The ritual is simple. At the top of every hour, the crowd counts down from 10 and then the colors fly. Thousands of folks, young and old, friends and strangers, plaster one another with handfuls of vibrant dust.
It’s not simply a chromatic hallucinatory experience or a giant rainbow mess. For many, it’s a consciousness-raising experience, a communal celebration of renewal rooted in Hindu culture.
A version of this ritual, called the Festival of Colors, has been held annually at a temple in Central Utah’s Spanish Fork for more than 25 years. The daytime family event, which features live music, yoga, dance and paint-throwing, comes to Gibson Ranch in Elverta on Saturday.
“We believe it’s such a powerful experience we want to make it available to everyone,” said Caru Das, founder of the Festival of Colors and high priest at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork.
This year, Das, 67, decided to take the festival on the road through a collaboration with Viral Events (the same group that puts on the Run or Dye 5K fun run). Elverta is the next stop, with 13 other U.S. cities following.
At least 3,000 people are expected to attend the Saturday event based on ticket presales, he said.
Festival of Colors has hardly been an overnight sensation. Seven people attended the first installment in 1989, said Das, who based the event on an ancient celebration of spring known as Holi, which also has a color-throwing component.
“Spring is a metaphor for awakening and rejuvenation,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to bury the hatchet.”
The first festival was held inside the temple, which was a big mistake. “I was getting colors out of the grouting with a toothbrush for weeks,” he said.
Since then, it has expanded, with around 50,000 people attending the Spanish Fork festival in March.
Bands and yoga demonstrations have become part of the event. This year’s bill includes San Francisco hip-hop artist MC Yogi, Los Angeles-based world music band t he Kirtaniyas, Canadian electro-pop artist DJ Sol Rising, and “ecstatic dance” artists and yoga instructors Craig Kohland from Hawaii and Sita Devi of Santa Monica.
A common thread among the artists is that they perform Kirtan, a call-and-response chanting of mantras, or sacred Hindu hymns, with the audience.
Throwing dust is available onsite for $3 a bag and $12 for five bags. There are about three handfuls in each bag, Das said.
Goggles are provided at the event. The paint is made of almost entirely of cornstarch, organic dyes and incense, which organizers say are safe for children and pregnant women. It’s edible, too, but the website doesn’t recommend eating it.
Holi stems from Holika, a mythological demoness invulnerable to fire who used her gift to try to murder the son of a demon king. She failed, and in retaliation, Vishnu, the Hindu god of creation, stripped of her powers and burned her to death.
“It’s a classic story of good triumphing over evil and the power of mantra,” he said.
While a bonfire is usually held the night before Holi to re-create part of that story, it won’t be featured at the Elverta festival. Das’ Color Festival is an original experience that’s mindful of the mythology but ultimately nondenominational and open to everyone.
“I wanted to figure out how to bridge the cultural gap and create an experience that people of my own ethnicity could also embrace,” he said.
Typically, with thousands of people, there can be competition, rivalry and partisanship, Das said. That’s not the vibe at the Color Festival.
“The barriers that generally distance us based on background are magically removed when the colors go up,” he said. “People accept each other unconditionally.”
Das remembers one attendee years ago, a college student who drove to the Festival of Colors in Spanish Fork with some friends. Within the first hour, he was separated from them in the crowd. But he didn’t feel lost.
“He told me it was OK because he had 20,000 friends there with him,” Das said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed June 13 to clarify information about Viral Events, which puts on the Run or Dye event.