Holi 101: the Festival and the History

holi 101

holi festival

Most of us are familiar with Holi as a colorful, communal festival originating in India. The roots of the famous “festival of colors” stem from Hindu legend but is now popular throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. See what this holi-day is all about and how you can join in on the celebration!


It’s “Phalguna Pur-nim-AHH” not “Phalguna Pur-NIM-a”

Phalguna Purnima, an alternative name for Holi, literally translates to “the last month of the year” (Phalguna) and “the full moon” (Purnima). This day on the Hindu calendar usually falls at the end of February or early March on the Gregorian calendar. For Holi beginners, it’s pronounced like holy not holly. Its name actually varies by region, but Holi and Phalguna Purnima are the most common uses.

sparks holi
Krystle Mikaere


The good, the bad, and the history

The origin of this holiday stems from the ancient celebration of good conquering bad. This is a day where people hug, give blessings, and celebrate the coming of spring. The first mention of Holi goes as far back as 300 BC where an inscription mentioning “Holikotsav” was found in Ramgarh.

The Holika Dahan bonfire ritual

The week leading up to the festival is when wood-gathering commences. By the eve of Holi, a huge pile of wood has been collected at the city center, and once it’s lit, Holika Dahan has officially begun. A sculpture of Holika, an evil sister of the demon king Hiranyakashyap, is then burned in the fire, symbolising the triumph over evil. After this ritual is complete, the Holi celebrations can begin!

The Legend of Holika

As lore has it, the Hindu demon king, Hiranyakashyap, ruled the kingdom of earth and demanded sole worship from all of its inhabitants. His defiant son, Prahlad, instead devoted his life to the rightful Lord Naarayana. Of course, Hiranyakashyap was furious, and after giving a fire-protecting boon to his sister, Holika, he asked her to kill Prahlad by luring him into a fire. Holika complies and brings Prahlad with her into a pyr. She soon realizes the boon only works when she enters a fire alone. Holika perishes in the fire, while Prahlad, praying to Naarayana the whole time, is spared. The symbolic burning of Holika at the eve of Holi represents this instance of good conquering evil.

Honey Fangs

The festival of colors

Dhuleti is the first official day of Holi, and the day most non-Holi-celebrators are familiar with. Vibrantly pigmented powders, called gulal and abeer, and are smeared on faces, thrown in the air, and mixed into water and poured onto Holi-goers. This day isn’t a religious day and is celebrated solely for enjoyment, but it does stem from the legend of Radha-Krishna.

Krishna and Radha’s painted face
Singh Gurjar

Krishna and Radha’s painted face

Krishna is probably the most identifiable Indian deity, usually depicted as a young boy with blue skin, playing a flute. The legend begins with a young Krishna, crying to his mother that his complexion is so dark, while his love, Radha, has a light complexion. His mother suggests Krishna paint Radha’s skin to match his own and he takes to that idea by pranking Radha and smearing colors all over her face.

Why you should celebrate

The festival of Holi is intended for Hindus and non-Hindus alike as a way to strengthen societal bonds in a positive atmosphere. The purpose of the holiday is to turn enemies to friends and to forgive and forget. The colors thrown and smeared on Holi-goers signifies a sameness and at the end makes you feel #001withtheworld.

To learn more about how you can join the celebration, hop over to holifestival.org.