Hindus can hardly catch their breath this spring. Just a few weeks ago India wrapped up its Maha Kumbh Mela, a Hindu mega-event held every 12 years that lasts almost eight weeks and is the largest gathering on the planet. Yet today another massive Hindu occasion is underway and is sweeping the entire nation and Indian diaspora: Holi.
Compared with the Kumbh, what Holi lacks in magnitude it makes up for in fun. It is a celebration of spring’s arrival, in which people take to the streets from Mumbai to Delhi and across the vast countryside to douse each another with colored powder and launch water balloons. Packs of youths can be seen cavorting in India’s streets, completely soaked and coated in red, purple, blue and yellow. Some great photos of the action can be seen here and here.
Time notes that there are regional variations, such as the traditions found in the villages of Nandgaon and Barsana (71 miles from New Delhi), in which men sing to woo women, who return the gesture by good-humoredly beating them with bamboo sticks.
Aside from local spins on the festival, the core element remains the same: color. The use of color was inspired by the legend of Radha and Krishna. As the story goes, Krishna was envious of Radha’s complexion. Yashod, Krishna’s mother, suggested he color Radha’s face.
Water is an addition that gives revelers some relief from the oppressive heat that hits much of India at this time. While celebrants are still sure to get wet (or drenched), this year the Indian government is encouraging the public to forego (or at least tone down) the splashing. The reason being that drought is hitting some parts of India particularly hard this year.
Mumbai, battling its most severe draught since 1972, is one example, according to an article published by the Financial Times. The article notes that estimates in the city’s economic survey for 2012-2013 suggest the agricultural industry in Mumbai’s home state of Maharashtra could shrink 1.4 percent during this fiscal year.
According to an article published by the Times of India, on average participants use about two 15-liter buckets of water during the celebration. The Financial Times also notes that in the past tankers were dispatched to apartment blocks around Mumbai to give access to those celebrating in public spaces – a practice that will not be followed this year.
“There is massive wastage of water during the Holi festival in the metropolis,” The Indian Express quoted BJP general secretary Sanjay Upadhyay as saying. He went on to suggest that a “50 percent water cut should be imposed in Mumbai during the Holi celebrations and there should not be any water supply through tankers.”
Alongside the issue of water – used to mix in with the colored powder – the powder itself is also a growing concern. An article in the Hindustani Times notes that the colors of Holi were originally derived from season flowers and herbs. Over time, says the article, this tradition devolved and now many of the powders sold on the streets are made of toxic chemical mixtures, inspiring calls for a return to the festival’s organic roots.
In a show of support for a healthier, drier Holi, even Bollywood – known for its wild Holi parties – is curtailing the festivities this year. A number of stars have spread the word via Twitter.
“I appeal to the people of Maharashtra to play dry Holi with chandan (sandalwood paste) and flowers and save water,” spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tweeted.
Bollywood acting legend Amitabh Bachchan further drove the point home, tweeting: "Water shortage in Maharashtra… and it’s only March. What will happen in Summer? Save water! Play a dry Holi!!"