University of Wisconsin–Madison

Happy Holi!

When I found out I was going to be in India during Holi, I was beyond elated. What’s more, I would be celebrating the holiday with family. Right after Assam I stayed for more than a week in the city of Nagpur, where I’ve got lots of relatives. Mostly, this meant goofing around with my many cousins

Exhibit A: Salil and I as aliens
Exhibit A: Salil and I as aliens

Anyway, about Holi! It is one of the holidays that I’ve missed the most while in the U.S., for a good many reasons. Holi (pronounced just like holy) is lots of things, and though I’m not really an expert, I’ll try to explain it the way I perceive it, and hopefully bring it to life.

Firstly, Holi is the coming of spring, and a new beginning. The dates are determined by the lunar calendar, and coincidentally this year, “Holy Week” and “Holi week” matched up perfectly!

In order to get off to a fresh start, people symbolically and literally burn the bad habits of the past. The actual “holi” is a giant bonfire around which people gather to pray.  Now, I’ve always loved a good bonfire. Imagine my delight as I traveled around the city in the evening, with literally every street corner lit up by a giant flames, and people gathered around with beautiful new jewel-toned clothing glowing in the firelight. Unfortunately, I was so occupied in what I saw that I forgot to take pictures! (Google it!)

Besides being a celebration of spring, Holi, like every good Hindu festival, has a pretty fantastic legend behind it. It revolves around a young boy named Prahalad, who was the son of the demon named Hiranyakashipu. This demon-king thought himself higher than the gods, but Prahalad was a good and pious, and prayed to the almighty god Vishnu. The-demon-with-a-long-name was furious with this, and tried to kill Prahalad. He asked his sister Holika for help. Holika had a special power in that she could sit within flames without them affecting her. She took Prahalad on her lap sat in a giant fire. Vishnu of course intervened- Prahalad miraculously survived, and Holika died instead. Hearing of this, the people of the kingdom celebrated with water and colorful flower petals.

Holika and Prahalad, Photo credit http://krishnasmercy.wordpress.com/
Holika and Prahalad,
Photo credit http://krishnasmercy.wordpress.com/

 

And from that last part of the legend comes the other favorite part of Holi celebrations, ‘Rangapanchami’! This literally means “Celebration of Colors” and it’s no understatement. Two days prior to Rangapanchami, my cousins and I went shopping. We bought bright pink and orange powders, green and red dyes for water, 500 water balloons, ‘pichkaris’ which are a kind of water gun  (but work like a bike pump), and a pack of awesome little toys which explode and shoot color at people.

I had been sleeping in while on vacation in Nagpur, but the day of Rangapanchami I got up early and shot out of bed. I spent an hour helping fill up water balloons and making sure the cousins didn’t steal any. Then it was time to prepare ourselves. First I borrowed some old clothes that were to be sacrificed. Then we slathered oil all over any exposed skin, and I put an extra layer of thick Vaseline all over my face, and put up my hair. In this nasty state I went downstairs.  As soon as I stepped out the door, I was sprayed with a mugful of bright green water! As I was spluttering and trying to open my eyes, I got pink powder all over my cheeks and face.

Of all the colors of Holi, I think pink is the most important. Everyone single person I saw with gulaal (colored powder) had at least one packet of pink. Even the fussy housewives who say they’re too old to play Holi, and the littlest kids who are too young for it, do not escape from having a little pink gulaal on their cheek.

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 12.55.57 AM

So within the first fifteen minutes, my face was totally pink, and more layers of color would be added on as the day went on.

Here’s me within half an hour of starting.
Here’s me within half an hour of starting.
Malinga image credit: http://www.kapellohair.co.uk/
Malinga image credit: http://www.kapellohair.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my head is a ‘Malinga’. I was totally confused about what this meant
until I realized that the wig was named after the cricket
player Lasith Malinga, who’s probably more well known
for his hairstyle than for his game.

I was bombarded with pinks, purples, orange, green, yellows and reds, and did some pretty good bombarding myself.  My uncle lives in an apartment complex, and there was a kiddie pool full of water for everyone to share. (The state of Maharashtra is on the front end of a large drought, and so there were a lot of initiatives this year to conserve water on Holi. )   As long as the water lasted, we sprayed each other with water guns and poured it onto heads, stealing pichkaris, mugs and buckets as needed.

The worst was when I got attacked by this army, headed by my 11-yr old cousin Anushree (on the left)
The worst was when I got attacked by this army,
headed by my 11-yr old cousin Anushree (on the left)

 

When the water was finished (or rather, had turned an unappealing dark gray), it was all about the dry colors. Kids and adults alike ran through the streets trying to throw the color onto each other, with clouds of pink or yellow trailing behind them.

While most of us looked like a giant mess, Salil pulled off the dry colors really well- he looked fantastic!
While most of us looked like a giant mess,
Salil pulled off the dry colors really well- he
looked fantastic!

 

Then I roamed around the town in a car with my older
cousin. We would pull up to one of her friends’ houses, throw color at them and get hit ourselves, wish them a Happy Holi and then go to the next house. It was just one city-wide party. Music blared in the streets and one of the most amusing sights was middle-aged men with potbellies dancing everywhere.

And then finally, I returned back home. I was absolutely starving but had to take an hour-long bath first. It took massive effort to get all the color off. All the layers of oil and Vaseline definitely helped, but I finally had to resort to scrubbing my face forcefully with clothing detergent. This resulted in my cheeks now having the texture of sandpaper, which is…interesting. My nails, feet and ears are still pink, 3 days later. What can I say..it was worth it!

And then I sat down to a massive lunch! Star of the show was

Image credit:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puran_Poli
Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puran_Poli

Puran Poli. This is a flat bread stuffed with a sweet flaky filling

called puran, and it is amazing. In Maharashtra, it is traditionally

a special treat served during Holi celebrations.

Hence the adorable/annoying chant “Holi re Holi, Purnachi Poli!”

There was also some gathia left over.  Gathia is basically chunks of pure sugar interspersed on a loop of string. The string can be worn as a necklace (The baby in the picture above wearing one). It’s also used in the prayers that surround the fire, and thrown into the fire as well.Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 1.08.16 AM

Gathia is sold all over town by vendors
who package it in old newspaper

Despite being a sugar fiend, I was so full by the end of lunch that I couldn’t finish my gathia, and I still have some left!

Then it was time for last part of Holi, which consists in having a giant nap worthy of the big day….and dreaming of playing again next year!

Anushree on the Attack On the left are the ashes from the previous night’s Holi bonfire, on her right is a stream of colored water.
Anushree on the Attack
On the left are the ashes from the
previous night’s Holi bonfire, on her right is
a stream of colored water.

 

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