All is quiet in the village square. A soft breeze blows, gently caressing the plants in the windowsills, slightly quivering the hanging clotheslines. The sun is bright and hot, almost unbearably so. Not one person is to be found —all sound is faint, all movement nonexistent. That is, until the jubilant cry travels through the streets: “Holi Hai!”
Out springs the flock, clad in white, armed with fistfuls of colors. The people race toward each other with glee, smearing paints and powders of every imaginable hue onto each other’s faces. As they play on, the air becomes misty with faint tints of the tossed colors, covering the carefree participants in a lustrous mist.
So begins Holi, a euphoric spring greeting captured in vibrant Technicolor. Each year on the day following March’s Purnima (full moon), friends and family come together to welcome the new season, celebrate the triumph of good over evil and most importantly, share a longstanding tradition of love and affection with their community. While this iridescent festival is an ancient staple of the Hindu tradition, it has long enraptured the imaginations of citizens all over the world.
A Colorful History
Holi has a rich cultural background. Mentioned within the pages of ancient Sanskrit literature, defining practices of the festival have been documented as far back as the fourth century. Holi is now regarded as a global festival, and traces of its customs can be found in popular events such as the Color Run.
The central concept of Holi stems from Indian mythology. The roots of the holiday are based from the tale of King Hiranyakashipu, a malicious demon king who ruled the city of Multan, Punjab. Hiranyakashipu, immersed in supreme power, demanded the complete worship of his subjects. The kingdom’s sole dissenter was his son, Prahlada, who had pledged himself to the divine deity Lord Vishnu. Enraged by this, Hiranyakashipu asked his sister, Holika, to kill Prahlada. Holika attempted to lead Prahlada into a burning pyre, but Vishnu intervened and protected Prahlada, leaving the evil Holika to burn to death.
The tale, while macabre, symbolizes the victory of our purest self.
“All of the demons of the legends represent our ego and our sins,” explained Panditji Srihari Kadambi, a priest at the Bharatiya Temple of Lansing. “Holika represents our bad attitudes, and our holiday celebrates the burning out of our bad desires.”
Lansing’s Little Holi
Holi is an especially popular holiday in Lansing. The Bharatiya Temple hosts the area’s most prominent Holi festivities.
“We have been celebrating [Holi] here in our temple every year for the past 15-20 years,” said Mathi Ramachandran, president of the Bharatiya Temple’s board of directors. “We usually get around 200 people at each of our functions. But you cannot count that number now, for our community is growing every year.”
The Bharatiya Temple tends to celebrate Holi in the traditional manner. On the first morning of spring, known as Basant Ritu, devotees from all over the state gather inside the temple for a havan, or small fire, to signify Holika Dahan (the death of Holika). After chanting mantras around the fire, the devotees regroup outside to merrily splash each other with heaps of color. Panditji Kadambi prefers “dry Holi” — using powders instead of paints and colored water.
For this year’s festival, Ramachandran plans on going bigger. He wants to cover the floors and walls of the temple with white sheets so that participants can safely play inside without ruining the temple’s decor. Ramachandran is also considering extending the celebration to two nights, as per traditional Hindu custom. The first night would exclusively feature the havan, and the next day would be dedicated to the merriment.
The temple has further expanded their outreach efforts within the region, inviting all locals interested in the holiday.
“We have now started involving MSU students. We reach out to different MSU student unions by sending out mail and distributing our information to them,” explained Ramachandran. “Lansing also has many organizations here, like the Telegu Association and the Tamil Association. They’re based in the southern part of India, so they don’t really celebrate Holi. Still, if we talk to them, they will participate with us.”
While Holi is primarily a staple of northern India, it is by no means an exclusive festivity. Rather, it is a joyous call for harmony.
“Holi is very much rooted in Hinduism. But at the same time, during moments of conflict — particularly religious conflict — it has become a symbol of unity,” explained Soma Chaudhuri, a professor in the MSU College of Social Science. “People of all religions come together to play Holi. It has this universal message of love and celebration.”
At its core, Holi is an invitation to disregard all temporal differences and welcome the season with unabashed joy. Ramachandran emphasized the power of Holi as a beacon of positivity.
“Sometimes we call it the festival of the sharing of love. We gather, meet, forgive, forget, make friendships, build broken bridges and be happy.”
Rohan Kulkarni, a freshman computer science major, looks forward to reuniting with loved ones during the holiday.
“My favorite part about Holi is getting together with all the people I haven’t seen in awhile,” he said. “It’s a good excuse to get the family together.”
Rohan also anticipates the holiday as a harbinger of the seasonal shift.
“It’s the start of good weather,” he said. “You can start having fun and doing things outside again.”
If you’re looking for a fun, fresh way to embrace spring, consider joining your friends or your local temple in celebrating Holi this month. This year, Holi falls on March 12-13. Feel free to revel in the colorful ceremonies while embracing the diversity and culture of your local community.
Nitish Pahwa is a senior majoring in professional writing with a concentration in editing and publishing. He is passionate about the arts and has written about music and culture for various websites and publications. He owns way too many books and CDs, but somehow it’s never enough. Follow him on Twitter @pahwa_nitish.