What is Holi and how is it celebrated?
Discover more on Indian festivals with our guide to Holi and its colourful traditions, Hindu folklore and celebratory feasting.
Often referred to as the festival of colour, Holi is a boisterous occasion, characterised by family and friends daubing coloured powders over each other and drenching unsuspecting passers-by with a deluge of water.
Everyone is fair game for fun and a little flirtation in the spring sunshine. No one wears their best clothes, opting instead for a well-worn outfit, which will almost certainly have its last outing on Holi.
When is Holi celebrated?
Holi follows the Hindu lunar calendar and is held in late February or early March, although the exact dates vary across regions. It lasts for one night and the following day.
Try our Indian recipes to create your own Holi feast
What is Holi?
There are many regional folk tales about Holi. A widespread belief is that the festival’s name is derived from ‘Holika’, who was the wicked sister of the demon king Hiranya Kashap. The king believed he was immortal, and his sister had been told that her magical powers would prevent her from being burned in a fire. Prahlad, the king’s son, rebelled against his father’s arrogance, and as punishment, the cruel king and his sister plotted his death. Holika tricked her nephew into a bonfire, but her supernatural powers deserted her, and she died in the flames while Prahlad survived. The king evoked the wrath of the gods, but was also struck down, and his son was then crowned as the new and just ruler.
On the night before Holi, community bonfires are lit to commemorate this folk story and to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Holi marks the end of winter and beginning of spring. As a token of gratitude, wheat sheaves, coconut and green chickpeas are symbolic offerings thrown into the flames as a token of gratitude for the spring harvest. The night of the bonfires has a religious element, but the second day is more of a social occasion, with a raucous and colourful salutation of new beginnings and well-being.
Another story pays tribute to Lord Krishna, who enjoyed teasing local milkmaids by showering them with coloured powders and water. This ritual is now faithfully recreated in homes across India. Whatever the belief, Holi is a festival for all ages which has global appeal.
How is Holi celebrated?
The second day of Holi is the main celebration. Traditionally, in states such as Rajasthan, water would have been scented and dyed with flower petals, but these days, commercially-prepared colours are used. Early risers will line up colours and arrange snacks on platters, while children fill ‘pichkaris ‘(water pistols) ready for action. The morning starts with an outdoor exchange of sweetmeats and powdered colours. This may involve an elegant light touch of colour on foreheads in some households, while at the other end of the scale, a full-on soaking with a bucket of coloured water sets the tone for the day ahead!
After a couple of hours of drinking and snacking, the kitchen swings into action, with a satisfying lunch. A lull follows, and revellers bathe and change into clean and neatly ironed clothes. This signifies the end of exuberant Holi activities, and stern words will be exchanged if anyone chucks colour after this time.
What food is eaten for Holi?
There’s no single set meal for this festival and many people prefer to serve regional vegetarian dishes for Holi lunch, while in other homes, meaty masalas are enjoyed in the evening.
In the morning, snacks such as crisp-fried savoury biscuits (mathris) and soft lentil dumplings (dhai bhallas) are arranged on trays. Sweetmeats such as gujiyas, jaleibis and pistachio barfi are considered an auspicious Holi offering.
Fried pancakes (malpua and rabri), spiced with fennel seeds, make a splendid partner to thickened creamy milk. And then there’s sweetly scented kulfi which signifies the onset of warmer weather.
Drinks such as chilled thandai and pitchers of lassi make good thirst quenchers alongside alcoholic drinks. The emphasis is on dishes which can be made ahead, or laid out as a buffet, because it gives the cook an opportunity to hang up the apron and join in the fun. Channa bhatura and puri alu make satisfying main meals, while fried snacks such as onion bhajis, samosas and pepper pakoras punctuate any gaps between meals.
In Maharasthra, Western India, a popular flat griddle bread known as puran poli is filled with butterscotch-like jaggery, sweet fennel seeds and crushed lentils – it’s best served with a dollop of ghee (or butter) and a perhaps a glass of chilled milk on the side.
And, in a reflection of modern food trends, many cooks in India will try their hand at baking a colourful cake or dessert. If you fancy a technicolour Holi centrepiece, check out our rainbow cupcakes and rainbow cheesecake.
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