. She would sit in a giant bonfire with Prahlad and while her magic powers would protect her, the boy would die. However, her plans likewise failed. The boy survived, while the sorceress burned to cinders.

In many regions, the Holi festival heralds the passing of the cold winter season and the advent of warmer weather, but it also celebrates the victory of good over evil. In Mathura, in northern India, people observe Holi as a celebration of the love between the Hindu god Krishna and his lady love, Radha, and reenact scenes from their lives.

A plate laden with sweet Indian gujiya pastries and a bowl of yellow-colored powder
Holi is unthinkable without gujiya, a sweet pastry with a nuts-and-raisins fillingImage: frameshade/YAY Images/IMAGO

2. Traditional Holi food

Every Holi festivity in India is associated with the special food that is prepared to celebrate the event. The homemade “gujiya,” a mix of nuts and raisins encased in sweet pastry, is traditionally prepared by women in the family on the previous evening of the holiday. Other traditional Holi dishes include “malpua” — fried sweet pancakes; stuffed breads, called “kachoris” — and the ubiquitous “laddoos,” dessert balls made of coconut, wheat or chickpea flour.

3. The traditional Holi drink

Holi is incomplete without the traditional bhang, a drink made of fresh cannabis leaves. A couple of days before Holi, bhang enthusiasts join hands to undertake the tedious task of separating the buds and leaves from the cannabis sativa plant and grind them into a paste. The mixture is added to traditional sweets or mixed with sweetened almond milk as a treat for the special day.

Two glasses of milk infused with spices and garnished with threads of saffron
Sweet almond milk, or thandai, is often spiked with fresh cannabis paste, or bhangImage: Olga Sergeeva/Zoonar/picture alliance

4. It’s Holi-day!

Festivities start in the evening, when families set up bonfires to symbolize the burning of Holika, the sorceress who wanted to kill Prahlad. On the day of Holi, revelers partake of a traditional Indian breakfast and gather with their families and friends to celebrate.

“Holi Hai,” Hindi for “it’s Holi,” is a cue for everyone to gather in one spot, throw and spray colors at each other, and generally make a racket. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away with good-quality organic color on your person and minimal harassment. If you’re unlucky, enthusiastic crowds may carry and dump you into the nearest muddy puddle or you may find yourself doused with permanent, artificial colors that leave your hair and face purple for days on end.

Also, be careful if you’re a man in Mathura: You may be beaten with a stick if you’re participating in the traditional “lathmaar Holi” (Hindi for “beat-with-a-stick Holi”).  If you’re a woman, you may join in!

Man behind several trays holding mounds of powder in red, yellow, pink and other colors
Traditionally, vegetable colors are used, but artificial colors are more popular todayImage: Debarchan Chatterjee/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In western India, revelers often hang a clay pot filled with milk or yogurt at a certain height, while competing groups of boys make human pyramids to get to the vessel and break it open.

5. Holi songs

Songs, including folksongs and Bollywood hits, are a Holi fixture. Neighborhoods often blast religious and festive dance music from stereo speakers placed where people gather to play around with paints and colors.

Many songs, especially Bollywood numbers, have become synonymous with Holi in the past several decades. Perhaps the most popular voice associated with a Holi song is the one sung by Bollywood super star Amitabh Bachchan. “Rang Barse” (Hindi for “It’s Raining Colors”) is quintessential Holi, replete with drugs, dancing, adulterous flirtation and sexual innuendo.

Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

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