The Festival of Colors

The battle would begin early. 1982, early March, around 6:00 a.m. Holi morning, my cousins and I would be armed and ready, we were sure the enemy would not know what hit them. Plans had been laid, we were in position and ready to strike. The first victim was sighted, a nice young man, crisp white shirt, maybe dressed for work. Perfect. Ready, aim, fire ... water-filled balloons, gulal (colored powder) and pichkaari’s (water guns). Drenched, he smiles at us. We come out of our hiding place, “Mauf karna bhai, Holi hai” (forgive us, is Holi), we say. On a normal day, he would have us grounded. Today, he simply smiles and produces a water gun of his own. And the fun begins. Holi has a special significance in my heart. This, most boisterous of all Hindu festivals, observed all over India -- especially the North -- brings out the child in most all of us. It heralds the end of winter and the beginning of spring. A festival of colors, a day when old and young, throw all kinds of colors at each other, powders, water based colors and even pour buckets of colored water on each other. The celebrations seems to match the mood of nature, winter is on its way out. The wonderful colors of Holi that Indians sprinkle on the Indian landscape seem to be a preamble to the spring blooms. The festival of Holi is celebrated on the day after the full moon in early March every year.

There are many legends concerning the origin of this spring festival. The most popular among these is about a young prince, Prahlad. He was a devotee of the Indian God Vishnu. Prahlad did not give up worshipping the god Vishnu in spite of fearful persecution by his father and his demon aunt Holika. Holika was then asked to kill the young prince. Legend says that Holika was immune to fire, and so it was determined that she would hold the young prince in her lap and sit on a burning pyre. When they sat on the pyre, Lord Vishnu saved his devotee Prahlad and the evil Holika was burnt to ashes. Before she died, she realized her follies and begged the boy's forgiveness. As his gesture of forgiveness, Prahlad deemed that her name would be remembered at least one day in the year. Holi commemorates this event and huge bonfires are burnt on the eve of Holi as its symbolic representation. This exuberant festival is also associated with the immortal love of the handsome Indian God Krishna and his childhood friend Radha.

The real significance of the festival of Holi is to mark the burning of self-conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, hatred -- in fact, all the undesirable demoniac tendencies, propensities, thoughts and behaviors.

The festival begins on the night of the full moon. Bonfires are lit on street corners to cleanse the air of evil spirits and bad vibes, and to symbolize the destruction of the wicked Holika, for whom the festival was named. The following morning, the streets fill with people running, shouting, giggling and splashing colored water on each other.

Promptly at noon, the craziness comes to an end. It’s time to clean up and eat. Trust me, it is not easy to get these colors out!! I advise leaving the Armani at home and wearing your old clothes for this event!! Now, it’s time to eat. Believe it or not, cannabis-based drinks like bhang add to the uninhibited atmosphere. Sweets like gujia, a dessert made with flour and meat ball curries are savored in the afternoon.

Thandai (Mixed Nut Cooler)

Thandai (Mixed Nut Cooler)
  • 2 cups skim milk
  • 1 (14-ounce) can fat-free evaporated milk
  • 10 blanched almonds
  • 3 cardamom pods, bruised
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon poppy seeds, soaked in warm water for 5 minutes
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • A few threads of saffron
  • A few drops of rose essence (optional)
  • Garnish: Crushed ice and red rose petals

Put 1 cup of the skim milk in a blender. Add the evaporated milk, almonds, cardamom pods, sugar, fennel, poppy seeds, peppercorns, saffron, and rose essence. Blend until smooth. Pass the mix through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Stir in the rest of the skim milk and mix well. Refrigerate for a few hours.

Serve in tall chilled wine glasses over crushed ice. Drop a few red rose petals in the glass.

Variations: Many relatives of mine add cashew nuts to this drink. One friend has added a shot of Bailey’s and claims that it tastes out of this world. I will leave that up to you!

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes, not including chilling
Editor’s Note: Monica Bhide is the author of The Spice is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today. The recipe in this special feature by Monica is just one of more than 150 recipes found in her cookbook.