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How Holi Works

All Colors, No Caste

Like most other spring celebrations, Holi is a day of joy -- dancing, music, general playfulness, and throwing color with abandon and complete impunity. Absolutely everyone who participates is coated in it. People flood the streets with paint containers and water guns and buckets of gulal, the deeply saturated pigments in powder form. Children throw it on adults, employees throw it on bosses, and even the highest government officials are fair game [source: BBC].

The removal of socio-economic distinctions and behavioral norms, most stunningly the Indian caste system, which enforces strict separation between the high- and the low-born, is a key piece of the festivities. It is utter, happy chaos; a day of equality and role reversal. In some areas, children spend the day telling their parents what to do. Men and women may engage in mock battle, with the women coming out the victors (by design) [source: BBC].

And color hides all class lines. With the rich and the poor alike disguised by it, Holi is the single day of the year when caste disappears [source: Britannica]. On that one day, everyone is alike.

Before the colors, though, another rite introduces the holiday. In many areas, the celebration begins early, with a recreation of Vishnu's saving of Prahlad -- or more accurately, his destruction of Holika. The night before, or in the pre-dawn hours before the main event, people light bonfires in front of their homes, signifying the flames that killed Holika and the proof of Vishnu's power. Some make offerings of food while others burn Holika in effigy.

Holi, with its fires and colors, and its break from propriety, celebrates the victory of good over evil, rebirth and renewal, and somehow, in the joyful chaos, the unlikely evaporation of traditional Indian social definitions. Rich and poor, high and low, young and old, men and women alike celebrate together. And in a culture whose divisions are often considered written in stone, this likely removes Holi from the "dime-a-dozen" category of spring celebrations. Around the full moon of Phalgun, India's not just coated in color. It's transformed by it.