Holi, also called the Festival of Colours, is a popular Hindu festival observed in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and countries with large Hindu populations, such as Surinam, Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, UK, USA, Mauritius, and Fiji. In West Bengal of India and Bangladesh it is known as Dolyatra (Doul Jatra) or Basanta-Utsav (“spring festival”). The most celebrated Holi is that of the Braj region, in locations connected to the god Krishna: Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, and Barsana. These places have become tourist destinations during the festive season of Holi, which lasts here to up to sixteen days.
The main day, Holi, also known as Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing colored powder and colored water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in Andhra Pradesh.
Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna, (Phalgun Purnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March. This Year, Holika Dahan is on February 28 and next day on 1st March, Holi (Dhulandi) would be celebrated.
The spring season, during which the weather changes, is believed to cause viral fever and cold. Thus, the playful throwing of natural coloured powders has a medicinal significance: the colours are traditionally made of Neem, Kumkum, Haldi, Bilva, and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedic doctors.
A special drink called thandai is prepared (commonly made of almonds, pistachious,rose petals etc), sometimes containing bhang (Cannabis indica). For wet colours, traditional flowers of Palash are boiled and soaked in water over night to produced yellow colored water, which also had medicinal properties. Unfortunately the commercial aspect of celebration has led to an increase in the use of synthetic colors which, in some cases, may be toxic.
Rangapanchami occurs a few days later on a Panchami (fifth day of the full moon), marking the end of festivities involving colors.
Holi is one of the major festival of India and is the most vibrant of all. The joys of Holi knows no bound. The festival is celebrated across the four corners of India or rather across the globe. The festival is filled with so much fun and frolic that the very mention of the word ‘Holi’ draws smile and enthusiasm amongst the people. Holi also celebrates the arrival of Spring, a season of joy and hope.
Temples are beautifully decorated at the time of Holi. Idol of Radha is placed on swings and devotees turn the swings singing devotional Holi songs. Now-a-days small plays are organized reflecting the spirit of the festival.
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.)
The Festive License!
Women, especially, enjoy the freedom of relaxed rules and sometimes join in the merriment rather aggressively. There is also much vulgar behavior connected with phallic themes. It is a time when pollution is not important, a time for license and obscenity in place of the usual societal and caste restrictions. In a way, Holi is a means for the people to ventilate their ‘latent heat’ and experience strange physical relaxations.
Why is Holi celebrated?
Now, we should get serious too. We should know why Holi is celebrated.
It is said that Hiranyakashipu who was the king of demons, was granted a boon by Brahma, making it almost impossible for him to be killed. The boon was due to his long penance, after which he had demanded that he must not be killed during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or on sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by any weapon. Consequently, he grew arrogant, and attacked the Heavens and the Earth. He demanded that people worshipping and praying to him only, none else.
Despite this, Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from his father, Prahlada continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. He was poisoned but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and survived. All of Hiranyakashipu’s attempts to kill his son failed. Finally, he ordered young Prahlada to sit on a pyre in the lap of his sister, Holika, who had been blessed that she would not be killed by any burning fire. Prahl
ada readily accepted his father’s orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika, was burnt to death, while Prahlada survived unharmed. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.
When Hiranyakashipu’s anger exceeded the limits, Lord Vishnu came in the form of a Narasimha (who is half-man and half-lion) and killed him at dusk (which was neither day nor night), on the steps of the porch of his house (which was neither inside the house nor outside) by restraining him on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth) and mauling him with his claws instead of using any weapon.
In another story, it is said that in Vrindavan and Mathura, where Lord Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days (until Rangpanchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna). Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the festival by playing pranks on the gopis here. Krishna is believed to have complained to his mother about the contrast between his dark skin complexion and Radha’s fair skin complexion. Krishna’s mother decided to apply colour to Radha’s face. The celebrations officially usher in spring, the celebrated season of love.
There is alternate story detailing the origin of Holi. This story is about Kamadeva, a god of love. Kama’s body was destroyed when he shot his weapon at Shiva in order to disrupt his meditation and help Parvati to marry Shiva. Shiva then opened his third eye, the gaze of which was so powerful that Kama’s body was reduced to ashes. For the sake of Kama’s wife Rati, Shiva restored him, but only as a mental image, representing the true emotional and spiritual state of love rather than physical lust. The Holi bonfire is believed to be celebrated in commemoration of this event.
Holi is a festival of radiance (Teja) in the universe. During this festival, different waves of radiance traverse the universe, thereby creating various colors that nourish and complement the function of respective elements in the atmosphere.
Rituals of Holi
Earliest textual references regarding celebration of Holi have been found the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnavali . Holi has certainly perennial rituals attached to it, the first is smearing of coloured powder on each other, and throwing water, coloured and scented using pichkaris, shaped like giant syringes or squirt guns. Though the festival really begins many days in advance, with ‘Holi Milan’ or Baithaks, musical soirees, where song related to the festival, and the epic love story of Radha Krishna are sung; specially type of folk songs, known as “Hori” are sung as well. Some classical ones like Aaj biraj mein Holi re rasiya, have been present in the folklore for many generations.
Holika Dahan: The Holi bonfire
The main emphasis of the festival is on the burning of the holy fire or Holika. The origin of the traditional lighting of Holi is attributed by some to the burning of demonesses like Holika, Holaka and Putana who represent evil. Traditionally a bonfire on the day of Holi, marks the symbolic annihilation of a demoness Holika. Earlier, some effigy was also put in the fire. But in course of time, the fire is considered to be representative of the victory over Holika. However, in few areas of the Braj region, effigies are still seen on street corners and public squares, piled on top of an assemblage wood. This set to fire after ritualistic worship, and people make pradakshina of the bonfire. The next day this victory is celebrated as the day of Dulhendi. In some practices particularly in the UK, coconuts are thrown into the fire and then pulled out. The burnt husk of the coconut represents Holika who died in the pyre. The white inside represents Prahlad, who was still alive and unaffected by the pyre.
People walk down their neighbors to celebrate Holi by exchanging colours and spraying colored water on one another. A popular activity is the throwing of water balloons at one another,. Also a lot of people mix ‘bhang’ in their drinks and food, as also done during Shivaratri. It is believed that the combination of different colors played at this festival take all the sorrow away and make life itself more colorful. Principal ingredients of celebration are Abeer and Gulal, in all possible colors. Next comes squirting of colored water using pichkaris. Colored water is prepared using Tesu flowers, which are first gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground up, and later mixed with water to produce orange-yellow colored water.
This day is considered to be the happiest and colorful day of the year promoting the brotherhood among the people. This is known as “Holi Milan” in which people visit every house and sing holi song and express their gratitude by applying colored powder (Abeer). Intoxicating bhang is consumed with a variety of mouth watering delicacies such as pakoras and thandai to enhance the mood of the festival. Holi is also considered as the end of the year as it occurs on the last day of last Hindu calendar month Phalgun. People also kickoff for the next year planning with new year Hindu calendar (Panchang) at the evening of Holi.
Dol-Purnima (Rang Panchami), the festival of colour is celebrated with great festivity and joy. On this day, people come out wearing pure white clothes and gather together in a common place where they play it with gay abandon.
In Nepal, Holi is regarded as one of the greatest festivals, as a national festival and almost everyone celebrates it regardless of their religion, e. g., even Muslims celebrate it. Christians may also join in, although since Holi falls during Lent, many would not join in the festivities. The day of Holi is also a national holiday in Nepal.
In Punjab Sikhs celebrate a similar festival known as Hola Mohalla. It is played on grand scale. In fact, the Holi celebration at Anandpur Sahib is famous all around India. Even people from abroad go to Punjab to celebrate Holi in northern style.
Barsana is the place to be at the time of Holi. Here the famous Lath mar Holi is played in the sprawling compound of the Radha Rani temple. Thousands gather to witness the Lath Mar holi when women beat up men with sticks as those on the sidelines become hysterical, sing Holi Songs and shout Sri Radhey or Sri Krishna. The Holi songs of Braj mandal are sung in pure Braj Bhasha.
Holi played at Barsana is unique in the sense that here women chase men away with sticks. Males also
sing provocative songs in a bid to invite the attention of women. Women then go on the offensive and use long staves called lathis to beat men folk who protect themselves with shields. In Mathura, the birth place of Lord Krishna, and in Vrindavan this day is celebrated with special puja and the traditional custom of worshipping Lord Krishna, here the festival last for sixteen days.
In Bengal, we observe the Holi in a different way. On the Dol Purnima day in the early morning, the students dress up in saffron-coloured clothes and wear garlands of fragrant flowers. They sing and dance to the accompaniment of musical instruments like ektara, dubri, veena, etc. Holi is known by the name of ‘Dol Jatra’, ‘Dol Purnima’ or the ‘Swing Festival’. The festival is celebrated in a dignified manner by placing the idols of Krishna and Radha on a picturesquely decorated palanquin which is then taken round the main streets of the city or the village. The devotees take turns to swing them while women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs. All this while men keep spraying colored water and colored powder, abir, at them. The head of the family, observes fast and prays to Lord Krishna and Agnidev. After all the traditional rituals are over, he smears Krishna’s idol with gulal and offers “bhog” to both Krishna and Agnidev. In Shantiniketan, holi has a special musical flavour. Traditional dishes include malpoa, kheer sandesh, basanti sandesh(of saffron),saffron milk, payash,etc.
The people of Orissa celebrate Holi in a similar manner but here the idols of Jagannath, the deity of the Jagannath Temple of Puri, replace the idols of Krishna and Radha.
In Goa, Holi is a part of Goan or Konkani spring festival known as Śigmo. One of the most prominent festivals of the Konkani community in Goa,and the Konkani diaspora in the state of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. Śigmo is also known as Śiśirotsava lasts for about a month, the color festival or Holi is a part of entire spring festival celebrations.
In Western India, Ahmedabad in Gujarat, a pot of buttermilk is hung high on the streets and young boys try to reach it and break it by making human pyramids while the girls try to stop them by throwing colored water on them to commemorate the pranks of Krishna and cowherd boys to steal butter and ‘gopis’ trying to stop them. At this time the men soaked with colours go out in large procession to mock alert people of the Krishna who might come to steal butter in their homes. The boy who finally manages to break the pot is crowned the Holi King of the Year for that community.
In Maharashtra, Holi is mainly associated with the burning of Holika. Holi Paurnima is also celebrated as Shimga. A week before the festival, youngsters go around the locality, collecting firewood and money. On the day of Holi, the firewood is arranged in a huge pile at a clearing in the locality. In the evening, the fire is lit. Every household makes an offering of sweets and a complete meal to the fire god. Puran Poli is the main delicacy and children shout ” Holi re Holi puranachi poli “. Shimga is associated with the elimination of all evil. Fun of playing with colours traditionally takes place on the day of Rangapanchami unlike North India where it is done on the second day itself.
Manipur in northeastern part of India celebrates Holi for six days. Introduced in the eighteenth century with Vaishnavism, it soon merged with the centuries-old festival of Yaosang. Traditionally, the festival commences with the burning of a thatched hut of hay and twigs. Young children go from house to house to collect money as gifts on the first 2 days. The youths at night perform a group folk dance called ‘thaabal chongba’ on the full moon night of Phalgun along with folk songs and rhythmic beats of the indigenous drum. However, this moonlight party now has modern bands and fluorescent lamps. In Krishna temples, devotees sing devotional songs, perform dances and play with ‘gulal’ wearing traditional white and yellow turbans. On the last day of the festival, large processions are taken out to the main Krishna temple near Imphal where several cultural programs are organized.
In South India, in Mattancherry area of Kochi, there are 22 different communities living together in harmony. Moreover, the Gaud Sarawat Brahmins (GSB) who speak Konkani also celebrate Holi in Cherlai area of West Kochi. They locally call it as Ukkuli in Konkani or Manjal Kuli in Malayalam. It is held around the majestic Konkani temple called Gosripuram Thirumala temple. Holi is also celebrated at some colleges in south.
In Karnataka, Holi is celebrated with much fervor. Schools and colleges declare holiday that day and in Bangalore 2009 some MNC’s like Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant Technology Solutions had declared holiday for Holi.Children, Adults alike play Holi. There is also a tradition followed in rural Karnataka, where children collect money and wood for weeks prior to Holi, and on Kamadhanam all the wood is put together and lighted.
What is remarkably same across the country is the spirit of Holi. Fun, frolic, boisterousness to the extent of buffoonery marks this festival of colors. What more can be expected- when the people get a social sanction to get intoxicated on the bhang, open not just their hearts’ out but also their lungs. And viola, nobody is expected to take offence too, as the norm of the day is, ‘Bura na mano Holi hai’
Let’s celebrate Holi with everyone, irrespective the caste, colour and creed – it is the most important message of this great festival that we must forget our past enmities and hug each other with love.
Be Happy – Celebrate Holi. .