My first vivid memory of Holi was at the age of four. My elder brother applied gulal on my cheeks early morning to mark the beginning of the festival. Holi celebrations are huge in my households as our ancestry is from Uttar Pradesh. We take this celebration of springing into the new year seriously because it marks the end of winter and letting go of the old. It's safe to say that the festival of Holi is bigger than Diwali at my home. Families gather together and enjoy a meal. Thandai, spicy jackfruit curries (it's the meat for vegetarians), out of the world crispy potato kachoris, raw mango and chilli chutney, sweet potato puris, gulab jamuns, biryanis, raitas and pulaos has been the set menu for decades for our family lunch on rang Panchami.
Holi celebrations in India and Nepal go on for two days. On the day of Holika Dahan (first day), my mother prepares the age-old ubtan mixed with pure mustard oil; so we may scrub ourselves off all the evil and old habits and let it burn in the cleansing bonfire put out in the evening for a fresh start. Rangwali holi, which falls the next day, is when we play with colours and greet our loved ones with smearing colours on their face.
It is a massive Hindu festival, the second most important after Diwali. It falls on a full moon, also known as Purnima, in the month of Phalguna - which falls in March as per the gregorian calendar.
Holi has a vast cultural significance across India, especially more in Vrindavan, Mathura, Barsana, and has now taken on the western world as the festival of colours. For many, this festival signifies the triumph of good over evil (Holika and Prahlad's famous story) in Lord Vishnu's honour. For some, it is the blossoming of love, time to forgive and forget, repair broken relationships and have a good time with friends and family. Many legends surround this ancient Hindu festival, but my favourite one is Lord Krishna. These stories signify compassion and unconditional love.
The Krishna legend goes in a way that he was apprehensive of Radha accepting him as her partner in their youth because of his dark skin (a consequence of poisoning) as Radha was magnificent. Tired of Krishna's desperation, his mom suggested he take the colour and go to Radha and request her to smear him with any colour she liked. As soon as Radha did that, they became an eternal couple and the epitome of love. A few eyebrows may be raised as the story involves skin colour. Still, I suggest understanding these stories' essence instead of getting into the literal details. Krishna was feeling not good enough for Radha because of his darkness, and Radha unconditionally accepting him despite those reasons. If you have a Krishna within or in your life and you may not be okay with the metaphorical darkness, take a colour you like and splash it over! And voila, you're in love.
Holi in India
This year the festival of colours may be celebrated differently, especially in Delhi, Mumbai due to coronavirus. I am not too enthusiastic about celebrating with colours, water etc., only because holi has turned into another Bollywood dance party for the last few years.
As children in the early 2000s, we used to wear our whites, fill our balloons and pichkaris with water and go down to play it with our friends - some annoying kids even got the eggs. Now all one does for Holi in metro cities is dress up, put their expensive shades on, buy organic colours and dance to cheesy Bollywood songs with no connection with Holi whatsoever. Okay, maybe "Balam Pichkari" and "Rang Barse" are connected, but you get the point.
I miss my childhood holi celebrations. My cousins, friends, and friends gathered in a famous journalist colony I lived in as a kid - yes, there is a colony tucked away in a quiet lane of Bandra Kalanagar, where once upon a time, only journalists were allowed to purchase apartments. We started our day at 8 am and came back home just for lunch, of course, taking breaks midway for all the delicious snacks that my dear aunt kept out in her ground-floor backyard for the kids. At the same time, our parents gulped down glasses of homemade thandai.
"Thanda" means cool in Hindi, and "thandai" implies something that cools you down.
Consumption of thandai goes well into the summers because of its various health benefits. It cures flatulence, digestive issues because of fennel seeds. Poppy seeds help relieve constipation, and they are also rich in protein, fibre, calcium that further boost your immune system. The beverage has many elements that keep you safe from the summer heat. Items like watermelon and pumpkin seeds are added to make it a natural energizer. These two, along with nuts like almonds and pistachios, promote the feeling of fullness. No wonder people gulp down glasses whilst playing holi out in the sun or at holi parties! The unrefined raw sugar helps fight throat infections, cold, cough during the summer season.
I started consuming thandai once I grew up, probably after turning eighteen, as I was not fond of it earlier. But once I got the taste of it, I never looked back. Culturally and traditionally across the nation, thandai is consumed with bhaang - the female cannabis plant ground into a paste as a beverage for holi is considered a normal part of the Utsav.
My mom every year makes thandai traditionally at home. She uses unrefined raw sugar, cashews, almonds, fennel seeds, green cardamom, khus khus, black pepper, dried rose petals, cloves, muskmelon seeds saffron. Just as the name suggests, it is one of the most cooling and refreshing drinks I've had. It invigorates your mind and body like standing under a cold shower on a hot day.
In conclusion, the celebrations may not be the same over the years; still, the food and drinks we consume as a family prepared with love have kept the festival's spirit intact. And we will keep it safe for centuries to come.
Authored by: Padmaja Rai
About the Author: Padmaja is a healthcare consultant and avid fitness enthusiast. She holds a masters' in bio-innovation and rare diseases from University of Pennsylvania. She is a firm believer in ancient Indian holistic healing.