What Is Holi, the Riotous Hindu Spring Festival of Color?

Streets across the Indian subcontinent became playgrounds on Thursday as revelers threw colored powder and water at each other to celebrate Holi, also known as the Hindu festival of color.

A student is engulfed in a cloud of colored powder during Holi celebrations in Bhopal, India. AFP

Holi is perhaps the least religious of Hindu festivals, but it's definitely the most colorful. The annual holiday celebrates the beginning of spring and the triumph of good over evil.

Festivities begin with religious rituals around a bonfire on the evening of the full moon in late February or early March. The next morning is a free-for-all riot of color as people smear each other with colored powder or throw balloons filled with dye into the air.

A woman, smeared with colored powder, dances while celebrating Holi, the Festival of Colours, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
A Hindu devotee, covered in colored powder, rests on a road during a procession for Holi celebrations in Kolkata. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
Vedika Sharma, 8, poses for a photograph covered in colored powder while celebrating the festival of Holi in Vrindavan. Sajjad Hussain/AFP

There are several legends behind the origins of this ancient religious festival. One theory is that the colorful ritual is based on the story of Lord Krishna's playful splashing of "gopis" (wives and daughters of cowherds) with water. Another theory is that the festival celebrates the victory of Lord Vishnu over Hindu demon king Hiranyakashipu and his sister Holika.

The colored powder represents the coming of spring and the rebirth of flowers and fruits. Some say each color has a meaning, with green representing spring, blue symbolizing Krishna, and red being the color of love and fertility.

Hindu devotees, smeared in colored powder, dance as they take part in a procession for Holi celebrations in Kolkata. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
A student reacts as his fellow students throw colored powder at him during Holi celebrations at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
A student reacts as fellow fellow students throw colored powder in her face during Holi celebrations at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
Indian youths play with colored powder outside a school in Allahabad. Sanjay Kanojia/AFP
Students prepare to throw colored powder at each other at a university in Kolkata, India. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
Students celebrate the Holi festival with colored powder at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, India. Narinder Nanu/AFP
Vendors waits for customers next to piles of colored powder for Holi in Kolkata. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
A student smiles in a cloud of colored powder in Kolkata. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
Indian students smear colored powder on each other during an event to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi in Kolkata. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Being covered in color brings relative anonymity, and in largely conservative India, this means Holi is a time when men and women and boys and girls can mingle with relative freedom. However, many women in India say the festival is just an excuse for men to grope and sexually harass them.

College students protest against hooliganism and sexual harassment in the name of the Hindu festival Holi, in New Delhi, India. Saumya Khandelwal/Reuters

The city of Vrindavan in northern India is one of the few places where widows can celebrate Holi. Indian tradition dictates that widows are barred from participating in any celebrations as their presence is considered ominous. Women whose husbands have died are often shunned by society and abandoned by their families.

Widows pose for photographs before and after celebrating Holi in Vrindavan, India. Chandan Khanna/AFP

In Vrindavan, however, attitudes are changing, thanks to the work of Sulabh International, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of widows. The campaign has been so successful that thousands of widows have flocked to Vrindavan, now known as "the city of widows".