Holi is a spring festival usually observed in March on the day after the full moon. Celebrations are high-spirited as people dance, sing and throw paint or powder at each other, hence it is also known as the festival of colours. It is the one time in the year when caste and class barriers can be truly broken, as any clues to revellers’ wealth and background are totally disguised as they become covered in dye.
Bonfires are lit, marking the end of winter and the symbolic demise of Holika, a figure of legend who burns to death when she attempts to help her brother, the demon king Hiranyakashyapu, kill his virtuous son Prahlad. Holika, who believes she has the power to resist flame, leads her nephew into a fire. However, the boy’s faith in the god Vishnu prevails and Holika loses her power; Prahlad escapes unscathed, while Holika is destroyed.
Other victories remembered at this time include the death of the she-demon, Putana, at the hands of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the great god Vishnu.
In north India, a part of the country where the festivities last longer and begin a week earlier, mock battles take place between men and women; inevitably the women defeat the men, protected by the fact that, by the rules of the contest, the men are not allowed to retaliate.