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The joy of Holi, the festival of colors

By The Health News Team | March 25, 2024
Dr. Puja Chitkara of Sharp Community Medical Group at a Holi Festival in San Diego

Dr. Chitkara celebrates Holi in San Diego with her children, Rohan and Ria, in 2011.

In India and around the world, the two-day Holi festival is a celebration of good over evil and signifies the beginning of spring. The name “holi” means purity, with the color white serving as the symbol of all that is pure.

Holi is known as the festival of colors and love because during celebrations, participants, often dressed in white, toss colored water and dry colors on each other in joy. Red symbolizes love and fertility, yellow represents turmeric — which is native to India — and blue represents the god of protection, compassion and love.

Dr. Puja Chitkara, a board-certified rheumatologist with Sharp Community Medical Group, has honored Holi since she was a child, growing up in Assam, India. She has cherished memories of celebrations past and looks forward each year to embracing the holiday’s traditions here in San Diego.

Honoring an ancient tradition

As a child, Dr. Chitkara remembers waking early on the morning of Holi and dressing all in white so that the festival colors would show nicely on her clothing.

“My parents would put a small ‘tikka,’ or dot of color, on my forehead to bless me,” she says. “Together with our guests, we would put color on each other and eat lots of ‘mithai,’ which are traditional Indian sweets.”

Dr. Chitkara and her family would visit neighbors and friends, putting color on everyone and enjoying the togetherness.

“The kids would have water guns, and we’d soak each other,” she says. “Sometimes, we would fill a bucket of water and pour it on each other. There would also be music and dancing — and of course, lots of food.”

Keeping the tradition going

Here in San Diego, Dr. Chitkara and her family typically spend Holi attending local parties. One of their favorites is hosted by a nonprofit organization called Child Rights and You (CRY), which works to help underprivileged children in India. Dr. Chitkara loves the opportunity to support a cause so dear to her heart, while dancing to Bollywood music — the songs featured in Hindi films — immersing herself in bold colors, and eating traditional fare from food trucks.

The food is something Dr. Chitkara looks forward to most, especially gujiya, a sweet crispy handheld pastry filled with delicious stuffings. For the adults, bhang is one of the festival’s most popular drinks — one which is believed to have been used medicinally as early as 2800 BC.

“You’d be amazed how widely celebrated Holi is here in our sunny city of San Diego,” Dr. Chitkara says. “You can find celebrations everywhere, including our beaches. And last year, there was even a Holi event on a cruise.”

A connection to her patients

Many of Dr. Chitkara’s patients share her heritage and experience, so it’s special when she’s able to care for someone who aligns with her traditions. The bond she feels helps her connect to the needs of her patients, as they tend to open up more fully, helping to establish the trust and rapport that make the doctor-patient relationship so meaningful.

Yet, Dr. Chitkara also loves connecting to patients who know little about her heritage. It offers an opportunity to share stories and information, not only about her history but also about the colorful holiday that has become cherished among many people of different cultures and backgrounds.

“I love talking to patients about Holi,” Dr. Chitkara says. “Most people see the colors, which are amazing. But I love discussing the roots too.”

Holi, Dr. Chitkara explains, commemorates the story of Lord Vishnu, in the form of Narasimha, a half-man and half-lion, who killed the demon King Hiranyakashipu, signifying good over evil. “What could be better than celebrating that?” she asks.

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