Festival facts: Holi

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By Louise Tellamteacher and freelance writer

Find out how Hindus celebrate Holi

Indian boys playing

What is Holi?

Holi (Hindi) or Phagwah (Bhojpuri) is the annual Hindu festival that celebrates the harvest of winter crops and welcomes spring. Also known as the Festival of Colours, it takes place on the full moon in the month of Phalgun (hence Phagwah) at the end of February/early March. Holi is a time of thanksgiving for the harvest and also of unity and fun for everyone. It reminds Hindus of the importance of faith and sacrifice through the retelling of several myths. These are celebrated with bonfires, parties, the throwing of coloured powder and playful pranks.

How is Holi celebrated?

This fun-filled festival lasts for at least two days, and often begins in the home with a range of coloured powders (gulal) being arranged on a tray (thali) alongside a pot of coloured water (lota). The eldest male member of the household then sprinkles some of the powder on each member of the family as a sign of good luck. Later, huge bonfires are lit to recall the burning of Holika. Effigies of the goddess are paraded and burnt, and in areas where there is a barley harvest, some of the crop is offered and then burned on the fire. The burning of rubbish on the bonfire symbolises for many Hindus that past wrongdoings are forgiven, old hurts and strains on relationships are forgotten and enemies befriended. There is an opportunity for reprieve, a new beginning, as there was for the mythical Prahlad. Parties with dancing to rhythmical drum beats and singing of Holi songs take place around the bonfire. Ashes from the bonfire are often considered holy and are collected and taken to homes where they form the basis of the fire around which the family or group of friends gather for a celebratory meal.

On the second day of the festival, activities become even more boisterous and enthusiastic as the emphasis moves from fire to colour. Coloured powder, water and water balloons are thrown at anyone within range. At times, people seem to be engulfed in clouds of colour and in recent years there has been a move to ensure that powders are natural and harmless to protect people’s health. Children use giant syringes (pitchkaris) filled with coloured water, from which no one is safe. They also gently paint the feet of their elders with colour. Women often decorate their homes with flowers and rangolis made of coloured rice.

As spring begins, so this is a time for romance and merry-making. In various parts of India, young men in particular, indulge in traditional pranks. It is a chance for people to let themselves go. The festivities bring people together in a celebration of faith and universal brotherhood.

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