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What is Holi?

What is Holi?

Here’s how you can tell it’s Holi: A cloud of reddish dust flies into the air, covering people who are very happy to be temporarily magenta-colored. Another half dozen colors follow, each one bringing more joy.

Known around the world as the Festival of Colors, Holi (pronounced HOH·lee) is a beloved Hindu festival that welcomes the arrival of spring and the end of winter.

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The origins of Holi  

Holi began in India as a Hindu festival. Today it’s celebrated worldwide.

Though the rituals and traditions may vary by region, Holi began as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. It’s associated with the coming of spring, good harvests and fertility of the land. And it’s an opportunity to gather with friends and family and have fun together and for enemies to become friends.

Holi dates are different every year. They’re based on the lunar new year and take place at the end of winter, near the full moon in March. Some upcoming dates:

  • 2021: Holika Dahan begins Sunday, March 28, and Holi is Monday, March 20.
  • 2022: Holika Dahan begins Thursday, March 17, and Holi is Friday, March 18.
  • 2023: Holika Dahan begins Tuesday, March 7, and Holi is Wednesday, March 8.

The first night of Holi, Holika Dahan  

Holika Dahan, which means “the burning of Holika,” takes place the night before the festival of colors.

In ancient times, a demon king, Hiranyakashyap, demanded loyalty from those he ruled—but his son, Prahlad, was loyal to the Hindu deity Vishnu. The king arranged for his sister Holika, who was invulnerable to fire, to lure Prahlad into a bonfire. The boy began to pray to Vishnu and was saved…while his aunt and father were destroyed.

Today the Holika Dahan ritual begins weeks before the celebration: The base of a pyre is built near a temple and around neighborhoods, and people add their own fuel to the growing piles.

When the time for the bonfire arrives, the pyres are adorned with flowers and rangolis (patterns created on the ground with colored powders or rice, flower petals and candles). Incense sticks, fruits, gulal powder (the colored powder used for Holi) and batasha (a traditional coin-shaped sugar candy) are thrown in the fire.

My mom’s side of the family is Indian. I have a fond memory of going to the Hindu Temple in Lenexa, Kansas, for a big Holi event. They had tons of decorations up with food, dancing and vendors. It was one of the last events we went to with my grandpa before he passed, so these memories are very dear. It was fun to see such a huge community of people gather to celebrate. And, of course, the best part was trying all of the food. —Monica J.

Holi: The Festival of Colors  

On the second day, the color play begins. People pelt each other with colored gulal powder (the dry version)—they also throw water balloons and shoot squirt guns at each other (the wet version).

The color play commemorates the love story between Krishna, the deity Vishnu incarnated, and Radha, a Hindu goddess.

Krishna is traditionally depicted with bright blue skin. He feared this would come between him and his intended, the fair-skinned Radha. His mother told him not to wish for fair skin but to splash Radha with paint. This worked and Radha fell in love with him.

Holi takes place during the daytime (all the better to see the vibrant colors) and is all about having fun together. Friends and families, strangers and tourists fill the streets, throwing or rubbing powder on each other and exchanging “Happy Holi” greetings.

Drummers beat out rhythms and crowds dance and sing. Everyone indulges in traditional food, drink and treats.

I used to get ready one day before by selecting old clothes—mostly white—which suits best on Holi day. On the festival day, my apartment block was completely filled with friends trying to find and pull in the other friends who weren’t playing. Once we were finished with our block, we then used to roam the roads on our bikes. This was so fun, and I used to enjoy my bike rides on that day. It’s very hard to differentiate the people with their colored faces. —Rakesh C.

After the paint party, people return home to clean up and dress up. Holi concludes with a feast for friends and family—and they begin the spring with the spirit of harmony.

My family had the chance to celebrate Holi a couple years ago in Mumbai. It was a wonderful experience for my family to throw colors and water balloons. My daughter had fun playing with the local children who enjoyed the opportunity to teach a foreign friend about all the fun activities associated with Holi. Now that our daughter is getting older, we have expanded the conversation to explain the origin and importance of Holi. Every year she asks when we will be visiting India again. —Kristin E.