Editor’s Note: A version of this article was first published in March 2022.
Millions of people in India and around the world celebrating Holi this week.
The Hindu festival of love, color and spring is one of the most joyous celebrations of the year. It’s a time when people don simple, inexpensive clothes and take to the streets to drench each other in clouds of colored powder and buckets of water. There’s singing, dancing, and of course, food.
This year’s holiday falls on March 8, but in some parts of India, communities begin the festivities by lighting bonfires the night before in a celebration known as Holika Dahan, or Choti Holi. Once the bonfires have gone out, some Hindus smear the ashes on their bodies as a purifying ritual.
The bonfires are a nod to one of the most well-known legends associated with the festival – a story about the triumph of good over evil.
As the legend goes, the demon king Hiranyakashayap, who wanted to be worshipped as a god, became angry that his son Prahlad instead prayed to the deity Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe. In turn, Hiranyakashayap conspired with his sister Holika to kill his son.
As part of the plan, Holika would to lure Prahlad onto her lap and into a bonfire, while her enchanted shawl protected her from the wrath of the flames. But Vishnu thwarted the duo’s plan and rescued Prahlad. In the end, Holika died in the fire and Hiranyakashayap died at the hands of Vishnu. Prahlad eventually replaced his father as king.
Holi’s signature tradition, however, is the throwing of colored powders – a tradition with roots in the love story of Radha and Krishna.
In Hindu mythology, the deity Krishna was left with blue skin after drinking milk poisoned by a demon. Worried that Radha would be turned off by his unnatural appearance, Krishna vented to his mother, who playfully suggested that he smear colored powder on Radha’s face, according to British Museum curator Sushma Jansari. Upon doing so, Radha fell in love with Krishna.
Today, street market vendors sell richly hued heaps of powder so that people can follow in the footsteps of Radha and Krishna. Along with the colors, people also throw water balloons and shoot water pistols as part of the festivities.
Despite being a Hindu festival, Holi now transcends the boundaries of religion and is celebrated by people across the Indian subcontinent. People young and old come together to douse loved ones and strangers alike in hues of red, yellow, pink, purple and more for a day of laughter and fun.