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Colorful Holi Holiday Signals Spring Is Coming

Amid the pandemic, 4 ways to observe the Hindu celebration at home

Indian family (mother son and daughter) with colorful face, smiling and looking to camera in festival Holi

Getty Images

The boisterous Holi celebrations of Nandita Godbole's past featured dozens of friends gathering in a backyard to douse each other with brilliantly colored power or balloons filled with dyed water.

The two-day Hindu holiday, which spans March 28 and 29 this year, signals the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. But this year, amid ongoing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the 49-year-old Godbole will mark Holi with just her husband, Umashankar Ramasubramanian, 51, and teenage daughter in Atlanta.

Gujiya Pie

courtesy Asha Shivkumar

Cookbook author Asha Shivkumar plans to make gujiya pie and drop it off to friends to celebrate Holi.

A cookbook author, Godbole will make traditional foods associated with the Hindu festival, including puran poli, a whole wheat flatbread stuffed with sweetened lentils, and a refreshing thick milk drink, thandai. The three will also dab some dry colored powder on one another's cheeks.

"This year,” Ramasubramanian says, “will be very subdued.”

Indian-Americans are finding new ways to observe Holi amid the pandemic. As many as 1.4 billion people in the U.S., India and the South Asia diaspora around the world celebrate the lively two-day holiday, typically kicked off with a bonfire and offerings for a good spring harvest.

The second-day party, which may include a few friends or an entire community, often bathes entire streets in red, blue and yellow as people toss colored powder and water. The hues represent the vibrancy of spring, and, according to Hindu mythology, the love that blossomed between Lord Krishna and Radha after he smeared colored powder on her face.

Here are four ways you can honor the tradition while maintaining social distance.

1. Share food

While many might miss the customary large gatherings, participants can spread the joy by dropping off food at the homes of friends and family, says San Francisco cookbook author and culinary instructor Asha Shivkumar. The Masala & Meatballs author will hand deliver goody bags filled with her gujiya pie, a twist on the traditional hand pies made for Holi.

She'll also include a powdered mix to so friends can stir up the beverage thandai at home. Made with milk, crushed almonds, saffron and spices, thandai literally translates as “something cold” in Hindi and is served during Holi to refresh guests as the weather warms up with the onset of spring.

2. Light a fire

Sanwal and a friend after she threw a Holi party in her house some years ago.

courtesy Vibha Sanwal

Vibha Sanwal, with her husband Pankaj Sanwal, said it took her a month to get the stains out of her clothes after an exuberant Holi celebration several years ago.

While many associate Holi with the party that leaves participants drenched in colors from head to toe, the holiday features another important tradition. On the first day of Holi, which coincides with the full moon, participants light a bonfire, or holika dahan, meant to symbolize the burning of bad spirits.

Vibha Sanwal, 51, M.D., a pediatrician in Lewes, Delaware, has fond memories of this fire growing up in Rajasthan, India. Her family would attend a community celebration and roast wheat and corn, throwing sweets and rice into the fire as an offering to the gods to celebrate the spring harvest. “It's something I looked forward to,” she says.

For the last 10 years, Sanwal, her husband and two children have attended the bonfire ceremony at a Hindu temple an hour from their house.

But with the temple's temporary closure amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns, Sanwal will light a fire pit in her own backyard after fasting from morning till evening. She'll break the fast with some chole bhature, or spiced chickpeas with deep-fried wheat bread, and kheer, or rice pudding. Her family will wish one another “happy Holi” — something akin to wishing “happy spring” — and she'll put a dot of turmeric on her husband, kids and even the family labradoodles, Jazz and Buddy.

3. Virtual and socially distant gatherings

On the day of Holi, Shivkumar will get on a Zoom call with seven or eight girlfriends who will enjoy the treats she has left at their house while they chat virtually. For the occasion, they'll all wear bright Indian clothes.

"We'll be dressed in the most colorful clothes because we can't play with color,” Shivkumar says.

Physician Sanwal will celebrate with her immediate family, and she advises others who plan to gather to follow federal guidelines around safe interactions, which allow for vaccinated people to interact with small groups unmasked and for others to remain masked and maintain social distance.

4. Celebrate when it's safe

Some community-wide Holi celebrations will go on — just later in the year, anticipating a drop in coronavirus case rates and an increase in vaccination. Sri Radha Bhakti temple near Boston will host a Holi celebration July 10, featuring music, dance and color.

Organizers of the Holi festival in Houston, home to one of the largest South Asian communities in the U.S., will reschedule the event for later this year, though the date hasn't yet been determined.

For years, Shivkumar's family attended a 300-plus-person Holi party where they would joyfully throw colored powder while listening to loud music.

"It's just letting go of your inhibitions at that moment,” Shivkumar says . “You can let go and play and just feel good. You really feel like a kid."

Julekha Dash is a contributing writer who covers food, travel, art, and business. A former business writer for the Baltimore Business Journal and Computerworld, her work has also appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Wine Enthusiast, and Architectural Digest.

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