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NEW DELHI : Holiday of Horseplay

March 14, 1995

What began as a festival of spring in honor of Kama, the love god, has become an occasion in India for gaiety, horseplay, celebration and the dousing of others with colored water, the Holi holiday.

The final festival of the Hindu calendar, it will be celebrated Thursday. For centuries, Holi was one of the leveling influences in India's scrupulously stratified society: Rich and poor, high caste and low caste, men and women and even Muslims and Christians take part. Only the elderly get off easily, with a daub of red powder on the forehead.

Not all is merriment, however. On Holi, bands of rowdy youths roam many streets and villages, drenching strangers with colored water and powder--or worse. In the past, their actions have sometimes led to bloody riots between communities.

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