The festival of Holi ushers in a carnivalesque mood among people of all age groups, every year. While the main festival of colours is officially due in a couple of days, a lot of people in the country have already started indulging in merrymaking. Most of us observe Holi every year, but do you know why we actually celebrate it?
An ancient Hindu festival, which later became popular among non-Hindu communities as well, Holi heralds the arrival of spring after winter. It signifies the victory of good over evil and is celebrated as a day of spreading happiness and love. The festival is also celebrated as thanksgiving for good harvest.
The legend According to Bhagvata Purana, King Hiranyakashipu–the king of demonic Asuras, who could neither be killed by a man or an animal–grew arrogant and demanded that everybody should worship him as god.Photo: Reuters The king’s son, Prahlada, disagreed and chose to remain devoted to Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu was infuriated and subjected his son to cruel punishments. Finally, Holika, the king’s sister, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. While Holika protected herself with a cloak, Prahlada remained exposed.
As the fire blazed, the cloak flew from Holika’s body and encased Prahlada, thus saving his life. Later, Vishnu appeared in the avatar of Narsimha, half man and half lion, and killed the king. This is why Holi begins with the Holika bonfire, which marks the end of evil. According to another legend, Lord Krishna had developed a characteristic blue skin colour after Putana, a demon, poisoned him with her breast milk. Krishna worried if the fair-skinned Radha and her companions would ever like him because of his skin colour. Krishna’s mother then asked him to approach Radha and smear her face with any colour he wanted. The playful colouring gradually evolved as a tradition and later, as a festival observed as Holi, in the Braj region of India.Lathmar Holi. Photo: Reuters
Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with Holika Dahan, where people perform rituals in front of a bonfire, praying for their inner evil to be destroyed, just as Holika was killed in fire. The carnival of colours begins the next morning, where people come out on the streets to play with colours, and drench each other in coloured water through water guns or balloons.
Interestingly, different regions in India observe varied customs on this day. In West Bengal and Assam, for instance, Holi is known as Basanta Utsav or spring festival.Holi in Vrindavan. Photo: Reuters A popular form of Holi, called Lathmar Holi is celebrated in Barsana, a town near Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh, where women beat up men with sticks, as those on the sidelines chant ”Sri Radhey” or ”Sri Krishna.” Again, in Maharashtra, it is the time of Matki Phod (breaking the pot). Men climb on top of each other to form a human pyramid up to the height from which a pot buttermilk is hung. The one who breaks the pot is named the Holi King of the year.
In Vrindavan, widows and estranged women immerse themselves in colours on Holi. Again, in Punjab, Sikhs revel in colours on Hola Mohalla, which is celebrated a day after Holi. The customs and rituals may be different across regions but what unites them is the spirit of this festival of colours.