Monday, 16 March 2009

Holi in India - Unique Festival of Colours across Social Divisions

Millions of Indians celebrate Holi all over India and wherever Indians are. Brightly coloured powders are the mainstay of Holi, during which men, women, and children carry powders and liquid colours to throw and smear on the clothes and faces of neighbours and relatives.

Photo source: Matthieu-Aubry

Special Character of Holi Among Festivals

Holi is a unique festival among all the cultures of mankind as it involves physical touching among all people across all kinds of social divides. 

Contrary to ancient Roman festivals like Saturnalia, which involved a reversal of social roles in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places during the rituals, Holi does not have any sexual connotations.

Photo source:

Indian culture, beliefs, and way of life typically express the myriad facets of a timeless motif in bright colours. All the colours of the rainbow are visible during Holi. The mesmerizing hues of reds, magentas, yellows, greens, violets, blues, ochre, gold, silver etc is yet another orgiastic paean of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, hope over despair and most significantly the victory of togetherness over divisions. 

You can read more details about Holi at Flowergirl’s wonderful site.

Spring Festivals Similar to Holi

There is only one contemporary cultural festival somewhat similar to Holi, where all participants can physically touch each other. 
It is La Tomatina, a food fight festival held on the last Wednesday of August each year in the town of Buñol in the Valencia region of Spain. Thousands of participants from all over the world come to fight in a battle throwing over one hundred metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes at each other. 
La Tomatina is not an ancient ritual but was started in 1952 to honour the town’s patron saints St. Louis Bertrand (San Luis Bertràn) and Mare de Déu dels Desemparats (Mother of God of the Defenseless). One of the most popular theories of its origin is that dissatisfied citizens attacked city councillors with tomatoes during a town celebration. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Spring Festivals in Other Cultures Around the World

There are many spring festivals in diverse cultures all over the world. Though the Christian
Easter and Jewish Passover are technically celebrated in remembrance of historical events, in essence they are spring festivals as they coincide with the onset of spring.
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  • The Brazilian carnival has been around since the 1640s when Parisian style balls copying Mardi Gras started. Mardi Gras is believed to have roots in the pagan spring festival which Romans called Saturnalia. Over time, adapted to Christianity, this became a farewell to pleasures of the flesh to practice repentance and prepare for Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. 
  • Rio Carnaval has become world-famous through the Samba Parade, a show, extravagant display and fierce competition of the Rio samba schools. 
  • In England Mardi-Gras is known as Shrove Tuesday and it is celebrated by the traditional making of pancakes. In many towns and villages people take part in pancake races, where they race carrying a frying pan tossing their pre-cooked pancake in the air. 

Chinese New Year is the beginning of spring. According to legends, a mythical beast called the Nian or "Year" in Chinese, came on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. Once the people learnt that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. Since then people hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors and used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Kanamara Matsuri or the Festival of the Steel Phallus is an annual Shinto fertililty festival in Kawasaki, Japan. 

Originally prostitutes prayed for protection against sexually transmitted diseases at this shrine by venerating a gigantic penis. Nowadays the festival raises money for HIV research. The origin of this festival is in a legend of a sharp-toothed demon that hid inside the vagina of a young girl and castrated two young men on their wedding nights with the young girl before a blacksmith fashioned an iron phallus to break the demon's teeth, leading to the enshrinement of the item.

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Las Fallas, which means "the fires" in Valencian is one of the crazy festivals in Spain. Ninots (“puppets” or “dolls”), which are huge cardboard, wood, paper-machè and plaster statues are created and then destroyed. The extremely lifelike ninots usually depict bawdy, satirical scenes poking fun at corrupt politicians and Spanish celebrities.

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Losar is celebrated by Tibetans in spring for greetings, togetherness and abundant festivities, and prayers as well.

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Nowrūz is the Iranian new year and beginning of spring. People jump over bonfires while singing the traditional song Zardî-ye man az (ane) to, sorkhî-ye to az (ane) man meaning "My yellowness is yours, your redness is mine," with the symbolic message "My paleness (pain, sickness) for you (the fire), your strength (health) for me." 

According to tradition, the living are visited by the spirit of their ancestors on the last days of the year, and many children wrap themselves in shrouds, symbolically re-enacting the spirit visits. The children also run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons and knocking on doors to ask for treats. The ritual called qashogh-zany (spoon beating) symbolizes the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year.

Navroze, which means the New Day, is the most celebrated festival of the Parsis in India every year on March 21, the vernal equinox of the sun. Though only one sect of Parsis, the Faslis consider it the Parsi New Year, all Parsis join in the festivities to celebrate, greet each other and attend the thanks-giving ceremonies at Fire Temples.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Rangoli Bihu is the festival of the people of the Assam region in India to celebrate spring and fertility. 

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Setsubun (節分) or Risshun (立春) the Spring Festival (春祭 haru matsuri) in Japan. Japanese have a special ritual called mamemaki (豆撒き, meaning bean scattering) to cleanse away all the evil of the past year and keep disease-bringing evil spirits for the year ahead away.


aks said...

Yes, I totally agree to what you wrote in your post. Yes, Holi is the most unique festival in itself. You cannot compare it with any other festival on this earth. It is truly a unique festival of colors which seems to narrow down social divisions :)

P. Lal said...

Cool. So many spring festivals. But of course Tomatina is a commercial one while Holi is a age old mythological festival.

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Maria Jaeger said...

So interesting information.

Julia B said...

Holi is a great festival. I experienced this in India. It does narrow down social barriers for one day at least. It's great that you have compared Holi to other festivals.
The whole atmosphere is very joyful at Holi.

Tina said...

Great post! I don't know there are so many spring festivals:)

Stacy Morris said...

Very interesting information about festivals, I just had knowledge because of some pictures I found, I am web designer and I love colorful pictures so the festival ones are perfect.

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