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Holi: Fireworks, Powder, Dancing, Mayhem

March 9, 2010

Kevin Burke
Holi: Fireworks, Powder, Dancing, Mayhem

India's a great place to indulge yourself in activities which, for legal, cultural or expense reasons, are not practical to do in the US, like ordering tailored clothes, littering, paying for a shave, trying out vegetarianism, or making it rain. India's also a great place to blow up an obscene amount of fireworks. Last weekend was the festival of Holi, a two-day festival around the first full moon in February or March, according to the Hindi calendar. According to legend, the son of the king of demons, Prahlada, was a devotee of Vishnu (a good god), and as you may imagine, this development greatly displeased the king of demons, Hiranyakashipu. After trying and failing numerous times to take his son's life, including poisoning him, trampling him by elephants and placing him in a room full of deadly snakes, Hiranyakashipu placed Prahlada on his sister's lap, on top of a burning pyre. The fire burned his sister, Holika, but Prahlada was saved because of his devotion. Today people celebrate the festival Holi with fire and color.

It's tradition to light bonfires and fireworks the night before Holi, and the collective noise turned our neighborhood into the auditory equivalent of North Philly for the night. We lit some fireworks that sparkled in place, turning our courtyard fluorescent green for ten seconds, and hand-held sticks that made a blue chemical fire, which we danced with until they died out and we'd light a new one. We lit some elaborate fireworks that could have been mistaken for those at your local July 4 party. We also set off some "bombs," which didn't light up but did produce a loud gunshot-like noise. We ate, partied, and danced around the bonfire late into the night.

On the morning of Holi, everyone buys packets of beautiful dyed powder and watercolors, and spends the morning throwing colors on everyone else, chaotically. The Day of Color would not be an enjoyable festival for an obsessive-compulsive. The correct way to apply colored powder to someone's face is to pour some out in each hand, then smear it over the person's face and hair like your grandma used to do to you when you were six. The other person then does the same to you, and you embrace. If things are going well, you can grab a bucket, add some water and colored dye and pour it on your opposite number. My face changed color from red to blue to purple as the day went on, as did everyone else’s.

Within about twenty minutes of waking up, the floor of our courtyard resembled a Jackson Pollock painting. Soon the courtyard was overwhelmed by the deluge of water and paint and, along with our clothes, turned into a melange of purple, red and brown colors. After an hour we were out of powder, so we walked to the corner store to buy more. During the course of a ten-minute walk, three cars stopped to put powder on us and wish us a Happy Holi.

No Western holiday brings out the raucous joy, fierce energy and community spirit of Holi. Lightness about fireworks aside, it was a wonderful holiday and I'm grateful for the experience.

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