Rites of Spring: Holi in India

Today all of India celebrates Holi. This year is marked by especially moving events as widows are taking to the streets to participate. In India, widows are complete outcasts from society, shunned by their families and made to fend for themselves. Most of them make a pilgrimage to the two main widow communities in Vrinavan and Varanasi. There they live out the rest of their lives among each other. They may only wear white, are completely excluded from participating in life and barely scrape a living. (Deepa Mehta’s searing (fictional) movie ‘Water’ follows the lives and trials of a small widow’s conclave in Varanasi in 1938. Recommended if harrowing viewing.) This Holi, against traditonalist opposition, many of them have come outside to douse each other with colour and celebrate the coming of Spring. This is quite possibly the best smile I’ve ever seen…



Holi celebrations could be compared to pagan Beltain festivities: The celebrations start with a bonfire the previous night. Folk join each other by the fire to revel. The next morning everyone gets up early and a riotous carnival of colours ensues. Everyone plays, chases each other and throws vibrantly hued powder and coloured water. Massive water gun -and balloon fights break out everywhere. Anyone and everyone is fair game, family, stranger, friend or foe, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. The entire city is overrun with frolicking people. Some go from place to place with musical intrsuments, there is song and dance all round. It is time for eating, drinking, love and intoxication: Bhang, made from cannabis leaves, is a common ingredient in drinks and sweets. 



(I have made a very conscious choice to show revelling, happy women: there is an aspect of Holi which is less savoury, which is that under cover of the powder men grab a chance to lay their hands on women. However, as this is a woeful component of the society any day and is something that is continually discussed, something about which movements for change are extremely vocal and activist, I have chosen to highlight moments of intimate exuberance.)



When night falls, people sober up and dress up, to go visit friends and family.

This historical image shows Holi celebrations with a group of women laying into some men with coloured powder. It is not uncommon for powder games to ensue where it very blatantly becomes about men vs women, family vs family or whole neighbourhoods against each other! Date unfortunately uncertain, possibly 1700s.



“Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, on the Phalguna Purnima (Full Moon). The festival date varies every year, per the Hindu calendar, and typically comes in March, sometimes February in the Gregorian Calendar. The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair ruptured relationships.” – Wikipedia



Two women touch foreheads in a quiet moment in the revelries.

For the many background legends on the significance of Holi in different regions of India, visit: http://www.holifestival.org/legends-of-holi.html

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1 Comment

Filed under Diversity, Events, Media

One response to “Rites of Spring: Holi in India

  1. stevenharris

    A friend of mine has some amazing photographs of his own experiences travelling in India, including some joyful shots of Holi. Thanks for giving me the history behind the tradition.

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