Holi, the festival of colours that depict victory of good over evil is a very popular Hindu festival celebrated with great fanfare and zeal across India and Nepal. This festival falls in the month of Falgun in the Hindu calendar that corresponds with the period sometime in the month of February/March. It is observed for two days - the first day being the Holika Dahan when people gather around a bonfire at night and perform rituals praying and hoping to destroy all their internal evils with fire. The second day takes the shape of a carnival when people come together and colour each other with gulal or abir, savour special drinks and sweets sometimes intoxicated with bhang and celebrate the day as Rangwali Holi.
History & Origin
This age old festival of Holi finds its place in the Puranas that encompass a wide range of traditional lore, legends and myths, many of which are associated with Hindu deities. Holi also finds a place in the Sanskrit prose 'Dasakumara Charita' linked with famous Sanskrit grammarian and author of prose romances, Dandin and also in 'Ratnavali', a Sanskrit drama of the 7th-century about a beautiful princess. Famous Classical Sanskrit writer and poet Kalidasa, who is considered to have lived around the 4th century during reign of Chandragupta II also mentioned about the festival.
Holi is associated with several legendary stories. The two most popular ones are recounted here.
As per the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, once lived a demon King Hiranyakashipu who ruledover Multan. He was granted a boon by Brahma following his years of severe penance that literally made him immortal. After achieving such boon he began to consider himself as God and in arrogance forced people to only worship him. His son Prahlada was however a devotee of Lord Vishnu and continued to pray Him in spite of his father's instruction which infuriated the King. To make Prahlada obey his instructions, Hiranyakashipu punished the boy cruelly in several ways however every time the boy remained unaffected. Hiranyakashipu's evil sister Holika then deceived Prahlada and made him sit on her lap while she sat on a pyre covering herself with a cloak to remain protected. However as the pyre was put on fire her cloak flew from her body and covered the little boy. Soon Holika burned to ashes while Prahlada remained unaffected. This angered Hiranyakashipu even more who smashed a pillar from which Lord Vishnu appeared in the avatar of Lord Narasimha and disembowelled the demon King with his sharp fingernails and killed him. Thus Holika Dahan observed on the night of the first day of the festival is a symbolic representation of the legend that marks the victory of good over evil and till present many worshippers apply the ash on their forehead on the next day. With time gulal or abir that is coloured powder became a part of Holy celebration.
According to another legend, the colour of Lord Krishna's skin became dark blue after the demon Putana breastfed baby Krishna with her poisoned milk. When he grew up as a youth, Lord Krishna became upset that he will not be liked by Radha who had a fair skin and by other girls. To relieve him of such apprehensions and agony Lord Krishna's mother asked him to colour Radha's face with any colour of his choice, which he did. Gradually Radha and Lord Krishna became associated with each other and such bonding remained for eternity. Eventually people began to copy this act as a mark of love and friendship rubbing colours to each other that soon took shape of a tradition as a festival of colours.
Significance of Holi
Holika Dahan is observed on the previous night of Rangwali Holi and symbolises the victory of good over evil. This ritual symbolises getting oneself rid of all internal evils and past sins. It also marks a time when people meet each other, settle and clear up old conflicts by letting go off past grudges and grievances and start afresh in life with all. Many also forgive old debts at this time.
In Brijbhoomi, the land of Lord Krishna, Holi is celebrated for sixteen days to commemorate the eternal love of Radha and Lord Krishna. The festival which is celebrated on the last full moon day or Purnima of the Hindu calendar month of Falgun that corresponds with February/March of the Gregorian calendar marks the end of winter season and the commencement of spring.
In some parts of India this festival also marks the beginning of a new year for many Hindus. It is also observed as thanksgiving for good agriculture and harvest.
Rituals & Traditions
This vibrant festival is usually celebrated for two days with Holika Dahan performed on the night of the first day. For this ritual people set up a pyre in open spaces, a few days ahead of the festival by collecting twigs and other inflammable materials. An effigy is set on the top of the pyre that symbolises the demon, Holika. People aflame the pyre on the first night of the festival symbolising and commemorating the legend of burning of the demon Holika. They gather around the bonfire and celebrate the ritual amidst singing and dancing. After the ashes cool down the next day, many rub it on their forehead as an act of good omen.
Rangwali Holi also referred as Dhuli, Dhulandi or Dhulheti is celebrated on the second day. Both young and old participate in this festival of colours with applying gulal (solutions of coloured powders) and abir (dry coloured powders) on each other. Family, friends, relatives, neighbours and acquaintances all come together to play and target each other with colours, coloured water filled balloons and pichkaris (water guns) and enjoy the morning in a playful and party mood along with savouring special Holi delicacies including homemade drinks and sweets often intoxicated with bhang, an ingredient made from the leaves of cannabis, thus making the festival a grand and colourful event.
An atmosphere of positive energy and bonding prevails. Re-uniting with old friends and making new ones has also become an integral part of this festival. The festival also brings with it a message of love commemorating the eternal bonding of Radha and Lord Krishna. In the evening people visit relatives and friends, greet each other and exchange sweets.
Holi Celebration Across India
As India is a country of diverse culture and tradition, Holi is celebrated in unique ways in different parts of the country. Apart from the usual traditions and rituals of Holi many places observe some age-old traditions that are quite engaging, interesting and eye-catching.
In the region of Brijbhoomi a playful tradition is followed with men running around with shields and women chasing and beating their shields with sticks.
In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, boys gather and form a human pyramid to break pot of buttermilk hung several feet above the ground while girls throw coloured water on them in an act to stop them thus commemorating the legend of Lord Krishna stealing butter with cowherd boys in His boyhood.
The Sikh populace of Anandpur Sahib organises martial arts programs and competitions, acrobatic displays and wrestling tournaments during this time.