Holi is many things. First and foremost, Holi is a Hindu festival celebrating the triumph of faith over evil. One story behind the holiday revolves around the demon king Hiranyakashipu. After a period of penance, he was rewarded with the inability to be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra (weapon) nor by shastra (treatise, more or less)”. Emboldened by this power, he demanded to be worshiped as a god. His own son, Prahlada, was a fervent devotee of Vishnu, and so refused. This angered his father, who set out to kill him. His first several attempts failed, until finally he went to his sister for help. The demon king’s sister, also a demon, was given a similar boon to her brother’s: she was unable to be killed if she stepped into a fire. Prahlada was ordered to sit in his aunt’s lap in a fire. Apparently her power did not apply if she was not alone, so she burned while Prahlada survived. This sister’s name was Holika, the origin of Holi. To celebrate this part of the tale bonfires are lit the night before the celebrations. The demon king is also killed later by Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu, who kills him at twilight (neither day nor night), in the form of a lion-headed man (neither human nor animal), using his nails (neither weapon nor magic).
Holi is celebrated as the Festival of Colour. This involves throwing powdered dye around, rubbing it on people’s faces while wishing them a happy Holi, and getting everyone wet to make the dye stick. It is all in good fun, and both kids and kids at heart relish the holiday as an excuse to surprise people with paint and water balloons. The act of celebrating Holi is calles “playing Holi” and only this accurately captures the true spirit of the festival. Holi is both a photographer’s dream and a photographer’s nightmare. The colors and sheer joy are kind to the camera, but the dyes and the water are not. Never having celebrated Holi I was too scared to risk bringing my camera out into the celebration. If I had, however, I would have hundreds of photographs to show you. Unfortunately, my quest to find disposable cameras was fruitless. Someday I’ll return for Holi and make up for it.
Holi is fun. I was upset about missing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I would trade it for Holi most days, and I didn’t even get the full Holi experience for a multitude of reasons.
Holi is like human tie-dying: you never know what colors will wind up where, or in what concentration, but it always looks cool. I have my shirt that I wore hanging on my door, avoiding the laundry because it may wash away the colors.
Holi is joyous. Like New Year’s Eve in the US, Holi is a way to celebrate the good things of life with friends and family.
Everywhere you look people are smudging their loved ones’ faces with color, wishing joy on them. For some it is a barbecue and family/neighborhood holiday. For others it is an opportunity to party with their friends. Hard.
For this reason, and like New Year’s Eve, Holi is one of the most dangerous holidays as well. The women in my program were warned against participating in “street Holi” and told to always stay with their families, for good reason. The tame, family-style Holi that I had (with organic, herbal dye) is a completely different from the Holi that most of Delhi’s denizens experience. Holi is the day with the highest proportion of rapes and assaults in India. There are drunks wandering the streets and bhang, a mixture related to marijuana, is a traditional part of many celebrations. (Not ours, don’t worry, Mama) Allof these factors combined made my experience exiting my homestay an interesting one, a mix of trepidation, excitement, and curiosity.
Then I was promptly soaked with a hose and decided to just enjoy it. I made friends, got to meet more members of my neighborhood, and (of course) got covered in colour. Happy Holi!