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You may have seen people throwing colored powder on one another on college campuses , in ads, along 5K routes, and in music videos . It looks like the most fun you’ll ever have. But the practice is part of the ancient celebration of Holi, a South Asian tradition that has a history as colorful as those neon bright powders.
Before you join in, here’s what you should know about the tradition of Holi.
Holi, also known as “the festival of colors,” welcomes the arrival of spring with the spirit of lila , divine play. Devotees celebrate it on the last full Moon of the month of Phalguna on the Hindu lunar calendar. That usually equates with March and may also coincide with Passover and the Spring Equinox.
Holi celebrations find a balance between being raucous and respectful. It begins on Chhoti Holi (small Holi) with an evening of bonfires, religious rituals, and prayer. The next day is full of dancing, music, and “color throwing.” Later, participants will wash away the colors and dress up for family gatherings and community feasts. Celebrants decorate Hindu temples and adorn icons with jewels and flowers.
According to Hindu lore, Holi also honors the love between the deity Krishna and Radha, the gopi (milkmaid) who became his most beloved companion. They never married (Radha already had a husband; Krishna had many wives), but their mutual devotion was legendary. Stories say that they were spiritually inseparable soulmates—one being in two bodies.
Some say that throwing colorful powder (gulal) represents the flower petals Krishna showered on Radha. Other stories say that, because gulal was made from turmeric, hibiscus, beet root, tea leaves, and other medicinal herbs, people threw it to ward off the colds and fevers that come with the change of the seasons. Today, the powder is most often dyed cornstarch or colored chalk, and may be scented with jasmine. In some places, people splash or spray colored water instead.
You’ll find Holi events all over the U.S. and around the entire South Asian diaspora. Look for events at local cultural centers and Hindu temples. College campuses often have Holi days. The popular Color Run is a 5K race that takes place in locations all over the world during this season. It involves plenty of color throwing—that’s half the fun—but it’s not actually a Holi celebration.
If you’re interested in learning more about Holi, the Hindu American Foundations’s Holi Toolkit includes history, activity instructions, stories, language lessons, coloring pages and other creative activities—everything but the colors to throw.
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