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About This Festival

If you happen to be in India, Nepalor Sri Lanka during the last lunar cycle of the winter, called Phalguna (usually in February or March), you just might get caught in a rainbow battlefield at the Holi festival of colors. Throngs of celebrants fling every imaginable type of brightly colored dye in the form of powder, liquid and water balloons at each other in an all ­out war. It’s a wildly immersive and participatory festival, as everyone gets involved, from young to old. Holi is celebrated all over the region from intimate celebrations at home to enormous street parties exploding with color. It’s very photogenic, but be warned: We lost a camera to a paint­-filled water balloon on the streets of Delhi.

Celebrating Legends at Holi

The most accepted of the many stories about Holi’s colorful beginnings is the Hindi legend of Radhu and Krishna found in a 7th-century Sanskrit manuscript. Krishna was believed to have been unhappy with the color of his dark skin compared to Radhu’s fair complexion, so his mother evened out the balance by having Krishna apply beautiful colors to Radhu’s face. This festival helps locals say goodbye to winter and welcome to spring, the season of love (and color). It’s celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and happy travelers alike.

Never Mind, It’s Holi!

Many customs accompany Holi. On the eve of this celebration (known as Purnima Day, or full moon), wooden sticks and old furniture are piled into town centers and set ablaze. To appease the god Hutashani, locals offer ears of corn, new vegetables, coconuts, butter and flowers to the fire. In the morning, on the day called Parva, you’ll hear people screaming, “Bura no mano, Holi Hai!” (“Never mind, it’s Holi!”), which is a way of saying, “I’m acting really strange right now. Don’t mind me. This Holi celebration has taken over me, so blame Holi.”

This festival of colors serves as an equalizer in a system long ruled by castes, classes and social hierarchy. The face paint serves much like the masks of Carnival and everyone joins in the festivities together, though not all class divisions are necessarily forgotten. But social barriers are relaxed and it’s a happy celebration for all.

Warnings and Precautions

While Holi is a joyous event, you must take care when participating. The bright dyes have been known to cause skin problems for some participants, ranging from mild allergies to permanent skin discoloration. The dyes (known as gulal) sold in street stalls historically were prepared from natural sources such as springtime flowers and sandalwood. As natural resources have been depleted, synthetic dyes have replaced them. If you’re celebrating in India, it’s practically impossible to know the origin of the dyes or the potential impact on your skin. The vast majority or revelers experience no problems, but reactions can be severe. Natural and non­toxic dyes are safer though not readily available.

On a more serious note, women must be especially cautious in large celebrations and on crowded streets as the combination of color, chaos, alcohol and bhang (an intoxicant made of cannabis leaves) can create an anything-goes atmosphere that men take advantage of for unruly (and unholy) groping and occasional sexual assaults. With the proper precautions (go out in a group, ideally with some men included) you should be able to keep the celebration a joyous one.

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