How Holi Is Actually Celebrated Across India

Courtesy Unsplash

And the important, newly sustainable process behind making gulaal, the colorful powder associated with Holi.

One of the most iconic festivals in India, Holi, is celebrated to usher in spring’s full bloom as the skies turn a bright hue of pink and yellow, and there’s a lingering fragrance of flowers in the air. The festival, marked by vibrant colors, is celebrated throughout the country albeit in many different ways, hinting at the diversity of India, whilst transcending all religious and social barriers.

Women working the flowercycling job with Phool
Courtesy Phool

The celebration of Holi with thandai, a signature drink associated with the holiday, and sweets is more prominent in North India (including areas around Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana). In the Western region (areas around Maharashtra), it is instead known as Rang Panchami and is celebrated by burning an effigy of Holika (a demoness in the Hindu scripture) that signifies the victory of good over evil. Then, the colors begin. Friends and family smear each other with gulaal—the colored Indian powder Holi has become known for—and indulge in Puran Poli (a sweet Indian flatbread eaten with warm milk). In the Eastern regions of India (areas around West Bengal), Holi is known as Dol Jatra or Basant Utsav (translated as festival of spring) as devotees gather around a decorated swing to worship the deities Radha and Krishna (eternal lovers in the Hindu text), then proceed to play with abeer or gulaal and spray each other with colored water. And finally, South India (areas around Kerala) celebrates Holi as Manjul Kuli where the devotees visit the Konkani temple and the next day play with colors and dance to traditional folk songs.

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Hindu devotees play with coloured powders during Holi celebrations at the Bankey Bihari Temple in Vrindavan, India
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Although the celebrations vary across regions, the common thread that ties every event together is the heavy handed use of gulaal, the scented, colorful powder. The origin can be traced back to a legend where Lord Krishna’s mother smeared gulaal on his bride, Radha’s face—and that is how the tradition of coloring began. For decades, it has been an age-old tradition to make gulaal with natural dyes from flowers, trees, and herbs but with the advent of chemicals in the 19th century, the natural dyes saw a steady fall as chemical-based gulaal is inexpensive, readily available, and made for an easy replacement. With the use of chemical-based gulaal came a host of problems, from skin irritation to negative environmental impact. That’s the main reason why there has been a massive shift in the production of gulaal as more manufacturers move toward a sustainable approach.

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A red colored gulaal made by Phool
Courtesy Phool

One of the more socially aware players in the market is Phool.co, a start-up based out of Kanpur that has taken a different route, aiding climate change, maintaining environmental balance and social equality through their products. Phool.co’s organic incense sticks and gulaal addresses the massive flower waste problem in the country. Offering flowers to the deities is a common practice across India; as more devotees line up to offer their prayers, they only add to the toxic waste as all of these flowers end up in the rivers, sewers, and outside temples polluting the streets and rivers. Water pollution is a severe problem in India, as all of these flowers rot and release toxins into the rivers Indians depend on..

Phool.co is staging an attempt at cleaning up these holy rivers; they pick up these flower waste from outside the temples and rivers and use them to produce incense sticks, cones, and gulaals. The company hires women for the flowercycling job, an attempt at giving them an equal chance at work. The process of gulaal making is traditional; the flowers are first separated, they are then added to a large copper vessel to boil; as the flowers start to release its aroma and color, hand-ground turmeric paste is added to the vessel. The mixture is then added to corn flour, and brought to a steady boil as Sambrani oil (balsamic resin obtained from trees) is added to the concoction for a sweet aroma. It is then laid out on a brass plate, covered and dried. Once solidified, it is hand pounded by a pestle to give birth to a stunning yellow gulaal that is made from marigolds and turmeric. The gulaal is finally run through a sieve to ensure a silky texture, sans any chemicals.

These new, organic gulaal-making practices are paving the way for a safer, more eco-friendly Holi celebration. The organic gulaal makers are at the forefront of the fight for a more sustainable, eco-friendly Holi celebration that ensures safety of others and well-being of the planet.