Holi: Ancient Tradition For Modern Times

A boy reacts when colored water is thrown at him during Holi celebrations in Kolkata. (Photo: Rupak De Chowdhuri, REUTERS)

Hindu festivals are communal celebrations through which an aspect of the universal Truth is brought to life.  The rituals of the festival are intended to strengthen bonds between and within families and communities.

Today the concepts of Holi have spread beyond their birthplace in India and are celebrated around the world by people in all walks of life.

Traditionally, the Holi Utsav is celebrated for two days, starting on the Purnima (Full Moon Day) of Hindu Lunar Calendar Month of Phalgun.  It falls in the month of Falgun, which is somewhere between the end of February and the middle of March. The first day is known as Holika Dahan, Chhoti Holi and the second as Rangwali Holi, Dhulandi or Dhulivandan.

Many Traditions

In India, many traditions are followed in different parts of the country.

On the first night an effigy of Holika is burnt to represent the victory of good over evil. Neem leaves are burned to represent removal of bitterness of life, leaving the sweetened medicinal value. It is also a time for cleansing and burning all negativities and trash of the winter in a bonfire.

The puranic story tells us, Hiranyakashipu wanted to take revenge for the death of his younger brother who was killed by Lord Vishnu. The king prayed for years to gain power.  And he was finally granted a boon.  Hiranyakashipu thought he was on par with God and asked his people to worship him like God. His young son Prahalad, was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Prahalad did not follow his father’s order and kept on worshiping Lord Vishnu. The King decided to kill his own son, as his ego was not gratified.

He conspired with his sister ‘Holika’, who was immune to fire, to sit on a pyre of fire with Prahalad in her lap. Their plan was to burn Prahalad. But they did not succeed. Prahalad kept reciting the name of Lord Vishnu. Holika was burned to death and her righteous nephew, Prahalad came out unscathed.  His intense devotion and belief in God’s protection kept him safe.  The story highlights the ineffectiveness of human power over others in the face of God’s power for a devotee who has fully surrendered (somewhat similar, in essence, to David and Goliath). It also shows that a child is not necessarily an inheritor of either the vices or the virtues of his/her parent.  Each can choose their destiny.

The defeat of Holika signifies the burning of all that is bad. After this, Lord Vishnu himself killed Hiranyakashipu. But it is actually the death of Holika that is associated with Holi. Because of this, in some northern states of India like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, a pyre in the form of bonfire is lit on the day before Holi day to remember the death of evil.


In Braj, the birth place of Lord Krishna, Holi is a celebration of love.  It celebrates the legend of Radha and Krishna where Krishna took great delight in applying color on Radha and other gopis.  This prank of Krishna later, became a trend and a part of the Holi festivities. The, celebrations begin a fortnight before the actual festival.

Mythology also states that Holi is the celebration of death of Ogress Pootana who tried to kill infant, Krishna by feeding poisonous milk to it.

Another legend of Holi which is extremely popular in Southern India is that of Lord Shiva and Kaamadeva. According to the legend, people in south celebrate the sacrifice of Lord of Passion Kaamadeva who risked his life to revoke Lord Shiva from meditation and save the world.

Also, popular is the legend of Ogress Dhundhi who used to trouble children in the kingdom of Raghu and was ultimately chased away by the pranks of the children on the day of Holi. Showing their belief in the legend, children till date play pranks and hurl abuses at the time of Holika Dahan.

On the second day spring is heralded colorfully and celebrated joyously.

Holi, is indeed the festival of colors in which friends, family and the community come together. Traditionally turmeric and natural colors were used to put colors and they came from flowers and herbs—which in the hot climate of India tend to produce bright natural dyes—but today they’re usually synthetic.

Holi is played with everyone, regardless of any status, hierarchy in social or professional standing or gender. The colors equalize all. No one is higher or lower.  Afterall the motto is “Burra na mano Holi hai”.

Colors have been part of Holi from the time of Lord Krishna.  Our oral history records that Krishna celebrated Holi with colors and Apparently, they played pranks all over and so made it a community event. Holi celebrations at Vrindavan are unmatched even today.

Ancient Roots

Holi is one of the oldest Hindu festivals. It is mention in ancient religious books like, Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutra.  Even the temples of ancient India have sculptures of Holi on walls.  One of these is the 16th century temple in Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagar. The temple has many scenes from Holi sculpted on its walls showing princes and princesses along with their maids holding pichkaris to squirt water on royals. Many medieval paintings such as a 16th century Ahmednagar painting, Mewar painting (circa 1755), Bundi miniature all depicts Holi celebrations in one way or the other.

Holi is a spring festival to say goodbye to winters. In some it is associated with spring harvest. Farmers see their wealth replenished with new crops.  They celebrate Holi to express their happiness. Because of this, Holi is also known as Vasant Mahotsava.

Participants crowd surf, dance and throw colored chalk during the Holi Festival of Colors at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, March 30, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

Now Holi has become a global phenomena.  The pitchkari that Krishna played with the Gopis has inspired people around the world to have fun with the colors in a way meaningful to them.  The 5K Color Run was the first paint race of its kind, where the runners are doused with color.  Disney’s World of Color thrills the audience with graceful jets of water that shoot into the air, lasers that electrify the night and perfectly timed pyrotechnics explode in a blaze of brilliant color. Around the world Paint Parties, Mud Runs, and the grand ISKCON Holi festivals are held, intentionally and unintentionally invoking the playfulness of Krishna with the Gopis.

And, of course, no festival is complete without feasting which happens throughout the day.  It is certainly an excuse to eat foods that awaken the senses and keep your spirits high. Traditional Holi delicacies vary from region to region and family to family, but there are a few important snacks and drinks most enjoy during their celebration. So as one goes out, as one throws brightly colored powder everywhere, one can enjoy a thandai (bhaang-laced glass or straight up), and eat oneself silly with mithais like gunjhia, puran poli, malpua, dahi vadas….

However, there is an aspect of the festival that is slowly catching the imagination – community service, UtsavSeva (Festivals of Seva).  Developed by Hindu American Seva Communities (www.hinduamericanseva.org) it augments the spirit of Hindu festivals through seva events organized during this time and connecting them with the cultural heritage of equality that we celebrate during Holi.

UtsavSeva, is based on the idea that every Hindu festival is connected with its Vedantic, philosophical meaning, and seva, or service. The strength of the Dharmic culture is the multitude of ways in which the Puranic (ancient traditional) stories and epics are brought to life through colorful festivals and selfless service (seva). These stories and epics bring to surface the deep philosophical truths of the ancient

Hindu scriptures, known as the Vedas. Festivals often express the common Vedic tenets of Hinduism, and of other Dharmic cultures, making them accessible to people from all walks of life. The legend of Hiranyakashyap and Prahalad highlights that one pointed devotion to God will protect you as a shield even though you are sitting in the lap of Holika’s fire.  Good conduct and the virtue of truthfulness are part of the kavatch, the shield.

As we enjoy the festivities during Holi through colors and “eat, drink, and be merry” we bring a joyful synthesis and expression of spirituality, religion, philosophy, culture, service, and social values. The spiritual aspect is founded on human instincts of joy and happiness. The philosophical aspect is grounded in the struggle between the forces of good and evil with the ultimate triumph of the former. This struggle and ensuing victory of good is to be celebrated and used as a reminder to us, and future generations, that selfless service and giving are an interwoven part of our traditions.

Our tradition has often been taught with high-level thoughts and aphorisms to connect this philosophy to everyday life.  Holi helps to bring the society together and strengthen the secular fabric of our country.  Holi is the time when even the enemies become friends on Holi and all negative feelings are forgotten.  Besides, on this day people do not differentiate between the rich and poor and everybody celebrate the festival together with a spirit of bonhomie and brotherhood.  In the evening people visit friends and relatives and exchange gifts, sweets and greetings. This helps in revitalizing relationships and strengthening emotional bonds between people.

Festivals, like Holi, form a lifeline that bind the Hindu and Dharmic cultures to family, the community, and the country in which they reside. Hindu festivals also reflect and sustain pluralistic values for diverse people to coexist harmoniously. So, festivals a become the time to give, bring the quality of equality to the forefront and help those in need. Holi’s message of victory of good over evil can unify everyone, by advancing community service and values of pluralism and collaboration.

Anju Bhargava is an ordained Hindu priest and found of Hindu America Seva Communities




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