Holi isn’t like a typical festival — it requires getting your hands dirty. It felt easy to understand as a child, digging my hands into the colorful powders and launching my water guns on anyone I saw, whether it was my mom or my neighbor.
This Indian festival of colors became a favorite among my friends, too. The long list of preparations began at least a day in advance. There were several buckets full of water balloons, the latest water guns in the market and hyperpigmented colors that refuse to wash off.
Of course, coming of age, this wasn’t enough. Holi became dirtier. Instead of the obvious options — like mud or tomatoes — eggs became the ultimate weapon. But to soothe the disgust from getting egged, everyone convinced me it made my hair stronger and shinier, even though it isn’t an FDA-approved treatment.
When is Holi celebrated?
After I moved to the U.S. for college, I only visited India during the summer and winter breaks. Seven years passed before I would celebrate the festival I grew up cherishing. Technically, Holi falls on the last full moon of the Hindu calendar month that marks spring, between February and March.
But the color runs in Utah follow the Western calendar. Hannah Brown told me about her experience at such an event hosted by Brigham Young University in 2018.
“Something about the excitement of being covered in colorful chalk makes color runs just the best,” she told me over email. “I love the pictures afterwards and the general atmosphere.”
She admitted that while she loves color runs, the events rarely reflect the Indian heritage. Her experience was comparable to mine, but during my recent visit to New Delhi, I dug into what the two-day Holi celebration means to my family.
What is Holi and why is it celebrated?
Turns out, preparation doesn’t begin a day in advance, but over a month, during Vasant Panchami, another festival that marks the arrival of spring. Large tree logs, tree branches, twigs and dried leaves are collected then, my grandmother, Maya, explained in Hindi.
Statues of Holika and Prahlad are placed underneath this combustible material. The tale of the figures goes as follows: A wicked king had a son named Prahlad. The kindhearted son refused to accept his father as a god, which enraged the king. In an effort to get rid of Prahlad, he pushed him off a cliff and tossed him into a snake pit, but the son’s prayers to Lord Vishu always protected him.
The king asked his sister, Holika, what he should do. She took it upon herself to build a giant bonfire, walk into it and dare Prahlad to as well. Holika assumed she would be safe since she possessed magical powers, but Lord Vishu was now looking over Prahlad, so her powers were granted to him instead. As she burned, leaving behind embers, the king’s son stood tall in the fire — completely unharmed — marking the triumph of good over evil.
What are the two days of Holi celebration like?
That bonfire has become a custom for the day before Holi, known as Holika Dahan or Choti Holi. This year, my aunt, Jyotie, took me to the ritual proceedings in a small playground behind our local temple in Vasant Kunj, South Delhi, in the afternoon. Dressed in a pattern-rich salwareer-kameez, she carried a steel plate of offerings — consisting of raw milk, gur (an unrefined sugar), turmeric, rice, flour, raw cotton thread and the red kumkum powder — covered over with a red and golden cloth.
We stopped in front of two women selling cow-dung garlands, which are known to be holy and purify air, and wheat straws and handed them a 20-rupee note to purchase both those items. Jyotie took off her slippers and picked her spot before the large unlit bonfire, which emitted a rotten smell. She then began placing her offerings, one by one, using her right hand, as other women from the locality wished each other a happy Holi and began their rituals.
After praying, Jyotie stood up and circled the prepared bonfire five times, an auspicious number, spilling drops of milk from her steel cup with every other step. We went back to the house and she gave me instructions for what was next. “The bonfire will burn at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Be ready,” she said.
The day of Holi hadn’t arrived, but there was a buzz in the air. Plenty of passersby on the road walked around with big smiles and color powder smeared on their faces.
Then the evening rolled around. My grandmother and aunt walked to the same location with me, just in time. The bonfire of dried-up hay instantly lit up in front of a crowd of nearly 50 people, producing a fire that looked frightening and too hot to stand around. One older child yelled, “pollution!” pointing at the angry cloud of smoke.
When it simmered down, everyone walked around the fire while chanting mantras dedicated to the Hindu gods.
“This festival signifies a weather change so people pray to the gods to keep their children and livestock safe,” Maya told me. “And Holi is played in celebration.” It’s also known to be Lord Krishna's favorite festival but different regions of India prescribe to different myths and traditions. Like in the state of Odisa, Dola is celebrated instead of Holi to celebrate Jagannath, another Hindu deity.
What is playing Holi like?
The next morning, I dabbed coconut oil on my entire body so the Holi colors don’t cling to my skin for days and left to meet my two little cousins, 5 and 8 years of age. I filled water balloons for them and they proceeded to attack me with them — typical.
After helping them stock up on a reserve of colors, water balloons and water guns, we marched to the park and scanned for victims. “I will get them all!” the younger one said. The two children found other kids their age to play with, coloring the streets with shades of yellow, pink and green, while I couldn’t help but think about my own memories from when I was younger and the giddiness I felt on this day.
My cousins knew it was time to go home — at least for a bit — after their supplies ran out and they were drenched in water from head to toe. I dropped them off with their parents, wished the rest of the family a happy Holi by tenderly rubbing some color on their faces and left to meet my own friends at an event at The Grand, a nearby five-star hotel.
While wearing a tattered white shirt, now no longer white, I bumped into people I hadn’t seen in years. Big festivals like this always bring friends and foes together. We danced to Hindi songs and frolicked around with unrecognizable faces.
As I sang the old Bollywood song “Rang Barse Bheege Chunarwali,” which translates to “The scarf girl is drenched by the water colors,” I felt like I was where I belonged.