NPR logo Holy Holi: Colored Powder Will Be Thrown But Splashing Might Be Illegal

Holy Holi: Colored Powder Will Be Thrown But Splashing Might Be Illegal

Paint, dye and colored water turn Holi celebrants into neon rainbows. Aji Jayachandran/Demotix/Corbis hide caption

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Aji Jayachandran/Demotix/Corbis

Paint, dye and colored water turn Holi celebrants into neon rainbows.

Aji Jayachandran/Demotix/Corbis

In India, spring officially begins with the festival of Holi. The date is not fixed, but follows the lunar calendar. It's celebrated on the full moon day, the poornima, closest to the spring equinox – March 24 this year. The spring festival, also called the festival of color, is marked by celebrations that involve bonfires, colored powder and supersoakers.

This mishmash of a holiday has confusing origins. According to one legend, it's the day an evil king and his demonic sister, Holika, met their just desserts. Holika died in a fire, and to celebrate the victory of good over evil, people light bonfires the night before Holi (which for reasons that aren't totally clear takes its name from the demon) and then apply some of the ash as a talisman. In a second origin story, the god Krishna, self-conscious about his dark-hued skin, applied colored powder to the faces of the fair cowherd girls to make them like him.

It's all this and more, but this year, the official stance is that it has to be less. Much less. There's a shortage of water in India; rainfall has been scanty, reservoir levels are dangerously low. People understand these conditions must translate to less profligate use of water, but they aren't exactly overjoyed; it's tradition, after all, and much more fun when there's a drenching involved.

A devotee holds a water gun loaded with colored water during the Holi festival in Mathura, India. Prabhat Kumar Verma/ZUMA Press hide caption

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Prabhat Kumar Verma/ZUMA Press

A devotee holds a water gun loaded with colored water during the Holi festival in Mathura, India.

Prabhat Kumar Verma/ZUMA Press

When I was growing up in New Delhi, Holi marked the end of a cold winter. It meant a lovely bonfire the night before; waking up early to fill and knot a gazillion water balloons; wearing my oldest clothes and then traveling in roving groups trying to outdo each other in pelting water balloons — shivering in our wet clothes, smearing ink and pakka, or powdered colors, all over friends and enemies, followed by an hour in the shower trying in vain to scrub the colors off. Everyone showed up at school the next day sporting various shades of green, blue and silver. Near the town of Mathura, where Krishna is supposed to have been born, the whole town participates. In Mumbai, where it's already in the 90s by March, water is a necessary part of the celebration to keep you cool.

Even for adults, it's not enough to dip your hands into powder of different hues and rub it on each other's faces and clothes. No, you've got to fill water guns and drench people in it. With money collected from building residents, an area, usually in the garden, is cordoned off, a tanker of well water is ordered and a temporary network of showers is hooked up to it ... for cavorting in fake spring rain. As a bonus, only the adults are allowed near the seasonal drink of the day: thandai — cannabis leaves ground up into a paste and mixed into milk with almonds, which probably goes a long way in explaining the communal, clothed outdoor showering (and very unsexy wet t-shirts sticking to overweight uncles.)

This year, though, there is to be no rain dancing in Mumbai. The entire country is short of water, but the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is in the throes of a drought. A press release from the state's top minister asks citizens to save water and play a "dry" Holi instead.

Approximately 2,000 villages in the region have no water in their taps, and even Mumbai is facing water cuts. The city's dams are less than a quarter full and the lakes that supply the city's potable water have 16 percent less water now than they did this time last year.

My friend Anisha's gated community of buildings has a rambunctious Holi party every year, with not just rain dances, thandai, and a catered lunch after, but also a DJ who blasts hot Bollywood and Top 40 music for everyone to really get in the mood.

According to Apurva Patel, managing committee member, last year their building ordered one 12-kiloliter and two 8-kiloliter tankers of water. That's nearly 7,500 gallons.

"This year, there is a drought. The general sentiment is about saving water," he said. "We'll invite only one tanker, good for kids to enjoy, and we won't have the full-fledged Holi celebrations with sprinkle type shower this time."

If the water tankers are actually declared unlawful, Patel said, "We don't want to breach any law, so if it's a question like that we'll cancel."

Manoj Malpani, who runs a water supply company, says Holi partiers might have a hard time finding a water supplier to deliver a tanker. "The first issue is that there is no water," he says. "We're struggling to give our customers drinking and cooking water. We never have and never would supply water to Holi or other celebrations." Second, he says, there is a great danger of being fined and penalized by the government for water wastage, and plenty of watchdog NGOs are keeping an eye out for violations. "Who," he asks, "would do that?"

"A dry Holi? I wouldn't be too happy it," says 24-year-old Akshay Vijaykar. He gets that conserving water is a good idea but can't help feeling let down. "I'm a fan of the water. Holi is about water balloons, water guns and sliding through water and mud," he says. "This year, I'm not even sure I'm going to play."