Holi is the Indian festival of colours, known and celebrated all over the world. Celebrated over a two-day period, this festival officially marks the end of winter. Or it used to. Depending on where you are in the world, you could still be facing the next snowstorm or no winter at all. But while Holi is the festival of colour, it is also the festival that celebrates community. Holi is about the special pleasure of splashing color on someone’s pristine shirt. It’s about loud music and bold dance moves. Holi means setting aside old grudges and new beginnings. It’s about cheekiness and naughtiness, a little hilarity and some good old-fashioned fun; an attempt to live life on the lighter side.
Good Vs Evil
The first day is choti Holi or holika dahan. People get together in the late night/early hours to burn a ceremonial pyre of wood. This signifies the triumph of good over evil. In many parts of India, every neighborhood will have a bonfire set up at a prominent crossroad and people gather with their families to witness the symbolic recreation of the demon Holika burning alive in a thwarted attempt to kill her nephew – the Vishnu devotee Prahlad. Growing up, I remember waking up in the pre-dawn hours for the bonfire. Afterwards we would go around the neighbourhood, wishing everyone a Happy Holi and exchanging barley seeds roasted in the Holi bonfire.
If the first day is devoted to solemn rituals, the second day, rangwali Holi, is its polar opposite. It is the festival of colours, after all. Full of fun, laughter and frivolity, the morning hours are spent dousing your friends and family with dry gulal, water-filled pichkaris and more permanent colours. In the absence of a pool, many enterprising adults will organize a large tub filled with coloured water, to dunk everyone in. And children take great pride in amassing buckets full of water-filled balloons. The idea is to hide in a balcony and then throw these colourful projectiles on unsuspecting adults or a rival group of kids. Think snowball fight but with water-filled balloons.
Holi – a Festival of Colours…and Song and Dance
And what is a Holi party without someone breaking into a song and dance, preferably with some bhang in their drink? There is a multitude of Bollywood songs dedicated to the hero and heroine in this choreographed ritual of wooing each other, playing coy and then finally coming together – all on a canvas of rainbow colors. It is said that the ritual of playing with colors came about when Krishna, feeling insecure about his blue complexion, smeared color on fair-skinned Radha’s face, to level the playing field. It is Holi after all, and in some senses, traditional rules of gender wars are a little more lax. Or completely abandoned, if you look at the lathmar holi in Barsana where the entire celebration is around women beating men with sticks and pelting them with colour at the same time.
The evening hours of rangwali holi are dedicated to getting the colour off your skin. Families visit their neighbors to sample the delicacies hand-crafted painstakingly in the days leading up to the festival. There is mathri and shakar-pare, malpua and kachri, thandai – spiced milk drink, dahiwadas – lentil dumplings soaked in spiced yoghurt, kanji – an Indian-style kombucha and of course gujiya. This last desert deserves a post of its own.
A Community Activity
Gujiya-making is a community activity in the small North-Indian towns. In the days leading up to Holi, ladies take turns to gather in each other’s homes and help make gujiya. Women spend hours hand-rolling refined flour dough into transparently thin discs about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. These are stuffed with khoya that has been cooked with sugar and delicately flavored with raisins, powdered cardamom and chironji. The stuffing process is labor-intensive and requires intricate folding of the dough to close the “mouth” of the gujiya. Women take great pride in their skill and everyone has a signature look to their designs.
Of-course modern industry has made plastic contraptions to do the same job of stuffing the gujiya. But where’s the fun in that? There’s no showing off deft fingers working daintily to keep the stuffing inside, no comparing of designs to see whose is neater and no passing down of skills to the young eyes and eager hands. Ah well, that’s progress for you.
In a final step the gujiya are covered with bed sheets and “rested” before deep frying. This is the most important step in the whole process. The youngest members of the family are in charge of guarding the gujiya against the unsuspecting trespassers who may accidentally sit on the bed-sheet covered gujiya. Many a batch has been lost like that! This is one hand-made delicacy that, if you are lucky, you get to taste at least once in your lifetime. If you are really lucky, like me, your mom makes it for you whenever she visits – Holi or not.
Celebrating Holi Far Away From Home
I have often wondered what does it mean to celebrate Holi today. In the era of climate change, is it responsible to burn wood when it contributes to greenhouse gases? Do I really want plastic water balloons if they add to the menace of polluting our water? Is it okay to smear color on someone’s face in the age of #MeToo? Should we be asking consent as we throw colors on strangers and acquaintances? How can we give physical expression to our feelings of community and camaraderie when faced with the modern threats of germs and personal space?
As we move further away from home, we hold our culture and our rituals closer to us. We try to impart the nostalgia of our childhood to our kids. So, they will also carry a little piece of home with them, no matter where they go. And so, we celebrate Holi even when there is snow outside the deck door. We settle for the packaged convenience of the Haldiram gujiya, over the hand-made version of our mother’s hands. And we replace the polluting plastic balloons and colors with the gentleness and purity of turmeric and kumkum.
Holi is at its very essence a celebration of life in all its colours. It marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring; a time to let bygones be bygones. And in these fractious times, we can all do with some color in our life – a whole lot of color. Happy Holi everyone.
Radhika is a marketing professional with experience in hospitality & retail. Her current project is to build her digital marketing portfolio and write something every day. Having lived and worked in India, Dubai and Minnesota, she is now based in Geneva.