A colourful celebration of community oneness.
At its core, the festival of Holi promotes togetherness, diversity and oneness. We know it's a difficult time for many with the after-effects of the pandemic, but with the easing of safety measures, we can't help thinking that this might be the perfect time to bring the festival to your families and your home. Also known as the Hindu Festival of Colours (or Phagwah in Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, and Tobago), Holi—which can be traced back as far as the 4th century CE— falls this year from March 17-18, in alignment with the month of Phalguna in the Hindu calendar. As a famously colourful festival, Holi marks the end of India’s winter and the bright beginnings of spring. Celebrants make bonfires the day before, dance to traditional music en masse, and can make new connections while immersed in a sea of vibrant, powdered colours called gulal in Hindi.
The Significance of Holi
Some traditions behind Holi vary, but its main themes go back to Indian mythology. The story behind Holi is found in the legend of the evil king Hiranyakashipu, who wished to be worshipped above all others. This soon became a problem for his son Prahlad, who was devoted to the god Vishnu. With the help of his sister Holika—the namesake for Holi—the king set up a series of elaborate schemes and traps to kill Prahlad, all to no avail. Eventually, Holika made Prahald sit with her on a burning pyre. Although she was initially protected by a special shawl, it flew from her body to instead cover Prahlad. While Holika burned, Prahlad lived, and Vishnu came to slay the evil king and restore order. The bonfires associated with Holi are a reminder of this triumph of good over evil, which is why the main Holi celebration takes place the day after bonfires are lit and the ‘fight’ is won. Even the use of powder symbolizes the ash from that same fateful fire. The individual colours hold various meanings as well— for example, red is for love and fertility, blue for the Lord Krishna, yellow for turmeric, and green represents vitality and new beginnings.
Reflections on Holi
We spoke to a diverse group of people about what Holi means to them. Although everyone honours some traditions of the festival in their own way, the theme of community togetherness—often found through fun and play on this day—is unmistakable throughout reflections on Holi.
Community member Lakshita looks back fondly on the memories of Holi that have stuck with her since childhood, recalling the infectious excitement of the festival time in her neighbourhood.
“My brother and I would be extremely excited for Holi when we were little. We would request our parents to take us shopping and we’d carefully go through the display of water guns eyeing the latest collection. If our father felt generous that day we’d be able to purchase from the newest collection. Celebrations in my apartment complex would begin a few days prior to the festival. All the kids in my neighbourhood would get together with their water guns and we’d start spraying water at each other. On the day of Holi we’d wake up early, get dressed in old clothes and step downstairs with all our equipment. From early morning to noon we’d be found playing with all our friends in the neighbourhood, drenched in water and colours. If you saw us all you would never be able to tell us apart! All our parents would have to drag us home for lunch as we just didn’t want to stop.
Now in Canada, Lakshita is even more intentional in her Holi celebrations and hopes to be an even more active participant in the future.
As I grew older and moved continents away from home, Holi has a different feeling to it now. I had the opportunity to spend Holi with my family last year in India and I was beyond grateful. I didn’t purchase a water gun or get drenched in colours; rather I was eager to learn about how my family celebrated Holi and I wanted to participate in all the ceremonies the night before Holi. I helped my mom prep for it and went to the bonfire with her, carefully memorizing and documenting each moment to be able to relive it later. I thoroughly enjoyed all the special delicacies my mom had prepared for Holi and I’m hoping to be able to do my bit this year.”
We spoke to Priya, an elementary teacher in the UK. What she appreciates about Holi is the way it brings communities together in a spirit of unity (and even a little mischievous fun).
“Holi makes me think of Lord Krishna mischievously throwing coloured water over his milkmaids when he was a boy. This developed into the practical jokes and games of Holi. However, what I love about Holi is that it has so many meanings (Prahlad, Spring, new beginnings, good over evil etc) . . .
Holi is the perfect time to live up to the words Anekataa Mein Ekataa (the oneness amongst the beautiful diversity). Spring is all about new beginnings and if this is the time when people start embodying this principle, then that’s perfect.”
Supporting Holi Around the World
Priya is also part of the team that puts on Leicester Holi, one of the biggest Holi festivals celebrated outside of India. The event is not-for-profit and organized by 15 different organizations for the benefit of the whole of Leicester's diverse and multicultural community. For Priya, part of her work’s importance lies in its way of breaking down barriers between people.
“This festival focuses on what brings us together as a community rather than what separates us . . . Dhuleti (the colour-throwing) is unique because when people leave the festival, everyone looks the same regardless of race, religion, ethnicity. This is the personification of Leicester Holi's tagline of Embracing Diversity, Celebrating Unity. It’s all about good triumphing over evil; it’s about coming together as a community with no sense of hierarchy and about having fun! It’s different in the sense that it’s so multifaceted with various reasons/angles to celebrate. Also more chaotic (in a good way) than some other Hindu festivals.”
The impact of this community-focused festival became especially apparent to Priya during Snowli - Leicester Holi 218, the first year they organized the event.
“We had no idea how popular it would be considering the Beast from the East (snow and ice), but over 5000 people attended! I realised then how important the festival was to the community.”
In light of COVID-19 and the sense of isolation experienced by so many, keeping the spirit of this festival alive has become, perhaps, even more crucial.
“It’s important to keep going and show that the festival could be celebrated despite the unusual times in which we were living. The principles of Holi apply regardless of if you play dhuleti with 3 people or 3000! 2020 had to be postponed due to weather and then COVID, so we had all the build up and wanted to put on some form of event in 2021. We had a massive engagement of over 2000 individual devices across the world (India, England, on Youtube (so how many households must we have reached!) including the Mayor of Leicester!”
We encourage you to follow this event on Instagram @leicesterholi, and by checking out their website or YouTube channel.
Celebrating Holi at Home
In honour of the festival, Root & Seed is excited to share with you our free, downloadable Holi Activity Book. Just print it out and learn more about Holi with your family. Enjoy some relaxing colouring pages, reflect on the festival with our questions, or follow a recipe by Ministry of Curry to make a traditional Mango Shrikhand, a dessert that is often made during spring festivals in India.
Live in the GTA? This Holi we are proud to feature Party Rickshaw, started by two entrepreneurs of South Asian descent. Their company offers naturally dyed powders for purchase that are non-toxic and skin-safe so you can celebrate Holi traditionally and safely. It’s available in red, pink, green, yellow, and purple packs. You can shop on their site and choose from the option to get delivery or pick up in Toronto and Mississauga.
We also encourage you to check out Root & Seed’s Conversation Tool, where we offer conversation starters to share with your loved ones to explore (and record!) family memories and traditions.
What about you? What are some Holi traditions or memories that make the festival time special for you? Share in the comments below!