Holi: The Indian Carnival of Colours

Holi or Basanta Utsav is the traditional Indian carnival of colors. This article intends to deepen the meaning and origin of this festival. It gets celebrated as the triumph of good over evil. This is an explanation usually replicated for all the ancient Indian traditional festivals.

Holi is the most popular Indian festival after Diwali. It has the most archaic origin and celebrated with powders and colored water. People also consume alcohol and other intoxicating drinks such as bhang (cannabis juice).


The event is so ancient that it is difficult finding the exact origin of this festival. In front of this, it is necessary to recover the meaning of this celebration. It has no religious or civil significance but has its roots in the ancient populations. Sumerian people already celebrated this type of festivals 5,000 years ago.

The first manifestations date back to certain rural rituals of antiquity. Men and women used to paint their face and body, after drifting from the dance and festivities. The use of the colors got linked to the belief that it moved away evil spirits. With their faces covered, they could also indulge in frivolous acts.

In ancient Rome, we have examples of pre-carnival celebrations. It took place in the period from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. On February, took place the Lupercalia, dedicated to fertility and fecundity of women. The Christian liturgy assigned it to the cult of St. Valentine's Day.

Holi is, in fact, one of those Dionysian celebrations of Anthesteria. People subvert the social order for a short time and vent the primordial instincts. In the ancient world, the festival involved the presence of masked groups. Holi still keeps its positive and joyful aspects in family celebrations.

Another explanation is that the change from winter to spring brings a propensity for fun. In Rome, there were celebrations such as the Floralia, Hilaria, and Lupercalia. It was a festival to rejoice that took place around March. The April Fool's Day was also a day to play pranks and have fun at the expense of disbelief of others.



The festival of Kupala is still celebrated by the young people of Eastern Europe. The night before the festival (Tvorila) is the night of humor and jokes. On the day of Kupala, people play with water and throw water on others on the street.

During Dyngus in Poland, people throw water balloons to family members and strangers. The celebration in Poland also remains the festival of a triumph of good over evil.

The Ecuadorian carnival gets celebrated with water, foam, talcum powder, eggs, and flour. People also color the face with any type of vegetable dyes. They are famous the songs of the carnival with phrases of humor and picarescas sung in groups. People drink the typical liqueur of the area, the bluebird.

In Guano, the carnival is with inks, flour, eggs, dust, and water. The typical dish of this festival in Cuenca is the motepata.



In Venezuela, it is customary to play with water, colors, eggs, and other substances. Afro-American music is also common in rhythms of sauces, meringues, calypsos, and samba.

The games with water and painting begin in February throughout Peru and last for the whole month. Instead, folk festivals usually start a few days before Ash Wednesday. In Paraguay, people play with water balloons or snow on the weekends of February.

This period gave unbridled freedom. The ceremonies spread among the Indo-European, Mesopotamian, as well as of other civilizations. Holi was an adaptation of the ancient customs. A state of intoxication and enthusiastic exaltation resulted in veritable orgies. The orgy is also a regression in dark and a restoration of the primordial chaos. As such, it precedes all creation and all manifestations of organized forms.

Still, this anniversary continued to create new forms of celebration. We find shades of it today in the battle of the oranges or tomatoes. From the Vedic era, Holi sustained a series of repressive attacks by the moralizing of the time.

You have to refer to the name to see the true origin and meaning of this festival. The date changes every year and is on the last day of the fortnight of the lunar month of Phalguna. It falls between February and March, on the last and the first day of the traditional calendar. The term Holi comes from Sanskrit Holaka. In fact, few people know that Holi is first a fire festival. It has characteristics like many others found in archaic civilizations around the world. To name some of them are the popular Epiphany and Celtic Beltane. It is also thus a fertility festival.

The original celebration still happens in rural areas. It focuses, in fact, on the bonfire of the night before the party of colors. It is Holika Dahan. This custom gets linked to the puranic myth that tells the Asura king Hiranyakashipu as a demon. Hiranyakashipu asks his sister Holika to burn him in a pyre. He is the rival of the Deva Vishnu, who saves his young son Prahlad.

Relying, in fact, the puranic tale with an anthropological eye, it is clear that the new gods' triumphs. The former local gods get relegated as demons who celebrated the archaic rites of Holi. The original rites of fertility and love got replaced by religious stories. The religious groups and the priest class did it for obvious reasons.

The most prominent characters of these songs are the divinities Radha and Krishna. This couple par excellence has become central to this festivity from a certain time.

In fact, Krishna has replaced the role of Madan or Kamadeva, the Indian Cupid, in Holi. Even in some places, Kamadeva is burnt in the bonfire. Both Krishna and Kamdev embody the aspects of ancient fertility cults. It is true that in Braj, Krishna's mythical home, Holi is still celebrated for many days. In the Braj region, women have the option of beat men who save themselves with shields. On the day, men accept what women serve them. This ritual is Lathmar Holi.

Kama still get worshipped in the southern India. People make offerings to the Ashoka tree, whose red flowers are the symbol of the love of Kama Deva. In some houses, the image of Kamadeva get placed in the courtyard. People offer a simple offering of mango flowers and sandalwood paste. In many places, the god of love Kama in reference to Shiva and Parvati get honored during Holi.

On the day of Vasant Panchami, forty days before Holi, a wooden log got placed in an important public place. The log was lit on the night of Phalguna Purnima with a very simple ceremony. The Rakshoghna mantras of the Rigveda got recited to ward off evil spirits. Coconuts were also thrown in this bonfire. The next morning, people smeared the body with the ashes of the bonfire as the consecrated object.



So how did it became a celebration of health and then colors? We must again observe the bonfire rite. The ashes get spread as propitiatory fertilizers on the fields. And, on the children's body to reinvigorate them. It was from the memory of the use of healing herbs in powder form.

This use of ashes, powders, and ointments has most likely brought us to the party we know today. One of the most typical aspects of Holi is definitely the music. The theme of this festival is in fact from folk music.

The magical value of obscene insults is well known and appreciated even in evolved cults. During Holi, in earlier times all kinds of unions got permitted. Northwest India practiced formidable orgies during mowing. Married women put on gold or silver powder in a small amount on the forehead as a tilak.

In Santiniketan, during Dol Purnima, students welcome the spring with music and dances. Young girls wear yellow saris and dance around to the rhythm of the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. In Maharashtra, the Holi is Shimga. They call it as Ukkuli in Konkani or Kuli Manjal in Malayalam.



In Manipur, Holi merged with the ancient festival of Yaoshang. Young people perform a folk dance, called Thabal Chongba, to the songs and rhythmic beats of the drums.

In Haryana and Gujarat, a pot of serum gets hung on the streets. Young people try to reach out and break making human pyramids. While girls try to stop them by throwing colored water. They crown the boy as the king of the year for that community who finally manages to break the pot.

So Holi is the remnants of ancient spring rites. There are elements linked to the spring solstice (Ostara) and May Day (Beltane). In Holi, we find fertility rites, parades, and burlesque moments with the presence of the masks. Holi become an occasion for rejoicing to foreshadow the advent of the spring season.