How many people know what Holi actually celebrates — other than colors? Here’s a look at the religious and cultural traditions behind it.

by Sanjana Lakshmi

People tend to know Holi as the “festival of colors.” Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated primarily in India and Nepal, but it has made its way around the subcontinent and around the world and is now celebrated by Hindus and non-Hindus alike. 

On my university’s campus, there is a Holi celebration every year in the spring, in which hundreds of students run around our lake and throw colors at each other. This is certainly a fun way to spend an afternoon, but how many people know what Holi actually actually celebrate — other than colors? What are the religious and cultural traditions behind it?

What are the religious stories behind Holi?

The word “Holi” actually means “burning.” People around the subcontinent spin different tales relating to the holiday, but one of the most popular is the story about the demon king Hirayanakashipu and his sister Holi. It is said that King Hirayanakashipu had earned a boon that gave him five special powers: that he could not be killed by humans or animals, not indoors or outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by shashtra (handheld weapons) and neither in land, nor water, nor air. He thus saw himself as a God and demanded that everybody worship him that day, but his son, Prahlada, disagreed and became a devotee of Lord Vishnu.

Hirayanakashipu was angry at his son and even tried to kill him, but nothing worked. Finally, he called for his sister, Holika, to help him. Holika, too, had been granted a boon: she could enter any fire and come out unharmed. Hirayanakashipu asked her to enter a fire with Prahlada on her lap. She did so without knowing that the boon could only work if she stepped alone into the fire. Because of her evil behavior, she burned while Prahlada survived.

Related: 3 Things You Didn’t Know About Diwali

Holi celebrates the victory of good over evil. The night before the festival, around sunset, there is a Holika Dahan, or a bonfire that, for some, symbolizes the burning of Holika.

Holi bonfire

Is that the only story?

No! In some parts of South India, the story around Holi has to do with Lord Shiva and his wife, the goddess Sati. When she died, Shiva was furious and renounced all work, falling into a severe, deep meditation. The world began to fall apart in his absence. Sati was reborn as goddess Parvati and did all she could to wake her husband, but was unsuccessful in her efforts. She turned to the Hindu god of love and desire, Kamadeva, who shot his flower arrow into Shiva’s heart. This disturbed his meditation, and in his anger, Shiva opened his third eye, which incinerated Kamadeva. Some say that Kamadeva thus sacrificed himself for the good of all of the world. For some, Holi is celebrated with this in mind, offering sandalwood paste for Kamadeva’s burns as well as the mango blossoms that he loved.

What about the colors?

The legend behind the part of Holi that everybody knows about — the color-throwing — comes from a story about Lord Krishna. As a young man, Krishna, whose skin was dark blue, had his eye on Radha, but he was worried that she would not accept him because of the way he looked. He was always a prankster, and as a joke, he threw gulal, or colored powder, and used colored water jets on Radha to make her more like himself. Krishna won her over, and to this day people playfully color each other’s faces and clothes on Holi. The festival celebrates their eternal and divine love.

Gulal was historically made with turmeric, vermillion powder, paste and flower extracts. Today, the powders are often made with synthetic colors and dyes. The most popular colors are vibrant reds, greens, blues, yellows and pinks.

What else happens on Holi?

Holi food

Photo by Pranav Hundekari. Creative commons license.

We eat delicious food, of course! Some Holi delicacies include thandai, a sweet, creamy milk flavored with nuts and spices like cardamom and rose petals. On Holi, bhaang (from the female cannabis plant) is traditionally mixed with the drink. In western India, puran poli is popular — a roti with sweet stuffing inside of it. In North India, many eat gujjias, which are sweet samosas.

After all of the food, drink, and play, people change into nice clothing and visit friends and family to exchange gifts and enjoy a “sober evening.”

So the next time you go to a Holi celebration, make others aware of the traditions that you’re really celebrating. There is so much more to this festival than the colors — enjoy it in its fullness!

Featured image by Steven Gerner. Creative commons license. 

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