Together with Diwali, Holi (Rang Panchami) is probably the most awaited festival of the Hindu calendar. It is
celebrated over two days, beginning on phalgun purnima (the full moon), and therefore the Holi festival date in 2009 is 11th March. Children especially have fun bursting water-filled balloons, throwing colors and soaking each other with water guns days before the actual holiday.
The playing with colors, which makes the festival so popular, actually goes back to a medicinal tradition, namely using ayurvedic powders made of medicinal herbs. Throwing them at each other used to not only give the Holi festival its color but also protect from viral fever and colds during the change from winter to spring, which Holi also celebrates. The four most popular and colorful natural Holi powders are:
- green – Neem (azadirachta indica)
- yellow – Haldi (turmeric)
- red – Kumkum (turmeric or saffron mixed with lemon juice)
- orange – Bael (aegle marmelos, wood apple)
A special drink called thandai is also prepared for Holi. It is made of milk, almonds, spices and sugar and often contains bhang (the leaf and flower of the female cannabis sativa plant).
The Origins of Holi
Followers of Indian mythology will be familiar with the many gods and demons that, not unlike mythological superheroes, entertain the heavens and earth with their special powers and pranks. But unlike today’s often simplistic stories and characters, Indian mythological characters are psychologically complex and, especially at second glance, not sketched all black or white.
Holi, just like Diwali and the Tamil Thaipusam festival, celebrates the victory of good over evil. Here, the king of demons, Hiranyakashipu (or Hiranyakashap), goes against his own son, Prahlad, because of his belief in Lord Vishnu. His devotion protects Prahlad from all the tests devised by his father to kill him. Finally, Hiranyakashipu orders Prahlad to sit on a pyre with his sister Holika, who is protected by a magic shawl. Prahlad follows the order, praying to Vishnu all the while, when Holika’s shawl flies to him, letting her burn and saving Prahlad.
Vishnu finally rid the world of Hiranyakashyap by finding ways to bypass the demon king’s many protections:
- In his avatar as Narasimha, Vishnu was half-man, half-lion, therefore neither man nor animal;
- he killed him at dusk, which is neither day or night
- on the steps of his house (neither inside nor out),
- on his lap (neither sky nor earth) and
- by mauling him with his claws, which is neither through weapons (astra) nor knowledge (shastra).
How to Celebrate Holi
Holi is a two-day festival that starts on the full moon night (phalgun purnima) with the lighting of bonfires all over town as reminders of the burning of Holika on the pyre. The second day is called dhulheti, and children and adults alike “play Holi” in the morning by throwing colors and water at each other. After a long bath, the rest of the day is spent eating good food and sweets and spending time with family and friends.
Many scientists have been
advocating herbal gulals (colors) like the ones produced by the National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) for years. As Dr. P. Pushpangadan, NBRI’s director, in the March 1, 2004 Times of India article “Scientist’s warning to Holi revellers” explains: “Unlike the flashy vibrant chemical gulals available in the market, this herbal gulal does not cause any irritation, skin allergies, respiratory problems or damage to your vital organs.”
Still, especially in urban areas, the use of natural dyes or homemade colors has decreased as buying artificial colors is cheaper and less time consuming. Efforts have been made in recent years though to spend Holi in a way that is easier on the environment, including
- reducing the number of bonfires to decrease pollution and deforestation,
- avoiding the use of chemically produced color powders and pastes to prevent skin and eye irritation,
- teaching children in schools how to make their own Holi colors from natural and safe ingredients like beetroot, onion peels, rose petals, spinach and turmeric.
Holi is a festival eagerly awaited by young and old, rich and poor and is the festival where social norms are forgotten for two days. Following these simple tips and tricks will make Holi even more enjoyable:
- When playing Holi, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to cover as much skin as possible,
- oil your hair so that the color washes out more easily,
- wear a cap or bandana if you have bleached or dyed hair – synthetic colors might react with hair dyes,
- apply cold cream and sunscreen before playing Holi to protect the skin and moisturize it, making it easier to rinse colors off afterwards,
- apply cream to hands and fingernails, areas where stains stay longest,
- don’t rub stains; accept that you will be more colorful for a few days .