Palak Jayswal: Holi is about more than throwing colors

The Tribune’s culture reporter examines the Hindu holiday’s history and legend

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Revelers toss colored powder in the air as they celebrate the arrival of spring during the Holi Festival of Colors in Spanish Fork on Saturday, March 30, 2019.

This weekend, colors will bloom and paint Utahns at Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple’s celebration of Holi — a traditionally Hindu festival that is best known among non-Hindus for the throwing of colorful powders.

The Festival of Colors celebration — set for Saturday and Sunday, March 26 and 27, at the temple in Spanish Fork — will feature Indian-inflected pop dance music, yoga and the picturesque color-throwing. (The actual Hindu festival took place on March 18; the date changes year to year, based on the Hindu luni-solar calendar.)

Holi is known colloquially as Festival of Colors, Festival of Spring and even Festival of Love. In short, it is many different things to different people. In agricultural areas of India, it literally is celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of a new growing season. At heart, wherever it’s celebrated, it is a festival of celebration and welcoming of a new season, a chance to start fresh.

I was born in India, moved to Utah when I was two months old, and have grown up here. Unlike my parents, aunts and uncles, and even family friends, I haven’t had the chance to celebrate the festival in India. From what they tell me, and what I see in Utah and in Bollywood movies, I’m led to believe that it’s better there.

I’ve attended the Utah festival, which started in 1995, a few times with friends. Honestly, I had a blast. But I’ve always wondered if those around me — exuberantly tossing their colors and taking Instagram-worthy photos — understood the festival’s cultural significance, the meaning behind the colors.

Do these people, color-smeared, their faces protected by sunglasses and handkerchiefs, know the story of Radha and Krishna? How the festival celebrates the love between the goddess and god — of when Krishna was conscious of his darker skin tone to Radha’s fairer one? And, how Krishna, taking his mother’s advice, approached Radha and playfully smeared her face with color, making her like himself and thus inspiring the throwing and smearing of colors?

Or do they know another origin story, the tale of Hiranyakashyap, a demon king, who began forcing subjects to treat him as a god? And how his son, Prahlada, defied him, and worshipped the god Vishnu instead? In this version, the king tried to burn Prahlada alive, and asked his daughter, Holika, to sit with Prahlada because she had a shawl that would not catch fire — but the shawl flew off and Holika died. Vishnu then appeared and killed the king, a triumph of good over evil.

Do they know that in each of India’s 28 states, there are unique approaches and celebrations of the festival, and even different names for it?

(Rajanish Kakade | AP) A boy reacts as he is smeared with colored powder during Holi festival celebrations at a school for children with special needs in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

The legends behind Holi

In Gujarat, the state on India’s west coast where my family is from, the two-day festival my parents grew up celebrating consists of lighting a bonfire — called Holika Dahan — on the eve of Holi, which signifies the victory of good over evil. People offer such raw staples as coconut, mangoes or corn. The next day, people throw the powdered color.

In some cities in Gujarat, and in Maharashtra (the state to the south where Mumbai sits), a pot of buttermilk is hung high on the street — a tribute to Krishna, who is remembered for playfully stealing butter and milk. Young men form human pyramids with the goal of trying to break the pot. Whoever succeeds is crowned “Holi king,” a great local triumph.

The state of Punjab, in northern India, celebrates “Hola Mohalla” with displays of martial arts, such as horse-riding and other combat training. It also features an army procession of war drums (called mahalia), and poetry contests to pay respect to Sikh warriors. These celebrations take place the day after Holi, and in the state, the celebrations span three days. Though many Sikhs participate in the traditional color-throwing part, it isn’t an official part of this celebration.

In Uttar Pradesh, also in the north of India, the villages of Barsana and Nandgaon exclusively celebrate Lathmar Holi (“lath” comes from “lathi,” or stick, and “mar” means to beat) in the Mathura district. Celebrations tie back to Radha and Krishna, since Barsana is Radha’s home and Nandgaon is Krishna’s. It is celebrated a week before Holi celebrations.

Legend has it that Krishna and his friends visited Radha, and teased her and her friends, who retaliated by chasing them away with sticks. Now, that scene is imitated, as men from Nandgaon come to Barsana to have color put on their faces by the village’s women. They are met with a playful reenactment of the folk legend, where women beat lathis on shields that men use to cover themselves. It’s all in jest, and a nod to the legend between the two villages and the district at large.

In various places in India, the festival features more staples than just colored powder. Some places use a “pichkari,” a water syringe deployed like a squirt gun to spray colored water. Some serve “bhang,” a traditional mix of warm milk and a paste made by crushing cannabis leaves and served cold; the drink is said to have cultural connections to Lord Shiva, though there are different explanations of how. (Cannabis was made illegal in India under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985; the law makes an exception for Holi.)

Many people also make rangolis, which are more often associated with Diwali in the fall. These artistic designs — usually made outside someone’s home as a sign of welcome, good luck and prosperity — are made from colored powder used in Holi, but can be made of other things like flowers as well.

The ‘melting pot’ view

These are some of many different faces and aspects of the festival, beyond the frolic and fun that the Utah version has modified and packaged to cater to a less diverse audience. This has happened under the guise of making it inclusive for all, looking away from its religious and cultural roots in favor of popularity and commodification. In fact, the festival is now a regional, traveling event.

In Utah, it’s even more interesting, when you take into account that the temple and festival are run by a white couple in Utah County who converted to Hinduism, Caru Das Adikari and Vai Bhavi.

When I asked Das whether he can make sure the festival is inclusive to all, but stay true to its Indian roots, he said, “America is a melting pot.’ He made an analogy to honey, and how different varieties make the best honey, rather than a “pure honey.”

It’s not the first time Das has been asked to defend his event. In a 2020 Time magazine article, he is said to “dismiss charges of cultural appropriation.”

Das said, correctly, that the festival brings together all sorts of people. Even in India, the festival transcends religions: Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and more take part. It has crossed borders into Nepal, and across the world as the South Asian diaspora spread.

Here in Utah, though, it makes me wonder: What is at risk when you sacrifice authenticity for palatability?

One common, if admittedly archaic, point of Hindu tradition is that women who are menstruating are encouraged not to participate in temple activities, like worshiping or cooking, or being on temple grounds. (There are diverse views across Indian cultures, but for the most part this is the practice.)

When I asked Das about this on the phone, he said he didn’t know about it, questioned if that was true, and when I confirmed it is, he said that “doesn’t happen here.” He did note that the Spanish Fork temple building is closed during the festival, adding, “everybody is discriminated against equally, not because of their gender.”

He also added the festival is about “inclusivity not exclusivity” and those who “want to exclude us for one reason or another, they themselves are contrary to the spirit of the festival.”

From Holi, color marathons and similar festivals have sprouted. The Utah Festival of Colors charges for tickets, bags of colors (which Das manufactures and sells in bulk), and other merchandise.

For better or worse, the festival has evolved from its origins. Culture, I strongly believe, is a unifier, and is supposed to bring people together. But there is a danger of crossing the fine line between appreciation and appropriation, when we forget the traditions and roots of these joyful events.

Ideally, the smearing of color at Holi hides skin tone, political and religious affiliations, and perhaps everything in this world that divides us. I’m not saying everyone shouldn’t participate — but I’m keen to share everything about what makes this wonderful, colorful festival what it is, and to help people learn all about it.

There is power in connectivity, but there also is power in knowledge.

Palak Jayswal is The Tribune’s culture reporter.