After bidding goodbye to the cosy winters, the onset of spring welcomes us with the daylight; the leaves on the trees, long evenings and the inevitably exciting Holi festival, celebrated all over India. This festival of Love, abundant Colors, Delicacies and Joy is celebrated on the full moon day (Purnima) in the month of Phalgun (February-March). It is marked as a national holiday in India and Nepal and a regional holiday in other countries.
It is not just the most revered Hindu festival wherein people throw coloured water on each other but also the day when people get to unite together forgetting all resentments and all types of bad feelings towards each other. On this one day only, the license is given for the usual rankings of caste, gender, status, and age to be reversed. However, at its conclusion, the ordered patterns of society are reasserted and renewed.
Holi festival is a festival that celebrates the agriculture, commemorates good spring harvests and the fertile lands. To many Hindus, the festival of Holi marks the beginning of the New Year as well as an occasion to reset and renew ruptured relationships, end conflicts and rid themselves of accumulated emotional impurities from the past.
Amanta and Purnimanta are 2 ways of reckoning the lunar month. According to the purnimanta reckoning, Phalguna purnima was the last day of the year and the New Year heralds the spring season. It was much in vogue in earlier days and this perhaps explains the other names of this festival like Vasanta-Mahotsava.
It is mentioned in ancient religious books like in Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya Sutra. The Holi festival has a detailed description in the Vedas and Puranas such as Narad Puran and Bhavishyapuran.
A stone inscription belonging to 300 BC found at Ramgarh in the province of Vindhya has the mention of Holi celebration. King Harsha, to has mentioned about the Holi festival in his work Ratnavalialongwith. The famous Muslim tourist – Ulbaruni is known to have mentioned about it in his memoirs.
References are also found in the sculptures on walls of old temples. In a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, a painting depicts a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids waiting with pichkaris to drench the Royal couple with coloured water. The similar theme of vasantaragini – spring song or music, is seen in a 16th century Ahmednagar painting.
A Mewar painting shows the Maharana bestowing gifts on some people, a merry dance is on, and at the center a tank is filled with coloured water. Also, a Bundi miniature shows a king seated on a tusker and from a balcony above gulal is being showered on him. It is believed that the great Sanskrit poet Kalidas was the first to write about Holi.
Renowned poets like Surdas, Nand-das, Kumbhan-das and others have picturesquely described how Lord Krishna played Holi with the gopies.
A symbolic legend explains why Holi is celebrated as a festival of triumph of good over evil in the honour of Hindu God Vishnu and his devotee Prahlada. King Hiranyakashipu, according to a legend found in chapter 7 of Bhagavata Purana was the king of demons and had earned a boon that gave him five special powers: he could be killed by neither by a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night.
Do you know what made Hiranyakashiyap go mad?
Thinking himself to be the God, Hiranyakashipu grew arrogant and demanded that everyone must worship only him.
However his own son, Prahlada disagreed. He remained undeterred and devoted to Vishnu in spite of being subjected to excruciating punishments unimaginable to bear when it comes to an ordinary mortal.
This infuriated Hiranyakashipu. Arrogance had turned the King’s heart into stone, so driven mad by his unflagging supercilious nature, he decided to kill his own son.
Finally, Holika, Prahlada’s evil aunt, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. Holika was wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada was not. As the fire soared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada, who survived while Holika turned to ashes.
Vishnu, the god who appears as an incarnation to restore Dharma in Hindu beliefs, took the form of Narasimha and killed the king by surpassing the boons acquired by him. The Holika bonfire and Holi signifies the celebration of the symbolic victory of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.
In the Braj region of India, where Lord Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated until Rang Panchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna. As per a local legend, when Krishna was a baby, he developed the dark colour tinge on his skin because the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk.
As he grew young, Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha or other girls of the village would like him because of his dark skin colour. His mother, tired of his desperation, asks him to approach Radha and ask her to colour his face in any colour she wanted. This she did, and Radha and Krishna became a couple.
Ever since the playful colouring by Radha on Krishna’s face is also considered as a celebration of Holi.
The Bengali “Dolyatra” marking the final celebration of a Bengali year, popularizes the tale of Krishna, as a boy, drenching girls with water and colours as a sport. Soon, the other boys in his village started participating and somehow, it became a tradition to throw colours and water on each other on this special day.
As Krishna grew, the game came to signify the colourful and eventful love story of Radha and Krishna. This tradition has transpired through ages to signify the festival of colours across the globe, with its origin solely in the Hindu mythology.
The legendary significance of Holi, particularly in South India, is also linked to a story when Lord Shiva performs yoga and goes into deep meditation. Goddess Parvati seeks help from the Hindu God of love – Kamadeva, on Vasant Panchami in order to bring back Shiva into the world.
Then the love god shoots arrows at Shiva, he opens his third eye and burns the Kama to ashes. This upsets both Kama’s wife Rati and Goddess Parvati. Rati performs her own meditative asceticism for forty days, upon which Shiva understands, forgives out of compassion and resurrects the god of love.
However, Kamadeva was brought to life only as a mental image. This return of the god of love is celebrated on the 40th day after Vasant Panchami festival like Holi.
The festival has traditionally been also observed by several non-Hindus. In Mughal India, Holi has celebrated with such exuberance that people of all castes threw colours on the Emperor. Grand celebrations of Holi were held at the Red Fort, where the festival was also known as Eid-e-gulaabi or Aab-e-Pashi.
But Emperor Aurangzeb banned this celebration. Bahadur Shah Zafar himself wrote a song for the festival, while few other poets cherished it in their writings.
Sikhs have traditionally celebrated the festival, at least through the 19th century, with its historic texts referring to it as Hola. Guru Gobind Singh – the last guru of the Sikhs – modified Holi with a three-day holamohalla extension festival.
Rituals of the ancient festival of Holi are religiously followed every year with care and enthusiasm. Days before the festival people start gathering wood and other inflammable things for the lighting of the bonfire called Holika at the major crossroads throughout cities across India.
On this day, known as “Choti Holi”, an effigy of Holika and Prahlad is placed on the huge heap of woods. The heap is set alight and the people chant certain Mantras to cast away the evil spirits. Leftover ashes are collected by people the next morning and are smeared on the limbs of the body as Holi Prasad. The puja is performed in a different manner in different communities.
The next day is called Dhuleti or Charandi which is the main day of celebration, meant for pure enjoyment. Entire streets and towns turn red, green and yellow as people throw coloured powder into the air and splash them on others. Each colour carries meaning.
Water guns are used to squirt water, while balloons filled with coloured water are also flung from rooftops. If anybody stares, there’s a ready answer, ‘Buranamano Holi hai..’ evoking a smile on the irritated face. There is total wildness as people dance to the rhythm of dholak, sing traditional folk songs and Bollywood Holi numbers in loudest possible pitch.
The mouth-watering holi specialities like gujiya, malpuas, mathri, puranpoli are savoured and gulped down the throat with glasses full of thandai and the traditional bhang.
After playing with colours during the day, people clean themselves up, bathe, sober up and get dressed. They then visit their relatives and friends and greet them as a conclusion to the festival.
The special grandeur of Holi in Braj is no less worthy than the seven wonders. Braj is a historical region which includes Mathura, Vrindavan and other nearby areas closely connected with Lord Krishna. This festival continues here with fervour for around a week. One might have to visit at least twice in order to witness and experience each and every event at all the villages.
The formal beginning of the festival begins with people of Nandgaon inviting the people of Barsana for celebrations. It is called Phag Amantran Utsav. Laddoo Holi is played in Barsana the same day at the Shriji temple, dedicated to Radharani. Bright yellow Bundi ke Laddoos are thrown at each other by a massive number of devotees in the temple. The place is full of yellow colour – the favourite colour of Krishna.
It is said that Lord Krishna, along with his troop, used to come to Barsana to play Holi with Radhaji and then Radha Ji and her friends would chase them away using bamboo sticks. This has become a ritual now. The women of Barsana try to shove off the men of the region. The men try to immerse the ladies in colours as well while keeping in mind to save themselves from the sticks. The atmosphere is filled with fun, frolic and love- all in the name of Holi.
Being the mild version of Lathmaar Holi, it is celebrated in Gokul on the day after Ekadashi. It might be so as Gokul is the village where Vasudeva brought Lord Krishna at night after his birth and so, here, he continues to be treated like an infant.
A few days before Holi, there is around 20-25 minutes ceremony at Banke-Bihari temple wherein, flowers are showered on the devotees by the Goswamis. Everyone individually drenches their soul in the fragrance of love, devotion, gratitude through those petals. It appears like a movie-scene.
A noble initiative started by Sulabh International in 2013 has broken the stereotypes with respect to widows. Now, the widows at Pagal Baba Ashram and widows all over the region gather at the Gopinath Temple in Vrindavan to play with colours and flowers. In Mathura also, a special event is organized solely for them.
It occurs everywhere in Brijmandal and people put a lot of cow dung cakes in the fire. There is also a belief that Falen (in Kosi, Mathura) is the village of Prahalad and the panda (priest) actually chants his name before crossing through the giant fire. This fire is surrounded by hundreds of people watching him, as the priest comes out unharmed.
This surpasses all the chills and thrills. Apart from that, a huge effigy is also burned in the Holi Ghat. One should give up all the bad in the fire and start anew.
This big day represents Color play! The whole Braj area gets united to celebrate Holi. The people throw rich colours ‘Abir’‘ Gulal’ at each other and immerse them in a splash of colours with water missiles! The chants of Happy Holi and traditional folk songs can be heard in the streets and Holi Tolis (group) is seen in a mischievous mood. No differences, no distance just fun and good cheer everywhere. Really, the Braj Holi is just the best.
Huranga literally means riot and Daujika Huranga is a total riot in all sense. If by any chance a man gets in front of the women, it is rare to hear that one escapes getting stripped. It is celebrated in the Baldeo region of Mathura at the temple of Dauji (elder brother of Krishna). This centuries-old tradition was started by the women of the family who built the temple.
To mark the festivities, plays and skits are organized on the streets by the locals of Braj, who enact stories from the Hindu mythology.
In Mukhrai, the village of Radha’s maternal grandmother, Charkula dance is performed on Chaitra Krishna Dwitiya. When Radha was born, her Nani (Mukhrai) lit up the lamps on the chariot wheel and danced with it on her head.
A colourful and melodious Holi procession starts at vishramghat and ends at Holi Gate. In this procession, around ten vehicles, decorated with beautiful flowers and other stuff are brought down on the road. In these vehicles, some kids are present, who are dressed as Radha and Krishna while some are dancing on the open decks of the backside of the trucks, and they are paraded across the city.
People sprinkle colours on each other, sing songs and relish bhang- laced thandai. It’s a delightful scene to witness. Around 3 pm this procession is at its peak. The process of Bhang-making is also witnessed at the vishram ghat early in the morning.
Before the temple gates open for the festivities, the crowd is seen outside well in advance colouring each other. After special prayers are performed, priests are seen playing Dhols, and one can join the dancing crowd inside the temple complex.
The atmosphere is much friendlier and the devotees are seen in large numbers dancing and playing Holi with the Lord in a grand way, full of zeal and enthusiasm.
Phaguwa is a tradition, followed by several communities, where women celebrate the first Holi after marriage at their parent’s place and the brothers-in-law or husbands go to them with gifts for playing Holi. It is generally carried on Chaitra Krishna Pratham.
Not only the people there but also a lot of foreigners and members of ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) with great alacrity participate in the vibrant celebrations at Mathura- Vrindavan. This joyous festival celebrates the eternal love of Radha and Krishna.
There is a particular élan in the way Holi is celebrated in the state of West Bengal. The high point is the celebration of “Basant Utsav” in which boys and girls joyfully welcome spring with colours as well as songs, dance, chanting of hymns in the serene ambience of Shantiniketan.
Here, Holi is also known as “dolyatra or Dol Purnima” which is celebrated with immense pomp and dignity. The idols of Radha and Krishna are placed on a decorated palanquin and taken out for a procession. Generally, the Grihapati or gamily head observes fast and prays to Lord Krishna and Agnidev.
Celebrated with much fan fare, here, a pot of buttermilk is hung high on the streets. Trained groups – Tolis, form huge pyramids to break the pot of buttermilk hung high on the streets. The winners are crowned as Holi Kings. Adding to the enthusiasm is the steady flow of color water on the aspiring kanhayias by the other people.
The mischievous Lord Krishna used to steal his favourite buttermilk from every house in the village. To hide the butter from young Krishna, womenfolk started hanging the pots high, but all went in vain!
People of Maharashtra also recognize Holi by the name of “Rang-Panchami” or “Shigma”. In Dwarka, a coastal city of Gujarat, Holi is celebrated at the Dwarkadeesh temple which depicts Krishna as the King of Dwarka. Comedy and music take place citywide. Holi also marks the agricultural season of Rabi crop.
The capital of “Rangeelo Rajasthan”, the pink city- Jaipur is no way behind when it comes to Holi celebrations. The oldest temple in the city – Govind dev Ji temple, has the celebrations for more than a week. In the magnificently decorated temple, devotees play Holi with colours, flowers and sandalwood powder.
Also, few events are held such as Raas Leela in the temple premises. Thousands of people gather to see the “Elephant festival” held during Holi, wherein there is a musical procession of groomed and beautifully ornamented elephants.
Sikhs, known for their love for life, celebrate Holi in their own style. At Punjab, they call it “Holla-Mohalla”. They shout their hearts out following a peculiar tradition. Besides, they also exhibit their physical strength especially ‘wrestling’ and enjoy themselves with the colours in the evening.
Mouthwatering halwas, puris, gujias, a preparation of raw jack fruit and malpuas are an essential part of the festivities. The community feast (langar) is open throughout the day. The only difference is that they do not light a bonfire. Holi fairs are also held which continue for days.
In the Barpeta region of Assam, the 3-5 days “Doul festival” celebration is carried on by the devotees of Lord Krishna. There are many rituals including the burning of the clay huts, playing with colours and music and so on.
In Manipur, old Yaosang festival is amalgamated with Holi. People play gulal with each other in front of the Krishna temples during this 6 days festival ending with a procession towards the main Krishna temple at Imphal.
In Uttarakhand, it is celebrated as Kumaoni Holi with classical ragas, whereas, in Bihar, people traditionally clean their houses and then celebrate the festival. In South India, people worship the God of love- Kamadeva.
The Banjara tribes of Andhra Pradesh perform graceful dances. The women of Haryana practise a sort of lathmarholi to take sweet revenge from their brothers-in-law for all their mischiefs.
The Bhils of North-West India have their own special ways to mark the festival. When the Holika fire is lit, loud cries of Holimata rent the sky to a boisterous shake. The exhilarating Holi celebrations in Delhi often begin with a Tilak and moreover the capital is perceived to have a musical Holi.
There are extravagant and booming Holi parties with sumptuous delicacies. The heavenly Jammu and Kashmir has the same spirit of craziness for Holi, which brings back the joy in the lives of the people. In some parts of India like Orissa, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Holi has become increasingly popular outside of India as well because of the millions of Indians and other South Asians living all over the world. Various Holi and colour events are organized in the U.S, London, Europe and New York. Holi is also observed by the minority Hindus in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Canada, Australia, and Mauritius and so on.
The Holi festival has a cultural significance among various Hindu traditions. The various legends associated with Holi reassure the people of the power of the truth and pious conduct in their lives, wherein God always takes his true devotee to his abode.
Udaat gulal laal bhaya,
Ambar barsaat rang apaar re,
Ghat ke sab pat khol diye hain,
Lok-laaj sab dar re,
Mira ke prabhu Girdhar Nagar,
Charan kanwal balihaar re..
Here, the devotional Meera says that Holi means to forget all the customs, hypocrisies and pseudo modesty, self-analyze ourselves and affectionately surrender to the Lord.
Holi helps to bring the society together and strengthen the secular fabric of our country for the festival is celebrated by non-Hindus also. Everybody celebrates together with the feeling of bonhomie and brotherhood.
It is natural for the body to experience some tardiness due to the change from the cold to the heat in the atmosphere. To counteract this, people sing loudly and their movements are brisk. All of this helps to rejuvenate the system of the human body. Biologists believe the liquid dye penetrates the body and enters into the pores which strengthen the ions in the body and add health and beauty to it.
Are you aware of the scientific reason behind celebrating Holi?
The mutation period of winter and spring induces the growth of bacteria in the atmosphere as well as in the body. When Holika is burnt, the heat from the fire kills the bacterias.
More natural ways of celebrating Holi are being proposed in order to de-pollute Holi and make it sync with nature. We must try using Natural or home-made colours instead of toxic colours with chemicals that not only harm the environment but also are dangerous for skin and eyes.
The wastage of the staggering amount of wood that takes place during Holi Dahan must be controlled by lighting small bonfires or using waste materials. Water does provide relief in the warm season but the urban areas going several days without water must be kept in mind while throwing buckets full of water.
It is true that colouring something gives life to it and so is this glorious festival which compels one to plug into the dreamy world of colourful rainbows. Holi is the festival that lets you lose your hair and enjoy your hidden crazy self. Also, known as the ‘Festival of Love’, this joyous festival celebrates the eternal love of Radha and Krishna.
However, several crimes in recent times committed by some sick-minded people tarnish this otherwise glorious festival, especially when it comes to young girls and children. This needs to be changed to the once safe and happy Holi. The saint Kabir also mentions in his verses that Holi is a time to paint one’s soul in the hues of the Lord.
Nonetheless, as a festival, Holi has always been about breaking boundaries, increasing the sense of brotherhood among people and reviving estranged ties and thus, bringing back colours, excitement, zest, vigour and buoyancy to our monotonous lives.