We are sneaking around the corner of the house. We can hear them and we are ready to fire back. But a full bucket of water poured from the rooftop catches us on the hop. A group of kids runs towards us throwing water balloons and color powder screaming "Happy Holi" with delight. Soaking wet and smeared with colors, we cheerfully respond. It is Holi, the Hindu festival of color that celebrates the arrival of spring.
Holi usually falls in March, or sometimes in late February as it follows the lunar Hindu calendar where it is celebrated in Phalgun and on Purnima (full moon). It is a very old festival and dates back to the 7th century or perhaps even further back, since it has its mention in the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnaval. There are many legends and stories that hover around Holi or try to explain the celebration but the main legend is probably the one that involves Prahalad and Holika.
The demon king Hiranyakashyap declared himself as the ruler of the Universe and of higher stature that all the other Gods. The king's son, Pralhad, was an ardent devotee of lord Vishnu. This enraged Hiranyakashyap so much that he decided to kill his son. All efforts failed and he asked his demon sister Holika to kill the prince. She had the ability to remain unaffected by fire, so she took Pralhad on her lap and sat in the middle of a pyre. However, Holika was burnt to ashes while Prahalad stayed unharmed through Vishnu’s blessings. Lord Vishnu killed Hiranyakashyap as well.
The ritual burning of Holika is still celebrated on the night before Holi with large bonfires and with burning of Holika’s puppet in India. The day after, is Holi, where the triumph of good over evil is celebrated at a lovely time of the arrival of spring.
Though the day has a very religious backstory, I see very little, if at all, religious activity on the day in Nepal. My experience is of a huge water fight and people throwing water baloons and smearing color on each other. A lot of people gather on the their rooftops and balconies and throw water on people walking on the streets! If you are out and about on Holi, it is impossible to stay dry or clean, so just enjoy it and make sure to wear old clothes, preferably white to have all the colors clearly visible.
On this day, friends and family get together to enjoy delicous food and drinks. The day is full of cheerfulness and fun. It is a festival that encourages to end conflicts, renew relationships and bring about forgiveness/reconciloation. Social status, gender differences and age creates no bar to put color on each other this day. Everybody, young and old, participates. Every gender and class, wish each other a happy Holi.
There are many adaptations inspirated by Holi in European countries and America that catch on the colorfilled and fun part of Holi. There is for example the color run, where the participants run with white shirts and the spectators along the route throw color powder on them. Fun is central, and time is not measured. Several festivals, such as the Festival Of Colors Tour, are basically colorful open air music festivals.
It is an attempt to bring the feel and spirit of Holi to Europe. Though all these are fun events, in no way are they comparable to what Holi is in Nepal. 2014’s Holi fell on 16th March on the Gregorian calendar and being in Nepal for this is awesome. Even two days later, I still have some colorful strands on my blonde hair and a few spots of color on my skin; which probably will require a lot of washes to fade away. But what shall stay, is this smile on my face, every time I am reminded of the Holi I celebrated here.
Story: Sonja Marie Michel
Photography: Sunil C. Sharma, Sonja Marie Michel
(Sonja Marie Michel is a German citizen, currently working as a photography intern, under the guidance of professional photographer Mr. Kumar Ale at NepalSutra™).