I left the South Asian Students Association’s (SASA) Holi event with my face half Smurf, half Hulk. My friends and I walked home with wide grins, trailing blue, green, pink, red and yellow powder behind us. Although I might look like a serious and intelligent adult, Holi revealed the truth behind that façade. Given the opportunity, I quickly devolved into a color-flinging child dropping powder down people’s shirts and drawing on their noses.
After I spent an hour in the shower scrubbing (trust me, those colors get everywhere – and I do mean everywhere), I settled down to study, but found myself wondering about the origins of Holi. After some well-spent time on the internet and a fun joint interview with Rahul Sangar ’13 and Rani Mukherjee ’15, co-chairs of SASA, I came away enlightened. So here’s the scoop.
“Holi is the Hindu festival of colors, celebrated in India and in other countries with Hindu populations, that celebrates the coming of spring,” Sangar explained. As I discovered from my online research, there is also a mythological origin for the Holi festival. According to the myth, the god Brahma granted a king immortality. The king grew arrogant, and demanded that people stop worshipping the gods and start worshipping him. However, the king’s son continued to worship Vishnu, another major Hindu god. The king made several attempts to kill his son. In his last attempt, the king ordered his son to sit on the lap of his own sister, Holika, who was protected from fire. The fire was lit, but Holika, instead of being immune to the fire, burned to death, while the son survived unharmed. The name “Holi” comes from the miracle of Holika’s death.
It’s a bit of a gruesome myth to be sure, but it’s a beautiful celebration. In larger Holi festivals celebrated in India, singing, dancing and huge bonfires are also used to commemorate the festival. Different regions have their own unique traditions – in Gujarat, for example, men form human pyramids to try to reach a pot of buttermilk while women try to stop them by throwing colored water on them. In Uttar Pradesh, women chase men away with sticks. During Holi, social niceties and differences in class, gender and caste are mostly disregarded in favor of having fun.
Holi is also an agricultural festival that bids farewell to winter and celebrates the spring. The bright colors of the powders are meant to represent the coming of the new season, one which is generally filled with the saturated colors of fresh life. The bonfires represent destroying the old leaves and wood to signify that new leaves and flowers are on their way. “It’s a great way for the community to come together and celebrate the turn of the season,” Mukherjee said.
Even the colors used during Holi have lots of different variations. “The colors are called gulal,” Mukherjee explained. “During Holi, the colors can be powder or colored water. We decided not to use water because it can get especially messy, and it was also kind of cold this year,” Sangar added. Although SASA ordered the colors online, there are also lots of recipes online for making homemade gulal. Colors can be made with turmeric, lime powder, henna powder, beets, saffron and flowers.
Sangar and Mukherjee explained that in India, the modern way of celebrating Holi is pretty similar to how it’s done at the College. “It’s just on a larger scale,” Mukherjee said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people are there, and there are also lots of performances, like singing and dancing.”
The history of celebrating Holi at the College is pretty recent. “The first festival was two years ago, put on by Jay Mehta [’13],” Sangar said. “Only about 10 or 20 people attended. Then last year, probably about 60-70 people attended. This year, I think we must have had over 200 people, which was great.” Holi exploded on Facebook, and lots of photos and videos were taken of the event. This year, Holi was put on as part of Asian American Heritage Month. “We wanted to celebrate our heritage together and have fun,” Mukherjee said.
Next year, SASA plans to expand Holi even further, although, as Sangar said, “The colors run out so quickly! The first year, we ordered 10 kilograms. Last year, we ordered about 20 kilograms and this year, we ordered 68.5 kilograms and we still ran out within about 20 minutes.” Mukherjee added, “Next year, we’ll order even more colors. We also want to do a more wide-scale invitation and expand the event to include faculty and staff. Maybe we’ll even do a catered lunch.” The future of Holi at the College looks pretty bright – and so does the weather, at least for the next few months.