I was red, I was blue, I was purple, and then I was hot pink. It’s impossible to go through Holi and maintain a single color the whole day, especially not your natural skin tone. If someone had taken time-lapse footage of me, I would have looked like a malfunctioning chameleon, flashing all sorts of bright colors in a bizarre and alarming display. And across India, millions of other people underwent the same transformation.
Holi is one of the world’s most distinctive holidays, a festival of color that turns every face into a canvas for radiant dyes and powders. The main way to celebrate is to go around and spread color on friends, relatives, neighbors, and even complete strangers. Originally, the colors came from naturally occurring substances like mud, spices, or flowers, but now most of them are synthetic. I’ve heard that the chemicals used for the dyes can cause skin rashes and cause other unpleasant effects, but luckily I didn’t experience any lasting damage, other than a purple hue on my toenails that still hasn’t quite subsided.
I’ve heard several stories about how the color-throwing got started. Most of them involve Krishna, one of Hinduism’s most popular gods. Known for his playful nature, Krishna was fond of games of pranks. He used to enjoy flinging colors at his consort Radha, and she would toss them back at him. In honor of this lighthearted pastime, the tradition is repeated every spring on Holi.
The most religiously significant aspect of Holi is not actually the color but a large bonfire that occurs the night before the colorful festivities. It commemorates a much less cheerful story. In ancient times, the demon king Hiranyakashyap wanted his entire kingdom to worship him, but his son Prahlad became faithful to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu preserver of the universe (it may have been worthwhile going with Vishnu just for the sake of convenient pronunciation). To punish this insolence, the demon king ordered his sister Holika, who was immune to flame, to throw herself onto a blazing bonfire with Prahlad on her lap. She did, but to everyone’s surprise, the fire consumed her and left Prahlad unscathed. The yearly bonfire commemorates this triumph of faith and bears the name Holi in recognition of the immolated demoness (that’s about the only feminist conceit in this story, and it hardly makes up for the unsavory implications about the role of women in India).
But it’s the color that gets worldwide attention, and for good reason. The festival is a brilliant and captivating sight. Holi is probably the only day of the year when it’s acceptable to turn a stranger purple. On the streets of Jodhpur, the scene was a hectic frenzy of airborne colors, rhythmic drums, and faces so altered that they seemed almost alien. It looked like an apocalypse orchestrated by the Blue Man Group.
Often the chaos gave way to eerie quiet, as draining dye formed muddy rainbows on the side of the road. During these lulls, roving bands of teenage boys swarmed passersby and covered them with color. The mobs could get a bit rough, especially with women, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea for a single female to travel alone. In general, most people knew better than to go out unprepared. Several of my friends refused to leave their homes at all.
Despite the occasional boundary crossing, Holi in India is a fantastic celebration. Many religions observe lively holidays at springtime, but in terms of sheer amusement and spectacle, Holi takes the cake. After the bonfire, it’s all about having fun, with no crucified saviors or enslaved peoples to drag down the buzz. And when else do you get to make a total mess of everyone you know?