One Holi Mess: India's Incredible Color-Soaked Festival

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Reds, blues and purples are among the most popular colors in Holi.

    The young boy spies the pretty girl in the red scarf laughing and chatting with her friends. He doesn’t know her – yet – but he has a plan. Cautiously he approaches her, a smile on his lips. As he gets closer, she turns, sensing somebody behind her. She is just about to open her mouth to say something when he upturns the small pail of colored water over her head, drenching her instantly.

    Yet instead of reacting with anger as she would any other day, the girl screams with laughter, and so do her friends. Today is Holi, when getting soaked to the skin in all manner of colors by total strangers is all part of the fun. That many people also indulge in intoxicating drinks like the marijuana-laced “bhang” only adds to the atmosphere of wild abandon.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    A Hindu holy man smokes his pipe. On Holi, the official rules regarding cannabis use are relaxed, although religious use of the drug is actually often permitted most of the time.

    The spring festival of Holi, celebrated across many parts of India, but especially in the north, is a time when barriers are torn down and the usual rules, if not entirely broken, are at least well and truly bent. It’s a time when adults can be children again, and children can get away with all kinds of mischief. The air is full of laughter and joyful shouts as brightly colored powders and water fly.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Women cover their faces with their veils as colored powder flies through the air.

    As the example of the young boy and girl illustrates, Holi also provides a tantalizing opportunity for young men and women to interact with less than the usually prescribed restraint. Flirting and sexual overtones are tolerated in a way they never would be were it not for the sense of celebration and even romance pervading the atmosphere.

    This play between the sexes is surely at least partly traceable back to a Holi tradition of honoring the legendary love between the much-revered Hindu god Krishna and the female cow herder (or ‘gopi’) Radha. Krishna and Radha stories are an extremely popular part of Hindu mythology and are recounted all over India.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    A young boy, his face stained with dye, looks up expectantly, perhaps anticipating the next color bomb.

    Mathura and Vrindavan, where many of these amazing photographs were taken, celebrate Holi with particular intensity. Unlike in most of India, where the festival lasts for two or three days, in these towns in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the party continues for up to sixteen!

    Much of this enthusiasm stems from the fact that the area is closely associated with Krishna. Every year, people from all over India, and even other parts of the world, flock to Mathura – the mythological birthplace of Krishna – and Vrindavan – where the deity is believed to have spent his childhood days – to join in the festivities there.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Even holy men are not exempt from being smeared with colors.

    Krishna was known to be a rather mischievous god in his youth, and the jokes and pranks he played on the gopis are often narrated with glee. One of these acts of mischief involved Krishna throwing colored powder over the cow girls – much the same way people behave towards one another on Holi!

    In Gujarat, a state in western India, boys enact the fabled exploit of Krishna and his male friends of stealing butter from the gopis, while girls playing the gopis throw colored water at them in retaliation.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Holi is known as India’s most colorful festival for good reason.

    Yet another Holi-related tale involving Krishna tells of him complaining to his mother about the unfairness of his having a dark complexion, while Radha’s is so fair. His mother jokingly suggests that Krishna can color Radha any shade he likes. Always one for a game, Krishna does just that, covering Radha’s face in color in an act recreated by people and their loved ones during Holi rituals today.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Young boys form groups to throw colors at one another.

    Indian society is still largely conservative, with myriad rules and customs to be observed in daily life. No doubt this is a major reason for the zeal with which Holi is celebrated, as it offers a chance for people to break down social barriers (within reason, of course!) and enjoy themselves without fear of consequences. A common Hindi saying on Holi is “Bura na mano, Holi hai!”, which means, “Never mind, it’s Holi!”

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Sometimes all the frivolity, not to mention intoxicating beverages, can get a little too much!

    Holi is celebrated on the last full moon of the month known as Phalgun, which is in February or March in the Gregorian calendar. As for its origins, the earliest known writing about Holi is found in Sanskrit texts of the 7th century, although there are references to colored water throwing festivals even before that. It is believed to be one of the oldest Hindu rituals still being practiced today.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    There is no age limit for partaking in Holi. Grey-haired men and women have as much fun as small children.

    Although there are many stories associated with Holi – not least those involving Krishna – perhaps the best known countrywide concerns the origins of the Holi eve rituals. It all starts with fire – both in legend and today’s practice. According to mythology, there was once an evil king called Hiranyakashipu, who demanded that his subjects worship him as a god. The king’s own son Prahlad, although still a child, refused, choosing instead to devote himself to the god Vishnu…

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Hands squeeze out a wet bundle of cloth. There’s no escaping getting soaked at Holi.

    The megalomaniac king, Hiranyakashipu, was outraged at this betrayal by his son, and tried various nasty ways to kill the boy, all of which failed because of Vishnu’s divine intervention. However, not to be put off, Hiranyakashipu finally asked his equally dastardly sister, Holika, to carry the boy into a bonfire. As Holika possessed a special gift that made her immune to flames, it was assumed that only little Prahlad would burn and perish…

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    A woman ineffectively tries to avoid being sprayed.

    Unbeknown to Holika, her magical flame resistance contained a loophole: she would only be safe from fire if she entered it alone. The evil king’s son, on the other hand, prayed to Vishnu for protection, which the god gladly granted him. As a result, cruel Holika was burnt to a crisp, while young Prahlad remained unscathed. Not quite the outcome his father was hoping for.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Sometimes it’s best to forget using little water sprayers and just go with a bucket instead.

    Holi, named after the wicked aunt, begins with a bonfire the night before the festival proper, in celebration of the triumph of good (Prahlad) over evil (Holika). In some Indian states, the god of fire, Agni, is also honored at the bonfire, with harvested grains being offered up to the flames.

    Yet whatever the custom of the particular region, people enjoy the bonfires and look forward with excitement to the next day – much like the anticipation felt on Christmas Eve in other parts of the world.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    In parts of India, folk song and dances are included as part of the festivities.

    As a much-loved tradition, Holi is depicted in various Indian writings and artworks. For example, in the ancient town of Hampi, there is a relief dating back to the 16th century that illustrates a prince and princess about to be soaked in colored water by maids bearing water syringes.

    A painting from the city of Ahmednagar, created around the same time, shows another royal duo surrounded by water-squirting maidens. Even back then, it seems that the barriers between different levels in social hierarchies were lowered, at least temporarily, for Holi.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    From their advantaged position on the balcony, these people have managed to avoid being soaked – so far.

    In the build-up to Holi there is important shopping to be done. Not only are there special snacks and sweets to be prepared, but there are also the colored dyes and pichkaris (water syringes) to be bought.

    Sacks of bright red, blue, green and yellow powders fill marketplaces, and all sizes of water pistols – often used these days in place of the traditional syringes – can be found on sale. There is an air of anticipation as children and teenagers size up and choose their liquid-dispensing weapons for the big day.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    Color fills the air. Not a good day to be an asthma sufferer, perhaps.

    Unfortunately, in this day and age there are some issues amid all the fun of Holi. For one thing, the colored powders are not necessarily the harmless dyes they once were. While the dyes used in Holi have traditionally been made from the natural pigments of petals, leaves and roots, the colored pastes, powders and watercolors of today’s festival have been found to contain toxic ingredients such as lead oxide and copper sulfate.

    Each year, the newspapers contain stories of children and adults suffering the effects of hazardous dyes sold by unscrupulous or ignorant vendors, with conditions ranging from skin diseases to eye allergies. Public campaigns are run to try and educate people and return to the more natural powders of the past.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    In some regions of North India, crowds gather within temple walls to celebrate together.

    Another serious concern is the wood used for the Holi bonfires, with one local paper reporting that about 100 kilos (220 lbs) of wood is used for each of the 30,000 fires burned each year. Not only does this add to already considerable air pollution in the cities, but it has an impact on deforestation as well.

    So far, there has been no acceptable solution to this problem. A proposal to replace the wood in the fires with garbage was met with widespread indignation. Neither does the impact of water wastage and pollution from dyes appear to have been given much thought by the general public, at least so far. People are reluctant, perhaps understandably, to meddle with such an intrinsic aspect of their cultural heritage.

  • Image: Antonio Gibotta

    A young boy stands in silhouette against a jostling crowd.

    Yet, despite such concerns, in a country where just about every other day a festival seems to be celebrated by at least one community, Holi stands out for its universally appealing sense of fun. From smearing foreheads with ash from the Holi fires to pelting your neighbors and friends with crimson water bombs, religious worship takes on its most colorful forms during this season. It’s no wonder it has long been, and will no doubt long remain, one of India’s favorite holidays.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History