Holi festival before gulal.

Hindu Holi festival welcomes spring with colorful rituals in India

Holi festival, the most anticipated festival in India, marks the beginning of spring.

A two-part Hindu celebration that is synchronized with the moon and held shortly after lunar new year, it divides into the nightly ritual of purification, the Holika Dahan and the daytime carnivalesque fete, Rangwali Holi.

Held from two to 16 days, depending on the region, it is the most colorful too. Engaged in a series of collective rituals and public revelry, participants slather their bodies with  colorful powders or splash each other with colored water. Villages and cities in the Southeast Asian country, and in its diaspora, are literally painted with blues, oranges, greens, yellows, silvers, pinks and reds.

Blue is the Color of My True Love’s Skin

From its religious doctrine, Holi draws from love and war with the Hindu love story between Krishna and Radha, gods in a complex pantheon of divinities both good and evil.

Relinquishing divisions based on skin color, caste hierarchies and ethnic identity is a part of the Holi festival.

According mythology, Krishna was concerned that his blue color, different than Radha’s lighter hue, would be an issue. His mother suggested that he paint Radha’s face a similar color to his to overcome differences. The story invokes the messages of fertility and union , is still a practice for lovers today.

Arun Muthmani and Bishakh Bhattacharya of Indian Institute of Technology say that in Kanpur, the combination of colors symbolize, “mixing people of various cultures and traditions.” This moment is meant to temporarily discard the rigid caste system and ethnic identities upheld in India.

Another part of the the traditional ceremony is the Holika Dahan fire, in which the silk cotton tree plant is burned in a bonfire the night before the daytime revelry.

This part of the celebration represents the sacrifice of Hoilka, a malevolent entity. Forced to walk through flames while carrying her nephew, Prahlada, who became a devotee of Vishnu, his punishment for forsaking his father, the demon king, Hiranyakashyap, was Holika’s death.

At this time, worshippers engage in a purification ritual through pyre that represents the prevail over good and evil. During the evening, families gather around fires to roost corn, coconuts, chickpeas and other grains.

A carnivalesque scene, Holi celebrates the festival started by freedom fighters against British colonial rule.

Though there is a lesson in racial and ethnic tolerance, Holi became a colorful display during British colonial rule. After the arrest of a handful of freedom fighters, others in the independence movement used the Holy celebration to protest. So they organized a fair called, Ganga Mela. During the festival they paraded through the streets while dancing and playing with colors as they beat the drum.

Over the years, environmentalists warn that the use of toxic chemicals in the colorful powders upticks skin issues after the festival, and burning trees led to the rapid decline of forestry. While alternatives are strongly suggested, people still hold dear to long-held traditions.

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