Holi festival brings Palo Alto residents together for Indian spring rite

Cultural event at Barron Park will feature music, traditional dancing and food

India is known for its brightly colored festivals, and one of its most brilliantly hued, Holi, the Festival of Colors, is coming to Barron Park on March 26.

The Barron Park Association is sponsoring the rite of spring, at which people toss pigment on each other amid music and dance. The festival at Bol Park will take place from noon to 3 p.m. and is open to nonmembers for $10 and free to association members and kids under 10 years old.

The program will include music and traditional dancing, and food will be available for purchase, said Jaya Pandey, a member of the organizing committee.

Holi (pronounced "ho-lee") is a festival especially popular in northern India. Its roots come out of the story of the vanquishing of Holika, an evil person, and the survival of Prahlada, a good person who was made to sit on her lap in a bonfire. Holika was believed to be immune to the flames, but Prahlada allegedly was not; good, however, triumphed over evil, Pandey said.

The night before Holi, each neighborhood builds a bonfire to re-enact the story. People sing folk songs and dance. When the fire cools, people used to apply ash to their foreheads. Over time, the ash was replaced by dry colors, and today some people use wet colors, she said.

The next morning, people arise to a hearty breakfast, don their oldest clothes and emerge on the streets to toss water-filled balloons and dried pigment at each other. The ritual goes on until noon.

There are so many colors thrown, "you cannot recognize people," Pandey said. "As a kid, it was fun to hide on the roof with colors to throw on people."

In early times, participants used colorfast pigments that would dye skin and hair mainly in red, yellow, blue and green. Red and yellow are auspicious colors; blue is spiritual and green represents nature, she said. Today's festivals use colors that are washable. Barron Park's event will use organic, hypoallergenic colors with a cornstarch base that is gluten-free, said Rakhi Singh, another organizer.

In every village, Indians go from home to home to enjoy sweets and finger food and to visit with neighbors. Singh recalled that her mother always made Indian sweet pancakes. It was a day when kids could enjoy sweets and starches. Families also drank lassi, a cold yogurt and mango beverage, she said.

Special treats in India include rice crackers and finger food made from potatoes or boiled rice and special desserts. Thandai, a special drink made from pistachios, saffron, sugar, milk and cardamom, is drunk, Pandey said.

But Barron Park's Holi will mostly be about building relationships.

Committee member Lydia Kou, who has been a chief organizer of Barron Park multicultural events, said she wanted to do a neighborhood Holi after often taking her daughter to the large and raucous one at Stanford University.

"But it was so crowded. I couldn't envision young children and older people being there. I wanted it to be family friendly, and if it was a neighborhood event, it would be all inclusive," she said.

The Barron Park Holi also advances a goal Kou set out to achieve in 2013: to celebrate the neighborhood's cultural diversity and to help ethnic groups better understand one another.

Kou, Pandey and Singh said that planning the event has already fostered new relationships. That affection was evident as Pandey reached out and took Kou's hand.

"We have such a strong bond and we have gotten closer. We look at each other as extended family members," Pandey said.

"There's a lot of trust. We're ambassadors for each other," Singh said.

For Kou, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Sudan and Guam, being accepted into the Indian community has been an honor, she said, and she has learned much about South Asian culture from their organizing meetings.

"The meetings involve a lot of fun and joking, including adapting to different styles and how they meet and come to decisions," she said. And there is always lots of tea.

Kou said that with last fall's Diwali festival, a previous Chinese New Year celebration and other events, she can feel that many in the community are embracing diversity but in small steps. She would like to see a citywide effort to extend a welcoming hand to new immigrant residents and to take the lead in building cross-cultural understanding, including through events.

"The demographic of Palo Alto is changing," Kou said.

Singh believes these events can help shape the future.

"I have three young children. They see the world in a different way, through different eyes. (At school) they celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the Chinese New Year. A mission of mine is that they feel really comfortable (with other cultures and races) so that when these kids all become older they will be able to relate and not see each other as 'the other,'" she said.

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4 people like this
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 21, 2016 at 1:39 am

I would think inhaling this colored powder would be dangerous.
It creates a lot of unnecessary pollution to air, plants and clothing.

[Portion removed.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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