Traditions Field Note

Celebrating Holi



Holi is a festival of colors that is celebrated throughout India and Nepal. I got the chance to celebrate this festival while in the south Indian town of Madurai. Read on to learn about what I experienced on this fun-filled holiday!


My favorite holiday I got to celebrate this semester was the Indian festival of colors, otherwise known as Holi. Holi is a spring festival that is primarily celebrated in northern India and Nepal, but I got lucky and was able to celebrate it in my southern Indian town. Actually, one of the reasons I chose to come to India for the spring semester was so that I would get to celebrate Holi. I had heard about Holi from some of my south Asian friends at my college in Ohio. In Ohio, there is actually a yearly Holi celebration! However, my experience of the holiday in India completely exceeded my expectations and I would love to celebrate it again if I ever return to India in the future.

What tradition did I learn about?

Holi originally was a festival that was celebrated only by people who followed the Hindu religion. However, now many people from a range of religions celebrate it. Holi is celebrated by throwing colored powder (or a liquid version of the colored powder) at family, friends and even strangers! Powder used during Holi comes in many different colors such as bright pink, green and red. Water balloons with colored powder in them are also sometimes used. Often, after a day of Holi celebrations, everyone comes back covered in colors from head to toe! People will also sometimes light bonfires during Holi.

Why does the community have this tradition?

Holi first and foremost celebrates the beginning of the spring season. Traditionally, it was a festival to celebrate fertile land and the abundance of spring’s colors. It also has a religious purpose, as it commemorates certain events in Hinduism. Holi is usually celebrated at the end of February or in early March and lasts about two days.

Although many people in Madurai  did not celebrate Holi this year while I was there, I was especially lucky in that I got to. At the dance studio where I took Bollywood dance classes this semester, Holi was a major cause for celebration. This is primarily because the dance studio is owned and run by north Indians. When I showed up for dance class on the day of Holi, I was suddenly attacked by children who smeared bright pink powder on my face and arms. Instead of protesting, I went along with it and got them back! I asked if they had other colors of powder as well, but it turned out they just had pink.

Soon, even the adults had at least a little pink powder on them. As we danced during our class, puffs of powder would fall off our bodies onto the floor. However, the majority of the powder stained our clothes and skin for days to come. When I got back to my host family’s house that night, they did not immediately recognize that the pink powder on my face was because of Holi. They are south Indians, and do not really celebrate the holiday, so when they saw the pink color on my face, they thought I was sunburnt! But I soon reminded them that it was Holi and they were put at ease.

When I got home, I took pictures of myself covered in powder before trying to wash it off. To my surprise, it was very difficult to scrub the pink powder off. It took more than an hour for me to get it all off. In fact, my friend Julie’s hair was stained pink from Holi for days after the celebrations, and the dance floor at my dance studio still has a pink tinge to it. At first I was worried that the powder might cause irritations to my skin, but luckily it did not. However, another one of my friends appeared to be allergic to the powder, and removed all of it from herself as soon as possible.

Is this tradition connected to its environment? How?

One of the best parts about Holi is that during the festival, the way in which people normally behave with each other in India is changed. Rich people and poor people, and people of different religions, classes, genders, ages and statuses come together to celebrate Holi and throw colors at each other, thus enjoying each other’s presences. These are groups of people that may not normally interact in India, so it is a wonderful opportunity for unity. It is a day when smiles and laughs abound, and people put aside their troubles to enjoy the holiday. On this day, polite behavior is not expected, and so the atmosphere becomes one of excitement, surprise and celebration.

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