The origins of Holi

Holi celebrations


(Or for the non-Desis amongst us, ‘Don’t get offended, it’s Holi!’)

There’s nothing quite like Holi. Literally, you have to see it to believe it.

All over India, hordes of ordinary people seem to lose their collective minds, abandon all sense of decorum and go a bit wild on the streets, chasing and pelting each other with gulal (coloured powders). As the vibrant powders are unleashed on enthusiastic – or unsuspecting – revellers, social boundaries are blurred with colour and for that one crazy day, anything goes.

The Holi festival comes around on the day after the full moon each March. Its roots lie in a Hindu legend, in which the wicked Holika, the sister of the demon Hiranyakashaypu, meets her demise in a blazing fire, and the good child Prahalad escapes unharmed. Holi celebrates this triumph of good over evil, the power of Prahalad’s faith, and it heralds the end of winter, spring’s grateful rebirth.

It has also become a chance (or more accurately, an excuse!) for Indians to shed their tightly-held inhibitions. The usual social strictures are delightfully subverted, leaving us free to indulge in feverish colour-play and light-hearted merrymaking. The fact that bhang (cannabis) is traditionally consumed at Holi, in thandai, lassi or pakoras, only casts a happy glow over  the playful nature of proceedings.

It could only be Holi when an employee dumps a bucket of coloured powder over his most senior colleague without fear of recrimination. Or when a usually conservative maasi (aunty) ends up soaked to the skin with dye, or when a younger brother flirts outrageously with his bhabhi (sister-in-law). Who can forget the scene in Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, in which Maan – high on bhang – gently terrorises his bhabhi and dunks a college professor in a bathtub of pink liquid? Magical.

And by breaking down these social boundaries, Holi also brings us all together, regardless of caste, religion or social status. It’s a chance for us to forgive past transgressions and extend the hand of peace; a day of chaos and joyful, exuberant mess that can somehow wipe the slate clean.

This year* at Dishoom, we wanted to celebrate this slightly barmy, fun-filled festival of Holi.

Of course, we had to figure out the practicalities of doing Holi over here – what with bhang not being that legal, and the lack of open space to play colours in (we definitely didn’t like the idea of a cleaning bill from Westminster Council). But in our own way, we’re bringing Holi to London.

From next week, we’ll be decorating Dishoom with brightly coloured kites and Holi bunting, and colourful chalk Holi colours will adorn the pavement outside (we thought it would be fun to do a rangoli at Holi!)

We’ll be serving a Holi menu and a selection of specially created Holi drinks, including a ‘Naughty Holi Lassi’, served with rum and generous helpings of our version of gulal – flavoured sugar-powders that you add and mix to your flavour and colour taste. Or go for the Bhang Lassi – with rum instead of bhang – if you want to keep it traditional (without breaking the law!). And our special HoliBollybellini is a Bollybellini with a twist – the addition of colourful spherified Bollybellini pearls.

Then on Thursday 8th and Friday 9th March – the days the celebrations really kick off in India – our staff will be given the Holi treatment (that means they’ll be welcoming you covered in traditional coloured powders!) And of course, we’ll be serving traditional mithai to all our guests.

There’s also some cool (passworded) Holi freebies on their way so keep an eye out for these on Facebook and Twitter.

So – we very much look forward to celebrating Holi with you here in London, and wish you a very happy Holi!

PS. Who knows? Next year we might find a way to actually play Holi in London. Interested? Let us know below!

* This information was published for our 2012 Holi celebrations. In 2013, we actually held a proper Holi party and then in 2014 we made it even bigger and better

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IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.

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