Holi is the festival that welcomes the Spring. Celebrations associated with this occasion are playful and extremely colourful. People come in from playing Holi wet from head to foot and streaked with all the colours of the rainbow. Water balloons and pitchkaris (water guns) are used to drench people or douse them with water; colours are lovingly and mischievously smeared on clothes and faces indiscriminately.
The night before the Holi bonfire is lit and effigies of Holika are burnt. Altogether a great deal of fun is had by all.
The night before the full moon, people gather to light bonfires, signifying a burning away of evil in preparation to welcome a new beginning at spring time. The next day people come out (often dressed in white) to play Holi. Dry colours, water balloons, washable dyes, pitchkaris are used. Very often people wish each other ‘Happy Holi’ whilst stroking colour onto each other’s faces.
A very fun and frolicsome festival, Holi celebrations are enjoyed by everyone privileged to witness and join in with them.
History and Lore
The origins of this festival are shrouded in mystery with different people attributing it to different legends. Some ascribe it to the evil Holika who tried to burn her nephew in the fire but got burnt herself instead. Some say that Krishna used to playfully smear colour onto the face of his wife Radha whilst he was courting her, others speak of the sacrifice of Kama deva, the Hindu version of cupid, who sacrificed himself to stop Shiva’s meditations that were casting the world into chaos.
Some of the more popular Holi legends have been related below:
Hiryankashyap and Prahlad – There once lived a King Hiryankashyap who had an extremely elevated opinion of himself and demanded that everyone in his kingdom worship him rather than any of the gods as he believed himself to be as powerful as them. His son Prahlad however, much to his annoyance became a devotee of Lord Vishnu at a very young age.
Hiryankashyap had a sister named Holika. Holika was quite as unscrupulous as her brother, and she had a boon that allowed her to enter fire unharmed. At her brother’s urging, she persuaded the young prince Prahlad to sit in her lap and then sat in the centre of an immense bonfire.
Unfortunately, she didn’t know that her boon only worked if she entered the fire alone and she was burnt to a crisp. Prahlad meanwhile prayed constantly to Lord Vishnu for deliverance, and thanks to this devotion emerged from the fire unscathed.
Dhundhi the Ogress – There is a tale that speaks of an Ogress, or Rakshasa in southern India who used to scare the children of the village. One day, they decided to get some of their own back at her. They smeared colour across their faces and made grotesque faces at her, scaring her so badly that she left the village, never to return.
Krishna flirting with Radha – Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu was an extremely rambunctious and flirtatious young boy. He fell in love with Radha, who was one of the Gopis or cow herders. Unlike Krishna, Radha was had extremely fair skin. One day Krishna was grumbling to his mother about how he had so much colour in his face whilst Radha had none, so his mother jokingly suggested that he put colour on her face to even things out.
This is exactly what he did. Playfully and laughingly he lovingly smeared her face with every colour of the rainbow, a compliment which she then returned.
Sacrifice of Kama deva – In the early days when the earth was young, Goddess Sati, the daughter of Daksha Prajapati, married Lord Shiva against the wishes of her father. In retaliation, Daksha did not invite her and her new husband to a grand yagya (devotional ceremony) that he had arranged.
Sati, despite the warnings of her husband, went for the yagya anyway believing the lack of invitation to have been a mere oversight. However, she was soon brought to realise that it was a deliberate slight and so committed herself to the fire. Greatly angered by the whole affair, Shiva renounced his worldly duties and went into a deep meditation.
A daughter of the mountains, Parvati also went into meditation at this time hoping to gain Shiva as her husband. Shiva’s neglect meanwhile began to throw the world into chaos. The other gods finally approached Kama deva to shoot Shiva with one of his love arrows and thus end his meditation.
Knowing the risks of this plan, Kama deva nevertheless shot one of his arrows at Shiva’s heart. Disturbed in his meditations, Shiva opened his third eye and reduced Kama deva to ashes. However, he also saw and fell in love with Parvati, took her as his wife and put an end to his self-imposed exile.
A while later, Kama deva’s wife Rati, distraught with grief approached Lord Shiva. She told him that this whole plan had been hatched by the gods because of the growing chaos that his actions had caused and beseeched him to revive Kama deva. This Shiva willingly did.