Holi Explained Religion Series

This year, Holi takes place during a global pandemic. This highly-social festival of colors is fast becoming popular around the world. So, what is the festival all about?


Holi is a major Hindu festival. It celebrates the arrival of spring and the beginning of a new harvest season. Customarily, Holi is celebrated with colors, feasting, music, dance, joyous socialization and much revelry.


Holi is celebrated by Hindus across the world. Non-Hindu communities in India celebrate Holi too. It is also increasingly becoming popular among non-Indian communities around the world.


Traditionally, the grandest celebrations of Holi are held in Mathura and Vrindavan, two ancient North Indian cities with the strongest traditions of Krishna worship. Holi is celebrated across India and Nepal in a variety of ways. In the eastern state of Manipur, celebrations last six days. Indian diasporic communities in places such as Bali, Fiji, the Caribbean, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US also celebrate Holi. Over the last few years, Holi celebrations have kicked off in unlikely locations such as Japan, Morocco and Brazil.


Like all Indian festivals, there is more than one myth associated with Holi. The most popular myth associated with its origin pertains to Hiranyakashipu, an asura (demon) king who was an unjust tyrant. His son, Prahlada, became a devotee of Vishnu, the preserver god of Hinduism’s holy trinity that comprised the creator Brahma and the destroyer Shiva. Prahlada’s worship of Vishnu enraged Hiranyakashipu who decided to kill his own son.

Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, conspired to kill her nephew. She had a fire-resistant cloak that made her immune to injury from fire. Holika sat on a pyre with Prahlada to burn him alive. Through Vishnu’s grace, Holika’s cloak flew from her and encased Prahlada, causing her to die. Throughout India, Holika is symbolically burnt on the night before Holi.

Another popular myth relates to Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, who turned dark when the demoness Putana fed him her poisonous breast milk. Therefore, Krishna dreaded approaching fair Radha with whom he was in love. Krishna’s mother advised him to playfully color her face and ask Radha to do the same. The advice worked. Krishna, the amorous figure of Indian mythology, is associated and worshipped with Radha to this day. Other paramours do not make the cut. As per this myth, since that fateful day when Radha and Krishna became a couple, Holi remains a festival of color.


Holika Dahan, the symbolic burning of the Prahalada’s aunt, takes place on a full-moon night in the Hindu lunar month of Phalguna. This day is known as Chhoti (little) Holi. Celebrations of coloring each other occur the next morning. This day is known as Holi. It is also called Dhuli in Sanskrit and Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi in Sanskrit-derived languages. In some parts of India, Holi is celebrated in a window of several days to accommodate other regional spring festivals.


Holika Dahan on the full-moon night is celebrated with large communal bonfires. The next day is a free-for-all festival of coloring each other, eating food and having fun. Friends, family, neighbors and even strangers color each other with dry powders and water solutions in temples and public spaces. In much of North India, celebrations include music, dance, water fights and people consuming lassi with bhang, an intoxicating milk beverage infused with cannabis.

Traditionally, colors used in Holi celebrations were made from herbs and plants common in India such as turmeric, beetroot, gooseberry and sandalwood. These are known to have medicinal properties in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian school of medicine. For the last few decades, most people have used synthetic colors.

Like other Hindu festivals, Holi also involves family gatherings, worship of deities and preparation of special delicacies. In North India, the delicacy of choice is gujiya, a deep-fried dumpling of semolina with a sweetened filling of milk solids and dry fruits.


Researched and written by Ayan Rakshit and Atul Singh. Produced by Abul-Hasanat Siddique. Images courtesy of Shutterstock © All rights reserved.

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