By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

VRINDAVAN — On most days, the narrow streets of this sacred Indian city are teeming with all kinds of human, animal and mechanical traffic: ambling cows, barefoot pilgrims, darting motorcycles and noisy auto-rickshaws. But during the Hindu festival of Holi, all of that changes. Residents and visitors clog the thoroughfares and toss brilliant colored powders in red, pink, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow, painting everyone — and everything in sight — with rainbow colors.

Vrindavan is an important site for Hindus; it’s where Lord Krishna is said to have spent his childhood and the town is located on the banks of the Yamuna River, the second most sacred river in India.

Holi’s origin stories have become tied to Hinduism over time. The first day of the festival commemorates stories of familial betrayal and intrigue: the story of a boy whose father attempts to kill him for worshiping Vishnu instead of himself. The father enlists his sister to burn the boy in a bonfire, but the plan backfires, killing the sister instead of the boy. On Holi, many communities burn a bonfire at dusk to commemorate the triumph of good over evil.

Throughout the festival, people toss colors at one another and spray colored dyes, representing the union between the god Krishna and his consort Radha. Krishna, self-conscious of his dark blue skin, painted Radha’s fair skin to make himself feel less embarrassed. Says Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram in Vrindavan, “In the colors of Holi, you know, you have fair skin, I have dark skin, […] this skin or that skin.” On Holi, he adds, “the color is one.”


Holi in Vrindavan

Festivities at the ashram are unique; here, a troupe of young men performs the story of Radha and Krishna in the Phoolonwali Holi, or flower Holi. In elaborate costumes and face paint, the young men reenact the story of Radha and Krishna’s love, including their wedding, after which they are covered in a mountain of marigold, jasmine and rose petals. After the couple emerges, the audience is encouraged to toss handfuls of the petals themselves, culminating in a colorful, fragrant and unifying celebration.

John Cort, a religion scholar from Denison University, says that Holi is essentially “a neighborhood event in which everyone in a community is expected to participate.” Despite the strong presence of Hindu mythology in the festival’s origins, he says, “it is a joyous springtime festival, the celebration of which traditionally has not been tied to any one religious community.”

It is not at all unusual for people of other faiths to participate in Holi celebrations. “It is a part and parcel of our memories,” said Syed Tariq Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi. There is even ample evidence that Mughal rulers like Akhbar and Jahangir celebrated Holi in their royal courts.

While India’s Muslim population is the third largest in the world, Muslims are still a minority in the country. However, says Bukhari, they don’t feel singled out: “We are proud of the multicultural society of India, we are very proud to be Indians, and as far as Partition is concerned, we are Indians by choice, not by chance.”He continues, “You can see that the majority of the Indians whether they are Hindu or Muslims or Sikhs or Christians, they want to live together in peace. And that will — that will win.”

That sentiment is echoed by J.P. Anklesaria, a retired Army Brigadier and a member of Ahmedabad’s Parsi community. He belongs to the largest community of Parsis, ethnic Iranians who have lived in India for centuries and practice Zoroastrianism. The once-strong group has seen its numbers dwindle; Indian Parsis number only about 60,000 today, according the BBC.

Despite their challenges, they’ve become one of the most powerful and influential minority groups in the country. Its members include figures such as Ratan Tata, the head of Tata Industries, and Cyrus Poonawalla, who started the world’s largest vaccine producer, Serum Industries of India.

When asked whether his community faces persecution, he said: ”Never. Never. For the simple reason that we respect those other religions, whatever it is, Islam, Christianity, Jews, or Jains, or whatever. […] It’s simple. Why should you disrespect it? Why should you say that my religion is the greatest or your religion is this or that?”

When asked specifically about whether Zoroastrians play Holi, Anklesaria replied, “Of course we do. By all means. There is no restriction on that!”

Even small, distinct communities like the Jews of Ahmedabad, who number only 140, embrace Holi as part their culture. Benson Enoch Argwarker, a member of the Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad, says he participates by putting colors on others’ faces. This extends to other holidays, too. He continues, “If it is Christmas, I’ll bring cake, and enjoy. If it is Divali, our house will be full of sweet meats.” He stresses, though, that it’s not a religious participation: “That’s part of the enjoyment – culturally.”

Some religious traditions find it more challenging to integrate Holi with their beliefs. For example, many Holi practices, like the burning of bonfires, drinking intoxicating substances like marijuana-laced bhang, and singing obscene songs, directly contradict Jain principles and philosophy. The driving principle of Jainism is ahimsa, or nonviolence; burning a bonfire at dusk could harm insects, and saying scandalous words could offend someone.

However, as the scholar John Cort describes in his essay “‘Today I Play Holi in My City’: Jain Holi Songs from Jaipur,” some adherents have found ways to practice Holi while still maintaining their ethics. For example, the 17th-century Digambar Jain poet Chitar Tholiya wrote his Holi ki Katha as a way to explain how Jains should and should not celebrate Holi, even told a Holi origin story that aligns with and incorporates Jain philosophy and principles.

Of course India has experienced more than its share of sectarian tension throughout its history, particularly since Partition in 1947. Riots and revenge killings have taken the lives of thousands.

But despite historical tensions, which have only been exacerbated by the rise of Hindu nationalism, Indians of all faiths celebrate Holi. From Vrindavan, the birthplace of Krishna, the Goswami reminds his followers that, “What Holi does, it makes you into one color. In those multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone.”