Holi is the Indian festival of color that marks the advent of spring — and the end of winter — in a joyfully colorful display of raucous abandon. According to legend, Holi commemorates the time that prankster Lord Krisha doused the fair-skinned goddess Radha to make her look more like him. Centuries (and other legends) later, family, friends who are family, and neighbors come together under the hot March sun in plush lawns, backyards, driveways, and in the streets to celebrate.
I grew up in India, where preparation begins days before. Water balloons are purchased (tiny balloons, no bigger than a small mango), packets of powdered color are carefully selected from the local markets (and the colors! bursting with pinks and marigold orange, eye-searing blues and neon greens, turmeric yellow and brick reds), and water guns are tested for maximum squirt power.
Holi morning dawns, and the balloons are filled by the bucketful, then carefully knotted and stored in an easily accessible garden spot or window — all the better for a stealth attack on a visiting aunty or an innocent passerby. Mind you, those innocent passersby are not so innocent: They too have their stash of balloons and water guns to wreak havoc on any and everybody they meet.
The pigments of color are used dry or wet. Traditionally made from turmeric or natural flowers and plants, they then became mass-market, the cheap, multicolor pigments could end up staining someone’s skin for weeks — or forever rendering a pure white Pomeranian a sickly pink. Fortunately, that changed in the 1990s when most colors sold for Holi became organic and safe to use again.
The day begins with the family lining up early morning for a hair oil treatment and a liberal application of body oil or cream on any exposed body part to prevent the powder from settling in and staining the skin and scalp. Once prepared, we slip into our white cotton outfits. Everyone wears white on Holi. In part because it’s hot in India, in part because it’s a brilliant way to see the variety of colors your visitors have been subjected to by the time they get to your home.
The elder family members have a small and respectful streak of color applied to their foreheads or faces.
But it all gets crazy very quickly.
No one under the age of 65 is spared a thorough soaking, balloon attack, and color smearing.
And then there’s the food and drink. Holi usually involves sunny, boozy afternoons in people’s gardens and homes. There is a tradition of mixing bhang (edible cannabis leaf) with buttermilk or whisked yogurt to make a sweet or salty drink or into Indian ladoos (sweet round balls of semolina or dough served as dessert).
Before you know it, everybody is either singing, drunk, stoned, or, well, just sick and tired of the heat and getting splashed with color. By the end of the afternoon people are back in their homes scrubbing the color off, recovering from the day. The cities get quiet, and we all drowsily celebrate the start of another spring. Happy Holi indeed.