Holi is traditionally celebrated in India, Nepal and surrounding countries, but it's popularity has spread in recent years. This is in part because of the vibrant, brightly hued parties that go along with it.
The festival of colors, as Holi is also known, brings people together at events where they throw a rainbow of dyed powders at one another in an explosive free for all. Google's animated Doodle shows a crowd of characters running past the company name and splattering it with multicolored powders.
On Monday such celebrations will take place around the world, with some continuing into the week.
Holi festival: Delhi women forced into lockdown amid sexual harassment fears
As India’s raucous spring festival of Holi approached this year, a memo circulated among two women’s dormitories at the University of Delhi.
Undergraduate women would be locked inside the student halls from 9pm on Sunday until 6pm on Monday, it read – well after most Indians had finished smearing each other in dye, dancing or drinking from cups of bhang lassi, a milky cannabis-based concoction.
The decision of the hostels highlights a darker side to one of India’s most joyous festivals: as inhibitions decrease, many women say the street harassment endemic to Delhi life also surges.
“It’s a very sexualised thing. You get touched or hit on your buttocks or your breasts,” said Devangana Kalita, an activist and researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“There’s a particular targeting of women’s genital parts,” added Shristi Satyawati, who on Saturday tried to lodge a police case against a group of young men who pelted her with water balloons “on my breasts and bum”.
“I was deeply agitated, but the police said they couldn’t lodge a case. They said it was Holi – they couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.
For many Indians, who celebrate Holi with their families or close friends, the festival is harmless fun. Those who complain about being coated in colour are met with a Hindi catchphrase roughly translated: “Don’t be offended, it’s Holi.”
“The idea of consent does not exist during Holi,” said Sabika Abbas Naqvi, the president of Delhi’s student hostels union. She said many women discreetly avoided their usual public outings around the festival, and avoided larger, uncontrolled gatherings.
“Women are deleted from public spaces during these festivals because of the fear of harassment,” she said.
Delhi police announced they had posted around 25,000 officers around the city to prevent hooliganism during the festivities.
Nonetheless, Delhi University’s two female dormitories were locked up for the day, along with several others across the city, to the chagrin of women’s and student’s groups.
“The men can remain free and roam about, but the women who are the supposed victims need to stay – it’s atrocious,” Naqvi said.
Rumblings have been growing against the tight curfews on women studying in Delhi’s student hostels and grew louder last week, when India’s minister for women, Maneka Gandhi tried to defend the restrictions.
“When you are 16 or 17 you are hormonally very challenged,” she said. “So to protect you against your own hormonal outbursts, perhaps a [boundary] is drawn.”
Pinjra Tod, a student group fighting against discriminatory rules for women’s hostels versus the men’s accommodation, said in a statement: “The rise in sexual violence and harassment that women experience around Holi is barely addressed. Instead, women are once again locked up for their ‘own safety’ with arbitrary restrictions.”
Sophie Whitehead, a 21-year-old from the University of Edinburgh, studying in Delhi on exchange, was among the women locked in her student accommodation on Monday.
“It’s a strange feeling to be completely unable to go out,” she said. “I understand that Holi can be dangerous, there’s big crowds [and] probably a risk of groping. And there’s been a lot more men out on the streets over the past few days, so I think it would be better to avoid the crowds.
“But we’re old enough to make our own decisions,” she said. “It’s quite degrading – we can’t even leave to grab a drink or food.”
Men Engage Delhi is one activist group that acknowledges the festival can be dangerous for women, and has teamed with other groups to campaign against the harassment.
“It is important that people don’t brush aside consent on this day,” Badar Uzzama, from Men Engage Delhi, told the Asian Age newspaper. “Holi is no reason to touch another person in an uncomfortable manner. We have had several sessions with college students in Delhi and got a positive response.”
But he said the campaign had experienced some backlash too. “Some feel that we have no right to make a fuss about a traditional festival,” he said.
“But that will not stop us from campaigning for a safe Holi. Consent matters, even on Holi, and people have to be held accountable for such actions.”
Holi Festival: 5 things you may not know about the spectacular celebration
Hindus mark the arrival of spring every year by staging a popular ‘Festival of Colour’, as commemorated by today’s Google Doodle.
Here are five things you need to know about this multi-coloured extravaganza.
1. Holi, represented by today's vibrant Google Doodle, celebrates the triumph of good over evil
The festival, which dates back to the 4th century, is best known for the sight of carnival revellers gathering to toss coloured powder into the air, completely coating one another, which always makes for spectacular pictures that are duly reported around the world every year.
There is a serious purpose behind it all, however. Holi celebrates fertility and love and marks the end of winter.
2. The festivities take place across two days
Holi is divided into two parts: Holika Dahan and Rangwali Holi.
The former is staged the night before the big day and sees celebrants gather to observe a purification ritual in which a pyre of logs and dung-cakes is burned, intended to represent the victory of good over evil. Families gather to roast grain, popcorn, coconuts and chick peas together.
Rangwali Holi is the main event: when everyone races around throwing handfuls of gulal (fine coloured powder) and spraying water, a joyous occasion in which differences of caste and ethnicity are put aside.
This is the most common form for celebrations to take but they can run on for much longer: Holi lasts for 16 days in the Braj region of India.
3. Holi draws its origins from Indian mythology
The idea behind the holiday comes from the legend of Krishna and Radha. The supreme deity fell in love with the goddess Radha but was concerned about differences in their skin colour, his being blue. His mother advised him to playfully paint her face to overcome their differences. Lovers today continue the tradition by making sure their own faces match when the gulal begins to be thrown.
Holi also takes inspiration from Hindu Vedi scriptures in which Holika, a malevolent devil, was burned to death after her brother, the demon king Hiranyakashyap, ordered her to pass through the flames carrying his son (her nephew) Prahlada who had angered him by foresaking evil to become a devotee of Vishnu. The boy survived thanks to his faith while Holika was cremated. This is the significance of the ceremonial fires - which worshippers even run through in homage to the legend - that are staged to this day.
4. The timing of Holi is synchronised with the moon
The date of the celebration varies every year in accordance with lunar cycles.
This year Rangwali Holi takes place on 13 March, while the pyres of Holika Dahan will be burned the evening beforehand.
5. How do people clean up once the party’s over?
Hindus are advised to moisturise their skin carefully before taking part and some oil their hair to ensure the gulal can be easily rinsed out - a bid to pre-empt disaster.
Those taking part are also careful to ensure that the powders thrown are non-harmful and so they are most commonly made from a mix of food dye, flour and water.
Afterwards, everyone spruces up and gathers in their Sunday best to distribute gifts of traditional sweets.