Holi – the festival of colors – is undoubtedly the most fun-filled and boisterous of Hindu festival. It’s an occasion that brings in unadulterated joy and mirth, fun and play, music and dance, and, of course, lots of bright colors!
Happy Days Are Here Again!
With winter neatly tucked up in the attic, it’s time to come out of our cocoons and enjoy this spring festival. Every year it is celebrated on the day after the full moon in early March and glorifies good harvest and fertility of the land. It is also time for spring harvest. The new crop refills the stores in every household and perhaps such abundance accounts for the riotous merriment during Holi. This also explains the other names of this celebration – ‘Vasant Mahotsava’ and ‘Kama Mahotsava’.
“Don’t Mind, It’s Holi!”
During Holi, practices, which at other times could be offensive, are allowed. Squirting colored water on passers-by, dunking friends in mud pool amidst teasing and laughter, getting intoxicated on bhaang and reveling with companions is perfectly acceptable. In fact, on the days of Holi, you can get away with almost anything by saying, “Don’t mind, it’s Holi!” (Hindi = Bura na mano, Holi hai.)
Like all Indian and Hindu festivals, Holi is inextricably linked to religious stories. There are at least three legends that are directly associated with the festival of colors: the Holika-Hiranyakashipu-Prahlad episode, Lord Shiva’s killing of Kamadeva, and the story of the ogress Dhundhi.
The Holika-Prahlad Episode
The evolution of the term Holi makes an interesting study in itself. Legend has it that it derives its name from Holika, the sister of the megalomaniac king Hiranyakashipu who commanded everyone to worship him. But his little son Prahlad refused to do so. Instead he became a devotee of Vishnu, the Hindu God.
Hiranyakashipu ordered his sister Holika to kill Prahlad and she, possessing the power to walk through fire unharmed, picked up the child and walked into a fire with him. Prahlad, however, chanted the names of God and was saved from the fire. Holika perished because she did not know that her powers were only effective if she entered the fire alone.
This story has a strong association with the festival of Holi, and even today there is a practice of hurling cow dung into the fire and shouting obscenities at it, as if at Holika.
The Story of Dhundhi
It was also on this day that an ogress called Dhundhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Prthu was chased away by the shouts and pranks of village youngsters. Although this female monster had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, shouts, abuses and pranks of boys was a chink in the armor for Dhundi, owing to a curse from Lord Shiva.
The Kamadeva Legend
Kaamdeva’s was once cursed by Lord Shiva and turned into ashes by the force of an angry Shiva’s third eye. On the tearful requests of Kama’s wife Rati, the Lord restored him, but only as a mental image, representing true love rather than physical lust.
The Holi bonfire is believed to be commemorating this event, where people worship the bonfire to keep evils away.
Holi is also celebrated in memory of the immortal love of Lord Krishna and Radha. The young Krishna would complain to his mother Yashoda about why Radha was so fair and he so dark. Yashoda advised him to apply colour on Radha’s face and see how her complexion would change. In the legends of Krishna as a youth he is depicted playing all sorts of pranks with the gopis or cowgirls. One prank was to throw colored powder all over them. So at Holi, images of Krishna and his consort Radha are often carried through the streets. Holi is celebrated with eclat in the villages around Mathura, the birth-place of Krishna.
Colorful days, solemn rituals, joyous celebrations – Holi is a boisterous occasion! Draped in white, people throng the streets in large numbers and smear each other with bright hued powders and squirt coloured water on one another through pichkaris (big syringe-like hand-pumps), irrespective of caste, color, race, sex, or social status; all these petty differences are temporarily relegated to the background and people give into an unalloyed colorful rebellion. There is exchange of greetings, the elders distribute sweets and money, and all join in frenzied dance to the rhythm of the drums. But if you wanna know how to celebrate the festival of colors to the fullest through the whole length of three days, here’s a primer.
The day of the full moon (Holi Purnima) is the first day of Holi. A platter (‘thali’) is arranged with colored powders, and colored water is placed in a small brass pot (‘lota’). The eldest male member of the family begins the festivities by sprinkling colors on each member of the family, and the youngsters follow.
On the second day of the festival called ‘Puno’, images of Holika are burnt in keeping with the legend of Prahlad and his devotion to lord Vishnu. In rural India, the evening is celebrated by lighting huge bonfires as part of the community celebration when people gather near the fire to fill the air with folk songs and dances. Mothers often carry their babies five times in a clockwise direction around the fire, so that her children are blessed by Agni, the god of fire.
The most boisterous and the final day of the festival is called ‘Parva’, when children, youth, men and women visit each other’s homes and colored powders called ‘aabir’ and ‘gulal’ are thrown into the air and smeared on each other’s faces and bodies. ‘Pichkaris’ and water balloons are filled with colors and spurted onto people – while young people pay their respects to elders by sprinkling some colors on their feet, some powder is also smeared on the faces of the deities, especially Krishna and Radha.