India is a kaleidoscope of cultures which includes umpteen variations in food, clothing, language, music and religious beliefs. Among the various festivals of India, Holi is an ancient Hindu celebration, which is also referred to as the ‘Festival of Spring’, ‘Festival of Colours’ and ‘Festival of Love’. It is surely one of the most vibrant and fun-filled festivals of India. It is unmatched in terms of fervor, family participation, excitement and enthusiasm. It is celebrated at the end of the winter season, on the full moon day of the Hindu month of Phalgun (February – March).
Most of the people know the historical story associated with Holi so I will cover the story of “Holika Dahan” in brief here. The demon king Hiranyakashipu performed penance for a long time and got a boon from Lord Brahma that he should not be killed under any of the following conditions: in the day or night, inside the house or outside the house, by a man or an animal, in the sky or on earth.
Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlad was a strong devotee of Lord Vishnu. In the face of severe opposition from his father, Prahlad was always absorbed in devotion to Lord Vishnu and he always spoke about God. Hiranyakashipu was not happy with his behaviour so he adopted different means to kill Prahlad but failed every time.
Finally, Hiranyakashipu’s sister Holika’s help was taken. Holika had a boon, whereby she could not be burnt by fire. She took Prahlad in her lap and sat in a blazing fire. Prahlad kept chanting the name of Lord Vishnu and remained unharmed, while Holika got burnt. Thus, Holi derives its name from Holika, and celebrates the protection that God granted to his pure devotee.
Later, Lord Vishnu appeared as Narasingh, having the body of man and the face of a lion (He was neither man nor animal). He killed Hiranyakashipu at the doorway to his house (which was neither inside nor outside the house), at twilight (which was neither day nor night), and by placing him on his lap (which was neither sky nor earth).
So, every year, Hindus light a Holi bonfire and burn old and futile things, just as Holika was burnt a night before Holi.
Celebrations and Colours
Holi figures prominently in the leelas (divine pastimes) of Shri Krishna. As a child, Shri Krishna was very playful and mischievous. He often complained to Yashoda Maiya (his mother) about the difference between his dark skin and Radha’s fair complexion. To appease him, his mother asked him to apply any colour of his choice on Radha’s face. This festival is celebrated remembering this incident, and the divine love between Radha and Krishna.
Shri Krishna popularized the festival in Braj where he applied colour on Radha and the gopis using water jets called pichkaris.
The celebrations gained acceptance and popularity. Slowly, the use of colors and pichkaris in Holi became rampant. This pastime is wonderfully brought alive each year all over India. In fact, the entire country is drenched in coloured water for Holi. On the day of Holi, people enjoy throwing colours on each other. People play Holi with great elation and spray coloured water everywhere. People usually wear white garments on this day. Many sweets are prepared and exchanged.
Traditionally, Holi colours were derived from natural sources and are either particulate powders or liquid splashes. In ancient times, when people started playing Holi, the colours used by them were made from plants like Neem, Haldi, Bilva, Palash etc.
The colours with which Holi is celebrated denotes the various facets of life, moods, emotions, situations, attachments and aversions, spiritual knowledge, seasons and nature.
Within India itself, Holi is celebrated in different ways in different states: the Rang Panchmi in Uttar Pradesh, the Lath-Maar Holi in Barsana and Vrindavan, Ukkuli in the Konkan region, Manjal Kuli in Kerala, Shimga in Maharashtra, Shigmo in Goa, Dola in Odisha, Dol Jatra or Dol Purnima in West Bengal, Kumaoni Holi in Uttarakhand and many other different forms throughout India.
In Vrindaban and Mathura, where Shri Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for sixteen days, as each major temple organizes a Holi celebration on a different day. Over the years it has transcended geographical barriers and is now celebrated with pomp and show in countries like the USA, the UK, South Africa, Malaysia, Fiji and several others that house a significantly large Indian population.
The Holi celebrations in Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Fiji, more popularly known as Phagwah, are just as extravagant as those in India. This festival was brought to Guyana by our East Indian fore parents who first came to Guyana some 176 years ago.
In Guyana, Holi begins a month ahead of time, as Hindus plant castor oil plants ready to burn a month later in the image of Holika.
On the first day of Holi in Nepal, a ceremonial bamboo pole called a ‘chir’ is erected. Strips of clothing are tied to the pole as good luck charms, and it is left up until the end of the festivities where it is added to a bonfire.
Hindus in Pakistan too celebrate Holi much like the Hindus of India. Pakistan has a historical connection with Holi festival too. Prahladpuri Temple is an ancient Hindu temple located in Multan (now in Pakistan), earlier known as Kashyapapur. It is named after Prahlada and dedicated to Lord Narasimha. The temple of Prahladpuri is said to have been built by Prahlada Maharaj in honor of Lord Narasimha.
Holi in the United States is a social event, the most popular celebrations being the NYC Holi in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and at Radha Krishna Temple in Utah. A variety of Holi inspired events are held particularly in the US and Europe: “The Colour Run”, “Festival of Colours Tour” and “Holi One” to name a few.
To further enhance the festive spirit of Holi celebrations, people dance to the rhythm of the dholak and sing traditional folk songs in the loudest possible pitch. Children particularly enjoy the festival as they throw water-filled balloons. In the midst of these colouring games, mouth watering Holi specialties like bhujiya, malpua, matthi, puran puri, dahi bada, etc and downed with glasses full of thandai.
After a vibrant and eventful day, evenings are spent visiting friends and relatives. People exchange sweets and hug each other conveying warm good wishes for Holi. It is an occasion to renew ruptured relationships and absolve oneself of all the wrongdoings and emotional impurities of the past.
But what makes Holi really unique, aside from having a very special significance and style of celebration, is the fact that in spite of it being a Hindu festival, it is celebrated by people of all religions with the same enthusiasm – perfectly symbolizing India’s Unity in Diversity. That’s why it is not only a festival of colours, but also a festival of unity and friendship.