You’re probably aware that the spring festival of Holi involves lots of coloured powder in vibrant shades and good natured fun. But surely there’s more to the celebration? We explore the significance behind the ancient Hindu festival.

It’s Holi today. I’m sure you have seen numerous organizations advertising their Holi events on Facebook in an attempt to entice you to attend them. Your fun-loving friends have been contacted, your pockets have been emptied and calendars have been marked. If you have been to a Holi event in Singapore, you would definitely know how exciting and exhilarating it is to be a part of the colourful festivities. Whether you go big with Holi at Kembangan and Wave House Sentosa, or attend a modest celebration at a nearby Community Centre, you probably haven’t stopped to ponder on the history of Holi and how the festival has transformed into how we know it today.

What is Holi?

Holi is a colourful and vibrant festival celebrated during the Hindu month of Phalgun Purnima which falls sometime between the end of February and early March. This period of time also marks the welcoming of Spring. As seen at many events and celebrations worldwide, Holi is celebrated by throwing coloured powder and spraying water on family and friends. Young or old, everybody is invited and encouraged to participate in the festivities.

Despite its popularity, not many are aware of the fact that Holi is actually an age-old Hindu festival with a whole lot of significance behind it. Holi brings people of all ages and backgrounds together, thus inculcating a sense of brotherhood and the spirit of love. On this day, people hug and wish each other a happy Holi. People rub gulal and abeer on each others’ faces and cheer them up saying, “Bura na maano, Holi hai!” which means: “Don’t be offended, it’s Holi.” The numerous legends and stories associated with the celebration of Holi make the festival more exuberant and vivid.

Did you know that Holi was originally known as Holika? The festival finds a comprehensive narrative in many early religious works. It is believed that Holi came into existence several centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ and has even been depicted in ancient texts, inscriptions, paintings and murals. One example is the upbeat scene of Holi that is pictured in a sixteenth century mural in a temple at Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagar. The painting illustrates a prince and his princess among their maids who are eagerly waiting to drench the royal couple in coloured water with syringes or pichkaris.

The Legends Surrounding Holi

The direct translation of the word Holi means “burning”. There are diversified tales surrounding the meaning of this word. But the most popular tale related to and spun around Holi is that which is associated with the demon king Hiranyakashyap. Hiranyakashyap was a vicious ruler and commanded his kingdom with dictatorship. Many were afraid to speak up or go against him. He wanted everyone in his empire to worship and adore him. To his dismay, the one to defy him was the one closest to him –  his dear son Prahlad, who became an ardent devotee of Lord Narayana.

Hiranyakashyap devised a plan to kill his son. He called for his sister, Holika, to enter a smouldering fire with Prahlad on her lap. Holika was granted a boon by the gods – she could enter a fire and come out unharmed. Taking advantage of this, she did as she was told. However, she was not aware that the boon could only work if she was to step into the fire alone. Due to her sinful and evil behaviour, she paid the price and died in the fire while Prahlad was freed from the flames because of his extreme and pure devotion for Lord Narayana.

Simply put, Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil and the power of devotion. The tradition of burning Holika, also known as Holika Dahan, which takes place a day before Holi is mainly derived from this legend.

So How Do People Usher in Holi?

They Light The Bonfire

Lighting the bonfire on the full moon night of the month of Phalgun is the very first custom that symbolises the dawn of Holi. On the eve of Holi or Holika Dahan, people get together in an open space and light bonfires made of dead leaves, twigs and wood.

They Play with Colours

The next day, the festival of colours or Dhuledi starts. This is when the fun begins! Adults and children alike smear coloured power on each other or use water jets, known as pichkaris to squirt coloured water on everyone around them, especially unlucky passers-by. In many households, the colours are commonly made using a traditional colour preparation custom known as abeer. It is usually prepared using medicinal herbs, turmeric and kumkum or sindoor (vermillion powder).

In recent years, synthetic colours and dyes have started being used and people have fun with balloons, water jets and coloured foams. The colours are normally vibrant hues of reds, greens, blues, pinks and purples.

They Visit Family and Friends

Visiting family and friends and exchanging gifts and sweets is a meaningful gesture performed in accordance with Holi customs. On the day of Holi, children flock to the elders of the house and touch their feet for blessings and offer them sweets. The adults reward the children with blessings, new clothes and sweets along with rubbing some coloured powder on the face for prosperity. Next, families visit the houses of their relatives or friends to celebrate Holi together and grow closer in spirit.

They Prepare Sweetmeats and Drinks

Food is an integral and possibly the best part of Holi! It’s probably the main reason behind the grown-ups and children bursting with energy on the day of the celebrations. Scrumptious sweets and delicacies are vital, especially for the women of the household Their Holi mornings usually start with the smell of fresh preparations of sweetmeats with desi ghee. The most popular Holi sweets made in North India are gujjias and puran poli (above) in parts of Maharashtra and South India.

Thandai, a cool drink made with almonds, milk, sugar and spices, is served in big quantities and is quite often mixed with bhaang (an intoxicating ingredient) as part of the customs. Although bhaang is considered heady, it is enjoyed during Holi as a way to de-stress and relax.

So the next time someone asks you what Holi is all about, you’ll be ready to unleash your newfound knowledge – you’re welcome.

The team at ChutneySG wishes all its readers a Happy Holi! May the arrival of Spring bring forth abundant joy and prosperity in your lives.

Written by tricia ferdinandt

malayalee-hindustani-tamil • lion city

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