The day before the day before the final day of March 2019 marked one of the final times that Holi can be celebrated this year and in New York City, the festivities are amplified–the hip-thrusting Bollywood beats, the decadent samosas and the exuberant atmosphere.
Holi, known as the Hindu festival of colors, is celebrated during the first days of Spring to reign in the new season and involves the free-spirited swinging of colored powders with medicinal qualities. The idea behind it being that seasonal changes cause viral colds and fevers. Each powder is carefully crushed from herbs that holistic doctors prescribe and take on the vibrant hues of primary and secondary colors.
However, much like other holidays that include Christmas and Easter, consumerism appears to have taken over religious roots with the focal point of Holi and its origins being lost on society both Indian and Western. The Pew Research Center maintains that 94% of the world’s Hindus live in India with their population estimated to reach 1.3 billion by 2050. The U.S. houses 0.7% of Hindus with highest 3% of that figure, residing in New Jersey and 1%, in New York state.
The festival which also symbolizes the triumph of good over evil is based on a legend detailing the exploits of the evil King Hiranyakashipu who ruled over demonic beings. After being granted a boon that protected him from harm, he grew arrogant presuming he took precedence over God himself.
His son, Prahlada who was a loyal devotee of Hindu god Vishnu, disagreed with his father’s attitude. The King, who had lost his brother at the hands of Vishnu, became infuriated and viewed his son’s practices as an act of defiance. He subjected Prahlada to a series of cruel punishments in an attempt to make him cower to his demands but to no avail. Hiranyakashipu then sought the help of his equally villainous sister, Holika and the two plotted to kill Prahlada through immolation.
Holika tricked her nephew into sitting on a pyre with her–unbeknownst to him, she had donned a cloak that was imbibed with special powers that would shield her from fire. As the flames engulfed the wood, Prahlada began to chant Vishnu’s name upon the realizing his aunt and father’s trickery. Vishnu appeared in the form of a ‘Narasimha’–a being that is part man and part lion–and a battle ensued. Holika and the King’s powers were no match against the former and they were both destroyed while Prahlada survived unscathed.
From then onwards, Hindus celebrated defeat of Holika and King Hiranyakashipu, not only by throwing colored powder at one another, but also by lighting bonfires at night
Holi is based on a legend about King Hiranyakashipu. `Hiranyakashyapu had a son, Prahlad. Prahlad was the greatest devotee of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap wanted to kill his son, so he called his sister, Holika. She had a magic robe. This robe had the power to save the wearer from burning in fire. Hiranyakashyap ordered his sister to sit on a burning fire along with Prahlad. He thought that his sister would not be harmed by the fire because of the magic robe and Prahlad would be burnt to death. But the result was the opposite to what the evil demon king planned.
As is believed, no one can harm the person who has God as his saviour. Thus Prahlad came out of the burning fire safely and Holika was burnt to death. The other day is celebrated with joyful colours to mark the victory of virtue and goodness over evil. Or so it was, until Indian culture made the transition to emulate Western practises leaving some dismayed with what Holi has now become.
I was born and raised in England, U.K. which meant forgoing a lot of what my culture entailed, in favor of a conforming lifestyle. Since I haven’t celebrated the festival in years, I took the opportunity to attend NYC’s last ‘Holi Hai’ (translated as It’s Holi) bash and observe any cultural detachment for myself.
Considering the event was being held on a Stage 48’s rooftop bar in Hell’s Kitchen, it was pleasing to see that everyone had taken to the dress code and were wearing their cheapest white garbs, stained with cerulean blues and raging reds.
Yet when I pulled a few party-goers aside for an impromptu chat about what Holi means to them, their answers were not what I was expecting.
“Even though I was born and raised in Mumbai, I always felt that religion was being forced on me,” says Nitin Mehra, 22 and a tourist taking a gap year. “My friends and those around me felt the same way and for that, I think Holi has become more of a secular festival.” While Mehra says that he is aware of the origins of Holi, this may not be the case for the second generation Indians who were in attendance.
23 year-old Kriti Patekar, an art student from New York, admitted that she knew nothing of the festival’s origins and only recognized it as something she had seen in movies. “I knew there had to be a deeper story but it always involves a lot of drama that is meant to somehow scare us into living our lives a certain way,” she adds. Patekar was referring to the modern-day cynical tenet that religion itself, is an institution built to control its followers.”
Anita Rai, 26 and a chartered accountant from Queens spent the first 10 years of her life living in Bangalore, India before her family migrated to the States. While she has mostly acclimated to the American way of life, the teachings she absorbed as a young child are difficult to shake. “I have now come to view such stories as what they are–mythology,” she says. “There are countless narratives to be told so it’s not surprising that some one would be unfamiliar with the origins of Holi but be able to recite that of Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights).”
Dr. Uma Mysorekar, a former OB-GYN and now president of the Hindu Temple Society of America, has much to say about the evolution of Holi. “Hindu youths nowadays are in a fortuitous position since they have a wealth of religious knowledge at their fingertips–most of which has been passed down their ancestral lines,” she adds. “While I’m not one to force this down another’s throat, it does sadden me to see how some may blindly participate in Holi and be ignorant to what it signifies.”
Mysorekar expressed her elation at non-Hindus or Americans who take part in the festivites, however. “India was under the rule of foreigners until 1947 when the country gained independence. Since then we have been fighting for equality and appreciation where ever we choose to settle. Is this not what we initially wanted?”
Rai adds in that instead of emphasising how Holi is not solely about religion anymore, Hindus should be happy that their customs and cultural mores are finally being acknowledged by the masses. “From the notice that our festivals get, curiosity grows then the thirst for knowledge will then follow,” she says highlighting that educating those who don’t care about Holi and other holidays alike, is futile.