Holi is a colorful and boisterous Hindu spring festival in India, also known as the Festival of Colors. This is a time of shedding inhibitions: People smear each other with red and yellow powder and shower each other with colored water shot from bamboo blowpipes or water pistols. Restrictions of caste, sex, age, and personal differences are ignored.
The name of the festival derives from the name of the wicked Holika. According to legend, an evil king had a good son, Prince Prahlad, who was sent by the gods to deliver the land from the king’s cruelty. Holika, the king’s sister, decided to kill the prince with fire. Believing she was immune to fire, she held the child in her lap and sat in flames. But Lord Krishna stepped in to save Prahlad, and Holika was left in the fire and burned to death. On the night before the festival, images of Holika are burned on huge bonfires, drums pound, horns blow, and people whoop.
Another tale, related to the practice of water-throwing, is that the small monkey god Hanuman one day managed to swallow the sun. People were sad to live in darkness, and other gods suggested they rub color on one another and laugh. They mixed the color in water and squirted each other, and Hanuman thought this was so funny he gave a great laugh, and the sun flew out of his mouth.
There is also the story that the Mongol Emperor Akbar thought everyone would look equal if covered with color, and he therefore ordained the holiday to unite the castes.
The celebrations differ from city to city. In Mathura, Lord Krishna’s legendary birthplace, there are especially exuberant processions with songs and music. In the villages of Nandgaon and Barsnar, once homes of Krishna and his beloved Radha, the celebrations are spread over 16 days. And in Besant, people set up a 25-foot pole called a chir to begin the celebrations and burn it at the end of the festival.
In Bangladesh the festival is called Dol-Jatra, the Swing Festival, because a Krishna doll is kept in a swinging cradle, or dol. In Nepal it is called Rung Khelna, “playing with color.” They build a three-tiered, 25-foot high umbrella and at its base people light joss sticks, and place flowers and red powder. Instead of squirting water, they drop water-filled balloons from upper windows.
Source: Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 5th Ed., published by Omnigraphics