If you’re ever in Nepal during early spring, an experience you must not miss is the festival of Fagu Purnima. Also known as Holi, Hori, Basantaotsav, Dol Jatra or Faguwa, Fagu Purnima is a festival hailing the arrival of spring and is celebrated by Hindus all over the world.
A festival celebrating colors, love and sharing, Holi is very popular among Hindus of all ages (especially young ones). It is even popular among non-Hindus. The festival is celebrated by smearing your loved ones with different colored powder, and throwing water at them. People also collect firewood, light bon fires, add bhang to their food and drinks (an intoxicating substance made with cannabis) and dance and fool around with their friends.
This festival is mostly celebrated in Nepal and India as these countries have the highest concentration of Hindu population. Other places with high Hindu population also celebrate Holi. Since the celebration of this festival is highly entertaining, in the recent years, Holi celebrations has been slowly spreading to parts of Europe and North America.
A festival marking the beginning of spring, Holi is celebrated at the approach of the vernal equinox. It usually takes place sometime in March. The day of celebration may also slightly vary from place to place due to an old tradition of bringing Holi from one place to another. For instance, in Nepal, Holi is celebrated in Terai one day after it is celebrated in the Hilly regions. This year, Fagu Purnima is being celebrated on the 22nd of March in the hilly regions and on 23rd of March in Terai region.
There are several legends describing how and why Holi started being celebrated, most of them relating to Lord Vishnu (or his incarnation Lord Krishna) in some way.
The most popular legend relates to Prahlad, a devotee of Lord Krishna and his evil aunt Holika. Prahlad’s father, King Hiranyakashiapu, according to legend, had won a boon from the gods that made him virtually indestructible. As a result, he became arrogant and began to think of himself as a God. He forced all his subjects to worship him and only him. But, his own son Prahlad defied Hiranyakashiapu and continued to worship Lord Vishnu.
King Hiranyakashiapu tried to have him killed in many different ways and failed. Finally, his sister Holika, who had received a boon that made her invulnerable to fire, suggested that she enter a pyre with Prahlad so that he would burn to death. She convinced Prahlad that entering the pyre while sitting on her lap would protect him from the fire too.
But, by the grace of Lord Vishnu, Prahlad was untouched by the fire while Holika burned to death. The next day, people smeared the ash from the fire to their heads to celebrate to victory of good over evil. Overtime, they stated using colors instead. There is even a tradition of burning down hay effigies of Holika in Town squares to commemorate the burning of Holika.
Another popular legend states that Lord Krishna was made fun of by the Gopinis due to his dark blue skin. When he complained to his mother, she suggested that he color the Gopinis in any color he wanted. The next day, he threw different colors at the Gopinis. As the Gopinis were all in love with Lord Krishna, they liked being smeared with colors by him. This game persisted and as a result people started celebrating Holi.
A lesser known reason behind the celebration of Holi is the friendship between Lord Krishna and Draupadi and his protection of her against the Kauravs. When Draupadi was facing chir haran (getting stripped of her clothes) by the Kauravs, Lord Krishna made her sari endless. The Kauravs finally became exhausted trying to strip Draupadi of her clothes and gave up. The day Lord Krishna saved Draupadi is celebrated as Holi.
It is believed that Holi was originally celebrated to protect the general public from different fevers and cold that accompany the changing of seasons. Traditionally the colors used in Holi were made from herbs like turmeric, kumkum, neem etc which have high medicinal value in traditional Ayurvedic practices. These herbs were believed to protect people from viral fevers and cold associated with the changing of seasons. However, these days, synthetic colors are used while celebrating and any medicinal value the festival may have has been lost.
The celebration on Holi in Nepal starts a week before the day of Holi. A lingo (a long bamboo stick) is erected in Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu and covered in clothes of different color (also known as Chir). The day before Holi, the lingo is taken down and the chir is burnt, marking the start of Holi. This ceremony is known as Chir dahan or Holika Dahan, meaning the end of Holika.
The Holika dahan is also performed in a lesser degree in different town squares and villages by burning logs to celebrate the victory of good over evil. Although Holi is mostly associated with colors and water games, this is an important part of the festival too.
On the day of Holi, people move around the entire day, going from house to house and smearing colored powder on their friends and relatives as a gesture of love. They also throw water (colored or plain) at their loved ones and it has become more of a game played among friends and family members. The games are also accompanied by a lot of food, drinking, music, dancing and merrymaking.
The celebration of Holi has changed significantly over the years. Previously, in Nepal, Holi was a mainly celebrated with water. But in the later years, along with the scarcity of water in urban areas, especially Kathmandu valley, colors have become more prominent during the celebration.
A good change that can be seen these days is that Holi is now mostly played among friends. Previously, there was a habit of pelting strangers and passersby with balloons and colors in the days leading up to Holi. Women, especially, faced a lot of harassment as a result. However, due to strict law enforcement, people these days are less likely to harass strangers on the street by throwing water balloons at them.
The day of Holi is still a free-for-all event and you are still likely to get wet if you go out on the street, but the harassment on the streets leading up to the day of Holi and even on the day of Holi itself has lessened significantly.
If you are in Nepal during Holi celebrations, we suggest you do not miss this opportunity. A lot of places now hold all day Holi parties where you can throw colors and water at other participants (and have the favor returned), dance and have a lot of fun. Some places like Thamel and Jhamsikhel have an abundance of these events taking place.
For a more authentic experience, you can also join locals celebrating the festival on the streets. Since Holi is a very inclusive festival, you will be easily welcomed by groups of young people celebrating the festival out in the open streets.
However you decide to celebrate, be ready to get wet and wild, have a pair of clothes ruined (we suggest you wear old clothes that you are not particularly attached to) and later, wash and scrub your skin till its red.
Watch a documentary video (by Raj Mayukh Dam)