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a Hindu spring festival, celebrated for two to five days, commemorating Krishna's dalliance with the cowgirls. Bonfires are lit and coloured powder and water thrown over celebrants
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: February-March; full moon day of the Hindu month of Phalguna
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Colored Water, Swing
Colors: Holi is associated with red and yellow, as seen in the colored water and powder that people sprinkle over each other. Sometimes Holi is referred to as the Fire Festival because the saffron and crimson that people smear or sprinkle on each other are the colors of fire.
Related Holidays: April Fools' Day, Songkran, Valentine's Day, Vernal Equinox


Holi is a festival in Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Hindus celebrate Holi in a colorful spring festival that has much in common with both VALENTINE'S DAY and APRIL FOOLS' DAY. The spirit of the day is to make people look and feel ridiculous by spraying them with COLORED WATER and playing practical jokes on them. The presiding deity is Kama, the Hindu version of Cupid whose sugarcane bow is strung with a line of humming bees, and whose arrows are flower stems that have been tipped with passion to wound the heart. Kama is most active in the springtime, when he wanders through the woodlands looking for victims. In southern India, Holi is known as Kamadahana, the day on which Kama was burned by Lord Shiva.

Although Holi is a two-day festival in some parts of India, in others the celebration goes on for up to ten days. During this period people often overindulge in an intoxicating drink known as Bhang, use foul language, and show little respect for their elders and masters. The usual distinctions of caste, sex, and age are ignored as they smear each other with red and yellow powder and shower each other with COL ORED WATER shot from bamboo blowpipes or water pistols. The streets, parks, and public squares are filled with merrymakers and people painted in bright colors.

Holi gets its name from the wicked Holika. In Hindu legend there was an evil king who declared himself to be a god and ordered his subjects to worship him. His son, Prahlad, refused to do so because he believed only in Rama, one of the incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. To punish the child, the king tried to kill him with fire, but Prahlad was able to save himself merely by uttering Vishnu's name. Finally the king's evil sister, Holika, who believed that she was immune to fire, took the child in her lap and sat in the flames with him. When the fire had subsided, Prahlad was found safe. But his aunt Holika had perished.

Another legend says that Holi commemorates the destruction of a female demon named Putana. When Krishna was a baby, Kansa, his enemy and king of the realm, ordered a general massacre of all children so that he would be destroyed. Putana, one of Kansa's agents, assumed human form and went about the country offering her poisoned nipples to every baby she could find. The infant Krishna, knowing exactly who she was and what she represented, sucked so hard that he drained Putana of her life.

For children living in India, Holi is as exciting as HALLOWEEN is to children living in the West. They roam the streets with bamboo blowpipes, looking for people to spray with liquid or powdered colors. In western India, Holi is also a celebration of the VERNAL EQUINOX and the wheat harvest. Festivities among the lower classes in particular can get very boisterous. No women in western India dare to leave their houses during this festival for fear of having obscenities shouted at them in the streets.



Bonfires are a longstanding Holi tradition. Some light them to celebrate the cremation of Putana, who was eventually burned to death by the people whose children she'd poisoned. Others light bonfires in memory of the evil Holika, who was burned in the fire that Prahlad survived. Still another legend says that an old woman whose grandchild was about to be sacrificed to Holika gathered as many children as she could find and made them abuse Holika with foul language. Holika fell dead, and the children made a bonfire of her remains.

For a week before Holi, boys in India go from door to door collecting fuel for the bonfires-everything from wood shavings from the floor of a carpenter 's shop to broken furniture and old barrel staves. When the moon is high on the night before the festival, bonfires are lit all over the country, accompanied by the blowing of horns and the beating of drums. People dance and sing songs around the fire. At dawn, the embers are doused with water and people dip their fingers into the warm ashes and make a mark on their forehead to bring luck in the coming year. Fire is also a purifying agent. People often take a little fire from the Holi bonfire and bring it home to make their houses pure and free from disease.

Colored Water

According to legend, the small monkey god Hanuman managed to swallow the sun one day, plunging everyone into darkness. The other gods suggested that people squirt each other with colored water to make Hanuman laugh. The monkey god laughed so hard that the sun flew out of his mouth.

Because Holi falls just before the start of the wet season in India, water is an appropriate symbol of the coming rains. Hindus also regard water as protection against evil. At this and other festivals, they take ritual baths in the Ganges River or other sacred waters.


Holi is sometimes referred to as Dol Yatra or the Swing Festival. Based on the legend of how the infant Krishna sucked the life out of Putana, an image of the god as a baby is placed in a small swing-cradle and decorated with flowers and colored powder. In Bengal, dolas or swings are made for Krishna instead of preparing BONFIRES . In other places, the fire is built in front of the swing. Women often celebrate Holi by sitting on swings and swaying back and forth to the accompaniment of music.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gupte, B.A. Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1919. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Sivananda, Swami. Hindu Fasts and Festivals. 8th ed. Shivanandanagar, India: Divine Life Society, 1997. Thomas, Paul. Festivals and Holidays in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1971.


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/holydays/holi_1.shtml

Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India www.holifestival.org
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


February-March; 14th day of waxing half of Hindu month of Phalguna
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. Bhang, an intoxicating drink made from the same plant that produces marijuana, is imbibed, and revelry reigns.
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 ( see Hanuman Jayanti) 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.
In Suriname it is Holi Phagwa and also the Hindu New Year .
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
BkFest-1937, p. 163
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 8
BkHolWrld-1986, Mar 27
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 500, 591, 941
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 186
HolSymbols-2009, p. 372
RelHolCal-2004, p. 183
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
The following religious holy days are national holidays: Christian: Good Friday, Easter, Christmas; Hindu: Phagwah, Diwali; Muslim: Youman Nabi, and Eid-ul-Adha.