The meaning behind the many colors of India’s Holi Festival

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This article was originally published in The Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly in spring 2016. It looked amazing in its original print edition – incredible photos. It’s nice to find it online just now.

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you land in India anytime in late February or March, it’s wise to check the dates of the annual Holi festival, and bring a spare set of clothes. That’s because for a few days in spring, people crowd the streets and splash brilliantly colored dyes on anyone walking by. It’s hard to avoid the fun—and paint—unless you stay inside or look menacing enough to discourage the custom.

“Watch out, madam!” said my taxi driver in Amritsar as we drove through a melee of young people pelting each other with powder.

“The colors never come out of your clothes,” he said. “And you might be having purple hair for many days. It is a complete liability.”

I did a quick check. I was wearing black, a color rarely seen in India. In the caste, or “varna,” system (which in Sanskrit translates as the “color” system), it is usually associated with the lowest categories of social classes, and can be viewed as unlucky. A Forbes study in 2009, which compared corporate logo colors in India with international brands, suggested that black is the one color that companies in India assiduously avoid. I was happy for my clothes to be permanently splattered.

“Can we stop?” I asked. “Or will I make your taxi dirty when I get back in?”

“No, madam, I have a cloth for just this exact purpose,” he said. “And I have some powder I bought for my children. You can have some gladly, to join in our customs.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 18.27.11Holi represents the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It is also said to be the enactment of a game the Hindu god Lord Krishna played with his consort Radha and the gopis, or milkmaids. The story represents the fun and flirtatiousness of the gods but also touches on deeper themes: of the passing of the seasons and the illusory nature of the material world.

Traditionally the colors used in Holi came from flowers and herbs—which in the hot climate of India tend to produce bright natural dyes—but today they’re usually synthetic. The tub of crimson powder the driver handed me was almost fluorescent; holding this as my weapon of choice, I walked into the Holi smoke. Continue reading →