Rituals of the World – Holi Festival
A world made of colorful clouds
Until a few years ago, Holi was one of those festivals that no one had heard of outside its country of origin, but which is now celebrated worldwide. Holi, the festival of color, is now a familiar term, and although this ancient Indian spring festival is only known by that name in the north, the others are nowhere near as catchy. Depending how you say it, Holi sounds a little bit like the word “holy,” but the festival is just as exuberant as the carnival we celebrate in Germany, which is also an end-of-winter party. And it’s so much more, too, as just like carnival, Holi is a reversal ritual that sets aside social barriers and playfully stands power relationships on their head. After a straw doll symbolizing the demoness Holika is ceremonially burned during the first night – and it’s no coincidence that this also reminds us of European rituals that drive away winter – the people joyfully celebrate the Rangapancami (ranga = color) in the streets the next day. For a while, all social differences of gender, status, age, and caste seem unimportant.
Ritual as pastime
What makes the festival really unique is the custom of sprinkling one another with colored powder and throwing it at everyone. Maybe it’s less important that the participants are all covered with the variously colored powder beyond recognition and that their appearance is constantly changing. Far more fascinating is the movement of the clouds of color through the air, as eruptive powdery columns or translucent, amorphous fog. Something happens that we don’t experience anywhere else, as everything tangible appears to dissolve into pure color. This phenomenon was already depicted in old Indian miniatures and more recently influenced the aesthetics of advertising in the Western world for a certain time, as all manner of advertisements and video clips featured exploding clouds of color as the embodiment of the ultimate zest for life. Holi had also arrived in the West, was discovered as an event program, and commercialized. Although even in its country of origin, of course, at least the colored powder sellers profit from the annual happening.
In the West, however, the religious core of Holi – in India the colors are often still consecrated – has become lost in the ritual transfer. But perhaps more than just a superficial pleasure has emerged, more than just a pastime. And the irrepressible joy of the colors and the collective dancing creates exactly what Holi celebrates – the driving out of the cold season and the overcoming of winter – undoubtedly one of the most beautiful rituals of all.
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