In a crowd of thousands of people, there is an explosion of color as blue, pink, yellow, orange and green powdered chalk are thrown into the air, creating an all-encompassing purplish-brown cloud. Inside the cloud you are lost, all sound and friends around you are absorbed into the thick chalky air. All that can be seen is nebulous purple.
The festival quickly turns from carefree and merry to a fight for survival. Breathing is difficult; inhaling the chalk makes the corners of your mouth gritty. Your eyes water tears of blue and pink, and within about 20 seconds the cloud disperses. The sound is back: screaming, cheering, laughing, coughing. The people around you are back, and they are so rainbow-caked in chalk that all that can be distinguished are their eyes. But finding your friends isn’t hard because after a shared experience like that, all the attendees are your friends.
The Holi Festival of Colors at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork is held annually at the end of March to celebrate the passing of winter’s neutral palette and to embrace the colors of spring.
The festival also celebrates the burning of the evil witch Holika. She was the sister of Hiranya Kashipu, a demon king who defeated the Gods to make himself invincible. His son Prahlad stayed loyal to Lord Vishnu and refused to worship his father. The angry king enlisted the help of his sister, who was immune to fire, to kill Prahlad. She held Prahlad in the fire but, because of his devotion to Vishnu, Prahlad was saved and Holika was burned.
To commemorate this story, there was a ceremonial burning of the witch before the colors were thrown. A paper mache effigy of Holika, complete with bright green skin, fangs and wild black hair, burned in a large bonfire. As she was being set up to be burned, the audience eerily chanted, “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” After the evil witch was burned, the crowd transformed from a mob to a party as the countdown to the throwing of the colors began.
All kinds of people attend the festival, mixing and blending together until eventually everyone at the festival is just one big dancing, chanting, purple cloud.
“It’s about unity and everything, man. Celebrating life and the colors of life,” said Riley Bigelow, who has attended the festival in both New York City and Utah.The unique colors of life are definitely represented at the Holi Festival: people wearing masks, robes, gas masks and ski goggles, a Star Wars stormtrooper crowd surfer, people completely covered head to toe in white and those wearing only underwear.
Dressed in robes of all white, Caru Das Adikari made no attempt to keep clean. His passion and excitement for the event was evident as he paused, took a look at the colors in the crowd dancing and chanting and beamed. Das Adikari has been the priest at the Hare Krishna Lotus temple since 1982 and essentially started the festival in Utah.
“Sometimes our career or our studies are more important to us,” Das Adikari said. “Or our perversions or our bad habits may be more important, and we kind of skimp on relationships. So this festival is about nothing other than enhancing your relationship with God and enhancing your relationship with other human beings.”
An important but underlying part of the festival is the kirtan chanting. Kirtan bands will play the chant that is used to become closer to God and one’s fellow man. The bands played the chant over and over until the crowd automatically started chanting along:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Das Adikari reiterated the sheer importance of this chanting as he spoke of a past Holi disappointment:
“As the organizer and manager of the festival, after it was over, I got in my car at about 11 o’clock at night and I drove aimlessly here or there crying,” Das Adikari said. “Actually, tears were coming down my face. I was just so disappointed that the chanting, the chanting had not gone off as I had wanted it to do. That’s my pay. That’s my reiteration. That’s my reward – to make available the process of kirtan and, again, it’s up to you whether you want to use it for your benefit.”
To Das Adikari, the opportunity to introduce so many people to this process is worth all the trouble of letting over 40,000 people, mostly college kids, run rampant all over the temple grounds. For the most part, this crowd seemed more respectful than last year’s crowd. There were still incidences of people not taking off their shoes when entering the temple, mocking the temple’s practices and pelting the temple’s resident llamas with chalk, but Das Adikari seemed to take the irreverence with a grain of salt.
“It’s enough for me to bring people here, to have them be here for a day where that is the central thing in their life, and they can do with it what they want. I don’t care. Whether they’re college kids or Mormons or Catholics or men or women or grandparents or grandkids, that’s the reason that we’re put here and everyone should know about [kirtan].”
At the festival, it doesn’t matter what religion, race, age or sex you are because in the end, it all gets covered by colors anyway. After the festival, as long as the colors last in your hair, or the chant stays in your head, maybe something stays with you from this spontaneous moment of joy as all the colors bleed into one.