Holi, the festival of colors is celebrated in different corners of India with pomp and gaiety on the full-moon day in the month of Phalgun, which is the month of March as per the Gregorian calendar. As per mythology, while on one hand, this festival celebrates the eternal love of Radha and Krishna, it also celebrates the victory of Lord Vishnu with His Narasimha avatar, over demon king Hiranyakashipu – this story gives us a lesson that complete devotion pays back. Thus, the festival Holi signifies the triumph of good over evil (imbibing the hope of overcoming the difficulties of our real life) – it is the day to forgive and make peace with everyone around us. The festival Holi along with its mythological significance teaches us life lessons, gives us strength to face adversities, prepares for a new season, new challenges, and embeds within us new energy. But have we ever thought that there could be any scientific reason behind the festivals we celebrate? Here, I intend to trace the science behind the festival of Holi.
The festival Holi is celebrated in the Spring season, which is a period between the end of winter and the advent of summer. It normally goes through the transition phase of winter and summer. The period induces the growth of bacteria in the atmosphere as well as in the body. When demon Holika is burnt, the temperature of the nearby area raises around 50-60 degrees Celsius. Following the tradition, when people perform 'Parikrama' (go around the bonfire/pyre), the heat coming from the bonfire kills the bacteria in the body and cleanses it. Even in some parts of the country, after Holika-Dahan (burning of Holika) people put ashes on their forehead and also mix Chandan (paste of sandalwood) with young leaves and flowers of the mango tree and consume – it is believed to promote good health. Again, this is the time, when people get the feeling of tardiness, which is quite natural for the body to experience because of changes in weather from cold to hot in the atmosphere. To counter this laziness, people sing songs (Phag, Jogira, etc.) with dhol, manjira, and other traditional instruments. This helps in rejuvenating the human body and their physical movements while playing with colors.
Colors play vital roles in the fitness of the human body. Deficiency of a particular color could cause an ailment and can be cured when that color element is supplemented either through diet or medicine. In ancient times, when people started playing Holi, the colors used by them were made from natural sources like turmeric, neem, palash (tesu), etc. The playful pouring and throwing of color-powders made from natural sources have a healing effect on the human body. It has the effect of strengthening the ions in the body and adds health and beauty to it. Nowadays, the market is mostly flooded with synthetic colors and herbal colors are not available in adequate quantity. Synthetic colors are also cheap and people feel to pour this on others. The synthetic colors available in the market comprise toxic components such as lead-oxide, diesel, chromium, iodine, copper sulfate, etc; which may lead to rashes on the skin, allergies, pigmentation, frizzy hair, eye irritation, etc. In extreme cases, it can cause serious skin diseases and clog of hair cuticles; resulting in severe hair damage. So, we should deliberately opt for herbal colors even if it is costly – if demand increases, the cost would naturally come down. 'Green' color might contain copper sulfate and can cause problems like eye-allergy and temporary blindness, 'Red' colors might contain mercury sulfide, which can lead to skin cancer, mental retardation, paralysis, and impaired vision, 'Purple' color might contain chromium iodide leading to health problems like bronchial asthma and allergies, 'Silver' color might contain Aluminium bromide that is carcinogenic, 'Blue' color might contain Prussian blue that can cause dermatitis, 'Black' color might contain lead oxide leading to health problems like renal failure and learning disability. Thus, it is better to play Holi with natural colors. Again, some of the common plant-based sources for Holi color during Holi were palash, hibiscus, sandalwood, pomegranate, saffron, bilva-leaves, marigold, amaltas, jacaranda, and indigo. Though it is practically not possible all of a sudden; in the meantime, the side-effects of synthetic colors can be minimized by following certain steps – i) it is a good idea to apply a thick layer of moisturizer or coconut oil on the exposed parts of the body to prevent colours from coming into direct contact with the skin, ii) Hair should be given oil and scalp is to be given olive, coconut or castor oil; also a few drops of lemon juice is better to be added to prevent dandruff and infection triggered by the chemical colors, iii) A sun-glass is helpful to protect eyes from a misfire of color filled darts or water jets; also lip-balm is helpful to put on lips, iv) Plenty of water is necessary to drink before playing Holi – this will keep skin hydrated.
While Holi for many is synonymous with color-fights, water-balloons, and scrumptious food, it is vital to keep in mind the health of our environment too. Playing Holi in an eco-friendly way does not make it less fun; instead, it decreases pollution, carbon footprint and keeps us healthy and safe. The scientific fact in the case of using natural colors like turmeric is to cleanse the body and remove any unwanted accumulation on the skin. Since Holi is played outdoors exposure to the Sun can have a detrimental effect on the skin of the human body – apart from harmful UV radiation, sun exposure makes the skin dry by causing depletion of moisture and also tans the skin, which becomes dry and dull after playing Holi. Holika Dahan, on the other hand, is performed to burn all that is dry and dirty to pave the way for a new life in the spring. Again, as per scientific evidence – during the time of Holi the growth of bacteria in the atmosphere rises at its peak – thus the tradition of burning Holika raises the temperature of the atmosphere, reducing the growth of bacteria and lessening the occurrence and impact of bacterial infection. During Holi Carbon-di-oxide, Carbon Monoxide and other particulate matters go high which causes poor air quality; also on this auspicious day participants also burst fireworks which release harmful gases and toxic substances into the air, which can be measured by monitoring air quality.
The festival Holi is providing to be an environmental risk due to toxic colors used during the celebrations. Unlimited and uncontrolled use of certain dyes can lead to giving consequences in terms of human health and ecological balance. These colors are highly structured polymers and are very difficult to decompose biologically – this study was taken up with an initiative to determine the extent of effects that the Holi colors have on water and soil respectively. The bacteria inhabiting these contaminated water and soil samples were isolated for biochemical analyses. Their ability to degrade these dyes was determined after optimization studies. Toxic trials were conducted on certain bacterial cultures and Triticium vulgare to check their impact on the other living flora and fauna in their surrounding environment. After carefully monitoring the dye-degradation capacity of these bacteria, they were used for bioremediation purposes, giving promising results. The impact assessment and damage control led to safer methods of getting rid of Holi dyes, to save our environment.