What Is Holi? What Makes it the Festival of Colors?

(Last Updated On: February 28, 2023)

Even if you aren’t familiar with Holi, you might still be familiar with some of its imagery–particularly its vivid colors. You know, it’s the holiday with colored powder and water balloons being thrown into the air. But let’s take a moment to talk about what the observance is all about. What is Holi?

In case you’re wondering why the date changes, Holi is celebrated on the last day with a  full moon in the Hindu calendar (which is a luni-solar one) on the month that marks spring. So Holi’s beginning varies with the lunar cycle, but it’s normally in March for the Gregorian one. 

How Did Holi Start?

Holi dates back to the 4th century, finding reference by Kālidāsa during the reign of Chandragupta II. It’s referenced in 7th century dramas too, so Holi was probably decently entrenched by then. Europeans found out about Holi somewhere in the 17th century.

Dating so far back with a huge helping of cultural significance to boot means that the holiday’s origin story sometimes gets a little fuzzy. The popularly cited one holds that Lord Vishnu (in the form of Narasimha Narayana) defeated Hiranyakashipu. Vishnu is one of Hinduism’s principal deities, while Hiranyakashipu was another divine being somewhere below a god. Hiranyakashipu’s name directly translates to “clothed in gold,” and he’s often depicted as being super fond of material wealth. He’s not a big fan of Vishnu, since his younger brother was killed by one of Vishnu’s avatars.

Why did the two come to blows? Well Hiranyakashipu gained some boons that prevented him from being killed by humans, animals, projectile/handheld weapons, during the day or night, and either indoors or outdoors. Hiranyakashipu decided that “immortality with extra steps” made him equal to a god. His own son, Prahlada, was devoted to Vishnu–and remained so even after the whole “sort of immortality” thing. Prahlada was tortured by his father and his aunt Holika tried to burn Prahlada at the pyre. She messed up, though and got burned herself.

After all these shenanigans, Vishnu appears as Narasimha Narayana–who is a half-man and half-lion. Note, this form is neither man, nor animal. Appearing at dusk (neither day or night), he takes Hiranyakashipu to a doorstep (neither indoors or outdoors), and kills Hiranyakashipu using lion claws (not a weapon). 

Vishnu should be a lawyer.

Celebration

There are a handful of rituals associated with Holi, one of which is the Holika bonfire. It’s burned the night before Holi and yes, it symbolizes that time Holika tried to burn her niece at the pyre and got herself instead. 

Predominantly, Holi celebrates the advent of Spring; it commemorates agriculture for good harvests and fertile land. That’s where the colors thing comes in, Hindus in the 17th century celebrated the new colors of spring as a way to send off winter. This is where the colored powder comes in. In Northern and Western India, these color celebrations often begin the morning after the Holika bonfire and if they’re not using colored powder water balloons or water guns will be loaded with colored water. That’s the origin story for the “Festival of Colors” by the way. 


See if you know more of Vishnu’s avatars here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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