What is Holi?

YP reporter
  • The Hindu festival of colours celebrates the idea of good triumphing over evil
  • It is a religious holiday observed throughout India and the diaspora
YP reporter |

Latest Articles

Hong Kong’s teacher shortage is forcing primary schools to hire untrained candidates

The Lens: Japan’s Johnny Kitagawa sexual assault scandal was hidden in plain sight

People really let down their hair for this holiday. Um, Holi-day. Photo: EPA-EFE

On the day after the full moon in March each year, the streets of India are packed with people throwing coloured powder at each other. Rainbows of dust fall from the air. Others holding water guns spray bystanders, letting the dyes drip down their already stained clothes. There is singing and dancing, too.

Children and adults alike shriek in both shock and delight as they are covered in the powder and water. In the end, there isn’t a clean person in sight. This holiday is a real Holi day!

The festival

Holi happens each spring. It is a festival of colours, during which people of the Hindu faith celebrate the idea of good triumphing over evil.

Even though it is a religious holiday, the festival has an aura of fun and excitement about it.

People build big bonfires to rid the air of evil spirits. Sometimes they make offerings from the harvest to their gods. People at home offer guests sweets and drinks. There is music, dancing and plenty of laughter.

Of course, the full moon appears at different times each month, so Holi also does not have a fixed date.

The Legend

The word “Holi” means burning. There is a reason everyone lights bonfires on this night. Long ago there was a demon king called Hiranyakashyap. He was immortal.

What is Diwali, the festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world?

But he became too proud, and demanded that everyone worship him instead of the god Vishnu.

His son Prahalad supported Vishnu, so the demon king wanted him killed. But it seemed no one could kill Prahalad, so the father called on Holika, his demon sister, who had magic powers that could protect her from fire.

Holika made Prahalad sit in a fire on her lap. She thought the boy would die. But the gods took away her powers and she burned to death, instead. Prahalad was protected by Vishnu and saved. Every year Hindus celebrate this victory of good over evil.

Dyeing for love

Lord Krishna is one of the most important gods to Hindus. As a young boy, Krishna was quite naughty and girls loved him. But he had his eye on one particular girl, Radha, whose skin was much lighter than his.

Two super easy Indian street food dishes that will transport you, even while we can’t travel

Krishna didn’t know if she would like him, so asked his mother for help.

His mother suggested he let Radha smear his face with dye to change him to any colour she liked, which he did, and they became a couple. So people now do likewise and paint each other during the festival of Holi.

Not all crazy

The festival doesn’t start off with everyone just crazily throwing dye at each other. At first, all the colourful powders are arranged neatly on a platter. In the centre is a bowl of water. To bring good luck to the family, the eldest male will sprinkle other family members with dye and water. Then it’s game on!

Everyone is equally colourful

In India, there is a very strict class, or “caste”, system. People from one class seldom mix with people from another.

How a trip to India opened my eyes and changed my life

But during Holi, when everyone is dyed many colours, everyone looks the same. It’s not about class, money or good looks; it’s just about having fun.

Time to forgive and forget

During the festival, people forget about their fights with others. They make friends and forgive their enemies. Families visit each other, taking along packets of sweets as treats for their relatives. Exchanging sweets is thought to bring luck and wealth to the family. It is one of the oldest Indian customs.

If a woman is married, she and her family will be given new clothes by her husband and his family. She will get a special sari.

The downside to celebrating

Sadly, as at all festivals, there is a price to pay for all the fun at Holi. Some of the dyes people use contain toxic chemicals and can harm people.

Also, people collect loads of wood for the tens of thousands of bonfires which harms India’s forests and adds to the air pollution problem.

Then, when the streets are cleaned with water after the festival, a lot of the dye runs into the country’s water systems. Now, when you consider that there are nearly a billion Hindus in India, you know it’s a lot of dye you are dealing with.

Sign up for the YP Teachers Newsletter
Get updates for teachers sent directly to your inbox
By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy