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Holi ( /ˈhl/) is a popular ancient Hindu festival, also known as the Indian "festival of spring", the "festival of colours", or the "festival of love".[8][1][9] The festival signifies the victory of good over evil.[10][11] It originated and is predominantly celebrated in India, but has also spread to other regions of Asia and parts of the Western world through the diaspora from the Indian subcontinent.

Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love, and for many it's a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.[12][13] The festival also celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season.[12][13] It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the Purnima (Full Moon day) falling in the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna, which falls around middle of March in the Gregorian calendar. The first evening is known as Holika Dahan (burning of demon holika) or Chhoti Holi and the following day as Holi, Rangwali Holi, Dhuleti, Dhulandi,[14] or Phagwah.[15]

Holi is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has become popular among non-Hindus as well in many parts of South Asia, as well as people of other communities outside Asia.[12] In addition to India and Nepal, the festival is celebrated by Indian subcontinent diaspora in countries such as Jamaica,[16] Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mauritius, and Fiji.[8][17] In recent years the festival has spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colours.[18][17][19]

Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all festival of colours,[12] where people smear each other with colours and drench each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also used to play and colour each other. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children, and elders. The frolic and fight with colours occurs in the open streets, parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and other musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes come together to throw coloured powders on each other, laugh and gossip, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks.[20][21] Some customary drinks include bhang (made from cannabis), which is intoxicating.[22][23] In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up and visit friends and family.[5][20]

Cultural significance

Holika bonfire in front of Jagdish Temple in Udaipur, Rajasthan, 2010.

The Holi festival has a cultural significance among various Hindu traditions of the Indian subcontinent. It is the festive day to end and rid oneself of past errors, to end conflicts by meeting others, a day to forget and forgive. People pay or forgive debts, as well as deal anew with those in their lives. Holi also marks the start of spring, for many the start of the new year, an occasion for people to enjoy the changing seasons and make new friends.[13][24]

Krishna legend

In the Braj region of India, where the Hindu deity Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated until Rang Panchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna. The festivities officially usher in spring, with Holi celebrated as a festival of love.[25] There is a symbolic myth behind commemorating Krishna as well. As a baby, Krishna developed his characteristic dark skin colour because the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk.[26] In his youth, Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha would like him because of his dark skin colour. His mother, tired of his desperation, asks him to approach Radha and ask her to colour his face in any colour she wanted. This she did, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. Ever since, the playful colouring of Radha and Krishna's face has been commemorated as Holi.[27][28] Beyond India, these legends help to explain the significance of Holi (Phagwah) are common in some Caribbean and South American communities of Indian origin such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.[29][30] It is also celebrated with great fervour in Mauritius.[31]

Vishnu legend

There is a symbolic legend to explain why Holi is celebrated as a festival of triumph of good over evil in the honour of Hindu god Vishnu and his devotee Prahlada. King Hiranyakashipu, according to a legend found in chapter 7 of Bhagavata Purana,[32][33] was the king of demonic Asuras, and had earned a boon that gave him five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons), and neither on land nor in water or air. Hiranyakashipu grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone worship only him.[5] Hiranyakashipu's own son, Prahlada, however, disagreed. He was and remained devoted to Vishnu.[20] This infuriated Hiranyakashipu. He subjected Prahlada to cruel punishments, none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika, Prahlada's evil aunt, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her.[5] Holika was wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada was not. As the fire roared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada,[20] who survived while Holika burned. Vishnu, the god who appears as an avatar to restore Dharma in Hindu beliefs, took the form of Narasimha – half human and half lion (which is neither a human nor an animal), at dusk (when it was neither day nor night), took Hiranyakashyapu at a doorstep (which was neither indoors nor outdoors), placed him on his lap (which was neither land, water nor air), and then eviscerated and killed the king with his lion claws (which were neither a handheld weapon nor a launched weapon).[34]

The Holika bonfire and Holi signifies the celebration of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.[13]

Kama and Rati legend

Among other Hindu traditions such as Shaivism and Shaktism, the legendary significance of Holi is linked to Shiva in yoga and deep meditation, goddess Parvati wanting to bring back Shiva into the world, seeks help from the Hindu god of love called Kamadeva on Vasant Panchami. The love god shoots arrows at Shiva, the yogi opens his third eye and burns Kama to ashes. This upsets both Kama's wife Rati (Kamadevi) and his own wife Parvati. Rati performs her own meditative asceticism for forty days, upon which Shiva understands, forgives out of compassion and restores the god of love. This return of the god of love, is celebrated on the 40th day after Vasant Panchami festival as Holi.[35][36] The Kama legend and its significance to Holi has many variant forms, particularly in South India.[37]

Other Indian religions

The Mughal Indian emperor Jahangir celebrating Holi with ladies of the zenana.

The festival has traditionally been also observed by non-Hindus, such as by Jains[2] and Newar Buddhists (Nepal).[3]

In Mughal India, Holi was celebrated with such exuberance that people of all castes could throw colour on the Emperor.[38] According to Sharma (2017), "there are several paintings of Mughal emperors celebrating Holi".[39] Grand celebrations of Holi were held at the Lal Qila, where the festival was also known as Eid-e-gulaabi or Aab-e-Pashi.[38] Mehfils were held throughout the walled city of Delhi with aristocrats and traders alike participating.[38] This however changed during the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb. He banned the public celebration of Holi using a Farman issue in November 1665.[40] Bahadur Shah Zafar himself wrote a song for the festival, while poets such as Amir Khusrau, Ibrahim Raskhan, Nazeer Akbarabadi and Mehjoor Lakhnavi relished it in their writings.[38]

Sikhs have traditionally celebrated the festival, at least through the 19th century,[41] with its historic texts referring to it as Hola.[42] Guru Gobind Singh – the last human guru of the Sikhs – modified Holi with a three-day Hola Mohalla extension festival of martial arts. The extension started the day after the Holi festival in Anandpur Sahib, where Sikh soldiers would train in mock battles, compete in horsemanship, athletics, archery and military exercises.[43][44][45]

Holi was observed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Sikh Empire that extended across what are now northern parts of India and Pakistan. According to a report by Tribune India, Sikh court records state that 300 mounds of colours were used in 1837 by Ranjit Singh and his officials in Lahore. Ranjit Singh would celebrate Holi with others in the Bilawal gardens, where decorative tents were set up. In 1837, Sir Henry Fane who was the commander-in-chief of the British Indian army joined the Holi celebrations organised by Ranjit Singh. A mural in the Lahore Fort was sponsored by Ranjit Singh and it showed the Hindu god Krishna playing Holi with gopis. After the death of Ranjit Singh, his Sikh sons and others continued to play Holi every year with colours and lavish festivities. The colonial British officials joined these celebrations.[46]

Description

Radha and the Gopis celebrating Holi, with accompaniment of music instruments.

Holi is an important spring festival for Hindus, a national holiday in India and Nepal with regional holidays in other countries. To many Hindus and some non-Hindus, it is a playful cultural event and an excuse to throw coloured water at friends or strangers in jest. It is also observed broadly in the Indian subcontinent. Holi is celebrated at the end of winter, on the last full moon day of the Hindu luni-solar calendar month marking the spring, making the date vary with the lunar cycle.[note 1] The date falls typically in March, but sometimes late February of the Gregorian calendar.[49] /ˈhl/) is a popular ancient Hindu festival, also known as the Indian "festival of spring", the "festival of colours", or the "festival of love".[8][1][9] The festival signifies the victory of good over evil.[10][11] It originated and is predominantly celebrated in India, but has also spread to other regions of Asia and parts of the Western world through the diaspora from the Indian subcontinent.

Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love, and for many it's a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.[12][13] The festival also celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season.[12][13] It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the Purnima (Full Moon day) falling in the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna, which falls around middle of March in the Gregorian calendar. The first evening is known as Holika Dahan (burning of demon holika) or Chhoti Holi and the following day as Holi, Rangwali Holi, Dhuleti, Dhulandi,[14] or Phagwah.[15]

Holi is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has become popular among non-Hindus as well in many parts of South Asia, as well as people of other communities outside Asia.[12] In addition to India and Nepal, the festival is celebrated by Indian subcontinent diaspora in countries such as Jamaica,[16] Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mauritius, and Fiji.[8][17] In recent years the festival has spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colours.[18][17][19]

Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all festival of colours,[12] where people smear each other with colours and drench each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also used to play and colour each other. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children, and elders. The frolic and fight with colours occurs in the open streets, parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and other musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes come together to throw coloured powders on each other, laugh and gossip, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks.[20][21] Some customary drinks include bhang (made from cannabis), which is intoxicating.[22][23] In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up and visit friends and family.[5][20]