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Holi: What to Know about India’s Most Colorful Tradition

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A rainbow haze swirls through India, where raucous laughter rings out as friends and strangers douse one another with fists full of pigmented powder. Holi is a Hindu tradition, an annual celebration of spring. In 2024, crimson, emerald, indigo and saffron clouds will hover over the country on March 25 for one of its most vibrant, joyful and colorful festivals.

“Playing Holi,” as Indians say, is an ancient tradition that has spread far beyond India’s borders. Here is what you need to know about the festival.

Holi (pronounced “holy”), also known as the “festival of colors,” starts on the evening of the full moon during the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna, which falls around February or March. It begins with the kindling of bonfires. People gather around the flames to sing, dance and pray for an evening ritual called Holika Dahan, which re-enacts the demise of a Hindu mythical demoness, Holika. All sorts of things are thrown into the fires, like wood, leaves and food, in a symbolic purge of evil and triumph of good.

From Delhi, Archie Singhal, 24, visits her family in Gujarat the day before Holi, when the fire is lit in the evening. The next morning, she prepares for the bursts of powder, called gulal, by applying oil on her body so the colors don’t stick to her skin. She puts on old clothes she doesn’t mind tossing.

Holi’s roots are in Hindu mythology. The god Krishna, cursed by a demon with blue skin, complained to his mother, asking why his love interest Radha is fair while he is not. His mother, Yashoda, playfully suggests that he paint Radha’s face with any colors he wishes. So Krishna smears color on her so they look alike.

Holi is in part a celebration of the love between Krishna and Radha that looks past differences. Today, some of the gulal used during Holi is synthetic. But the colors traditionally come from natural ingredients, such as dried flowers, turmeric, dried leaves, grapes, berries, beetroot and tea.

“There is an environment of freedom,” Ms. Singhal said, adding that she doesn’t hesitate to throw colors on her younger brother, parents, aunts, uncles and neighbors.

The ancient Hindu festival eschews the religious, societal, caste and political divisions that underpin India’s often sectarian society. Hindu or not, anybody can be splashed with brightly colored dust, or even eggs and beer.

Some partake in worship, called puja, offering prayers to the gods. For others, Holi is a celebration of community. The festival gets everyone involved — including innocent passers-by.

“People forget their misunderstandings or enmity during this occasion and again become friends,” said Ratikanta Singh, 63, who writes, sometimes about Holi, in Assam, in northeastern India.

When not throwing around gulal, friends, families and neighbors partake in a buffet of traditional dishes and drinks. They include gujiya, dumpling-like fried sweets filled with dried fruits and nuts; dahi vada, deep-fried lentil fritters served with yogurt; and kanji, a traditional drink made by fermenting carrots in water and spices.

Some celebrate Holi with thandai, a light green concoction of milk, rose petals, cardamom, almonds, fennel seeds and other ingredients. For thousands of years, the drink has sometimes been laced with bhang, or crushed marijuana leaves, which add to the mood of revelry.

Holi has been documented for centuries in Hindu texts. The tradition is observed by people young and old, particularly in Northern India and Nepal, where the mythology behind the festival originates.

Holi also marks the harvesting of crops with the arrival of spring in India, where more than half of the population lives in rural areas.

Holi celebrations are as diverse as the Indian subcontinent. They are particularly wild in North India, considered the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna, where celebrations can last more than a week.

In Mathura, a northern city where Krishna is said to have been born, people recreate a Hindu myth in which Krishna visits Radha to romance her, and her cowherd friends, taking offense at his advances, drive him out with sticks.

In the eastern state of Odisha, people hold a dayslong festival called Dola Purnima. Grand processions of people shouldering richly decorated carriages with idols of Hindu gods are a large part of the festivities there. The processions are full of drumbeats, songs, colorful powder and flower petals thrown into the air.

In southern India, where Holi is not celebrated as widely, many temples carry out religious rites. In the Kudumbi tribal community, in the southwest, temples cut areca palms and transport their trunks to the shrine in a ritual that symbolizes the victory good over evil.

Holi is celebrated around the world, wherever the Indian diaspora has gone. More than 32 million Indians and people of Indian origin are overseas, most in the United States, where 4.4 million reside, according to the Indian government. It is also widely enjoyed in countries as varied as Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Britain and other parts of Europe.

Holi is known as Phagwah in the Indian communities of the Caribbean, including in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

The festival has also been used by the Indian government to project soft power and reshape its image as part of its “Incredible India” tourism campaign.

On Holi, “the world is a global village,” said Shubham Sachdeva, 29, from an eastern Delhi suburb, who added that his friends in the United States were celebrating Holi with their roommates whether they were Indian or not. “All this brings the world close to each other.”

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