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Happy Holi: Ancient Legends Behind India's Colorful Celebration

Happy Holi: Ancient Legends Behind India's Colorful Celebration

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Holi is an ancient Indian spring festival that celebrates love, color, and the triumph of good over evil. Traditionally, this was a major Hindu religious festival in North India, but the fun, vibrancy, unity, and joy associated with Holi has spread to non-Hindus in South Asia and various communities around the world.

The Festival of Colors

The popularity of Holi today may be understood when its other name, the ‘Festival of Colors’, is taken into account. One of the features of Holi is the use of colored powders called 'gulal’ and colored water during the festival. Several days before the celebration itself, markets fill with colored powders of every hue for the festival-goers to purchase. While this is the norm today, there are those who still make the colored powders by themselves, usually from flowers or turmeric, in their homes.

A modern Holi festival celebration, India ( Audio Compass )

The vibrant colors of the perfumed powder signify the joy of the arrival of spring and all the new colors blooming in nature. Each of the Holi colors also has a unique symbolism. Red is love and fertility, blue is for Krishna, yellow represents the popular spice turmeric, and green is the renewal of nature and new beginnings. But that doesn’t mean people only throw one color; by the end of the color games most people are walking rainbows of color.

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Don’t Be Offended, It’s Holi!

The coloring of friends and strangers with powder and water is particularly enjoyed by children. Nevertheless, adults also participate enthusiastically in the color fight that begins in the morning of the festival. Some people also believe that all the singing, dancing, shouting, and play of Holi is good for re-awakening and rejuvenating the body after the long winter.

The color fight seems to be the highlight of Holi and provides us with the most recognizable images of the festival. There is a sense of inclusiveness and joy when everyone’s skin is coated in all the vibrant colors.

In fact, during this celebration, social barriers are broken down, and for a short period of time at least, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and people of all castes are all on an equal footing. Nonetheless, there are some people who are not too comfortable with this idea, and the saying ‘ buranamano, Holi hai! ’ (‘Don’t be offended, it’s Holi!’) is meant explicitly for them.

In the tradition of “Braj Lath mar Holi” men living in the Braj region of North India must accept whatever women do to them. One of the common acts is for women to playfully hit the men, who protect themselves with shields. Barasana, India. (gkrishna38/ CC BY 2.0 )

Although the festival of Holi is best known today for its party atmosphere, it also has a religious significance and ancient origins. Holi is referenced in the Vedas, Puranas, and a stone inscription from 300 BC found at Ramgarh. There are also representations of the celebration is sculptures and murals on old temple walls. For example, a temple at Hampi has a 16th century panel depicting a prince and princess about to be drenched in colored water. This is just one of several examples of royalty taking part in Holi celebrations during the medieval period.

The Legend of the Demon King: Good Always Triumphs Over Evil

The Holi festival was originally celebrated within a Hindu context and is still observed on the day after the last full moon of Phalguna, the last month of the Hindu calendar (between late February and early March).

One legend associated with the festival is that of Prahlad and Hiranyakshyap. According to this legend, there once was a powerful demon king by the name of Hiranyakshyap. This demon king resided in Multan and was virtually indestructible, due to a boon granted to him by Brahma.

Hiranyakashipu wielding a mace against Narasimha. ( CC0)

Hiranyakshyap grew arrogant, considered himself a god, and demanded everyone worship him. His son, Prahlad, however, was a devotee of Vishnu and refused to worship his father. As a result, Hiranyakshyap asked his sister, the demoness Holika (it is from her name that we get the word ‘Holi’), for her help to get rid of Prahlad. As Holika had received a boon that made her immune to fire, she went into a pyre with Prahlad on her lap, hoping that her nephew would be burnt alive. Prahlad’s devotion to Vishnu, however, saved him, and the demoness was burnt to death instead.

This story is one of the numerous legends associated with the ‘Holika Dahan’ (‘The Burning of Dahan’), a practice that takes place on the eve of Holi, and is also known as the ‘Chhoti Holi’ (‘Small Holi.’) During the ‘Holika Dahan,’ bonfires are lit to commemorate the deliverance of Prahlad from his evil father and aunt. In many parts of India, an effigy of Holika is also burned on the fire. Thus, the ‘Holika Dahan’ is a reminder that good always triumphs over evil.

Women preparing the Holika Dahan bonfire, Kathmandu, Nepal. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Why Do People Throw Colors at Holi? Thank Krishna and Radha

Throwing colored powders during Holi can be traced back to a legend of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. In the story, Krishna felt embarrassed by his dark blue skin and was afraid that the woman he loved, a gopi, meaning cow-herd girl, named Radha would not accept him. The Hindu deity’s mother told him to color Radha’s face a different color, whichever color he wanted. Krishna was extremely delighted in applying color on Radha and the other gopis and this prank later became a part of the Holi celebration.

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Radha celebrating Holi (1788).

Radha and Krishna also became a couple, thus throwing gulal during Holi celebrates the immortal love of Krishna and Radha. This explains why some have regarded the festival of Holi in a similar light as St. Valentine’s Day . In Vrindavan and Mathura, two cities deeply affiliated with Krishna, the celebration of Holi is spread over a period of 16 days.

For the rest of the world, however, Holi ends at noon. After cleaning up, people take a bath and relax for the rest of the day. In the evening, they visit friends and family, and exchange sweets, symbolizing forgiveness and a new start.

History of Holi: Why do we celebrate the Holi festival?

Holi festival is one of the most popular festivals in India. On this festive day, we join the same event, rich and poor, then all of us. The event begins at dusk on the last full moon night of the month of Phalgun. We start the ceremony with a burnt Holika and the next morning is the Holi festival.

The festival is celebrated in almost all parts of India. Besides, it is celebrated all over the world. This festival is known in various places in India. In India, those days are considered national holidays.

Popular legends behind Holi celebrations

Like every other festival in the country, Holi is also associated with popular legends. These interesting stories recount the history behind various festival rituals.

The story of Holika Dahan

Legend has it that once, there was a powerful king named Hiranyakashipu. He was a devil and was hated for his cruelty. He considered himself to be God and wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship him like one. However, his own son, Prahlada, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu and refused to worship his father. Angry with the disobedience of his son, Hiranyakashipu tried killing his son a number of times, but nothing worked. He then asked his evil sister, Holika, for help. Holika possessed a special power of being immune to fire. So, to kill Prahlada, she tricked him into sitting with her on a pyre. But due to her evil intentions, her power became ineffective and she was burned to ashes. On the other hand, Prahlada gained this immunity and was saved. This is why the first day of Holi is celebrated as Holika Dahan and symbolizes the victory of good over evil.

The story of Radha and Krishna

In the region of Braj (where Lord Krishna grew up) in Uttar Pradesh, Holi is celebrated until the day of Rangpanchmi as a huge festival, in memory of the devotional love of Krishna and Radha. A local legend is associated with this as well. When Krishna was a baby, he acquired a distinctive blue skin colour after drinking the poisoned breast milk of the she-demon, Putana. Later, when he became young, he would often feel sad about whether the fair-coloured Radha or other girls in the village would ever like him because of his dark colour. Giving in to his desperation, Krishna’s mother asked him to go and colour Radha’s face with any colour he wanted to. So when Krishna applied colour to Radha, they both became a couple, and since then, people have started playing with colours on Holi.

Holi: Significance of Holika Dahan

Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire. Hiranyakashyap had a son, Prahlad.

Prahlad was the greatest devotee of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap wanted to kill his son, so he called his sister, Holika. She had a magic robe. This robe had the power to save the wearer from burning in fire. Hiranyakashyap ordered his sister to sit on a burning fire along with Prahlad.

He thought that his sister would not be harmed by the fire because of the magic robe and Prahlad would be burnt to death. But the result was the opposite of what the evil demon king planned. Thus Prahlad came out of the burning fire safely and Holika was burnt to death. It is celebrated with colours to mark the victory of virtue and goodness over evil.

Holi rituals in Braj regions - Mathura, Vrindavan, Gowardhan, Gokul, Nandagaon and Barsana - are the most famous one. The traditional Holi festivity in Barsana Lathmar Holi is world-famous, according to Indiatoday.

Why has Holi become popular outside India?

Holi has become increasingly popular outside of India &mdash in large part because of the millions of Indians and other South Asians living all over the world. As with Diwali, another Indian festival, communities with South Asian heritage living abroad often get together to celebrate Holi.

&ldquoWe want the future generation to be connected to the culture back home,&rdquo says Minal Jaiswal, who moved to London from Mumbai in 2003. Jaiswal organizes a not-for-profit Holi event every year for London&rsquos South Asian community, which features dance performances and short plays on the story behind Holi. &ldquoCelebrating as a community helps parents show their children what this festival stands for.&rdquo

However, some commercial Holi events have faced criticism of cultural appropriation. Many have complained about the gimmicky nature of some events and &ldquocolor marathons&rdquo organized in the U.S. and Europe. Critics accuse organizers of co-opting the famous colored powder used in Holi, while ignoring the religious significance of the festival and turning it into just another raucous party.

“There has been a commodification and exotification of Holi,&rdquo says Shana Sippy, assistant professor of religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. &ldquoIt has been freely used as a money-making enterprise.&rdquo

But some argue that widening the appeal of Holi is good for cultural understanding. Caru Das, who organizes Holi festivals in the U.S., dismisses charges of cultural appropriation and says celebrations are instrumental in bringing people of different cultures together.

&ldquoIn the current climate of deteriorating politics and divisiveness around the world, this is a breath of fresh air in comparison to all the name calling and hate exploding around us,&rdquo says Das, who is a follower of Hinduism, but does not have South Asian heritage.

The Meaning Behind the Many Colors of India’s Holi Festival

If you land in India anytime in late February or March, it’s wise to check the dates of the annual Holi festival, and bring a spare set of clothes. That’s because for a few days in spring, people crowd the streets and splash brilliantly colored dyes on anyone walking by. It’s hard to avoid the fun—and paint—unless you stay inside or look menacing enough to discourage the custom.

“Watch out, madam!” said my taxi driver in Amritsar as we drove through a melee of young people pelting each other with powder.

“The colors never come out of your clothes,” he said. “And you might be having purple hair for many days. It is a complete liability.”

I did a quick check. I was wearing black, a color rarely seen in India. In the caste, or “varna,” system (which in Sanskrit translates as the “color” system), it is usually associated with the lowest categories of social classes, and can be viewed as unlucky. A Forbes study in 2009, which compared corporate logo colors in India with international brands, suggested that black is the one color that companies in India assiduously avoid. I was happy for my clothes to be permanently splattered.

“Can we stop?” I asked. “Or will I make your taxi dirty when I get back in?”

“No, madam, I have a cloth for just this exact purpose,” he said. “And I have some powder I bought for my children. You can have some gladly, to join in our customs.”

Holi represents the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It is also said to be the enactment of a game the Hindu god Lord Krishna played with his consort Radha and the gopis, or milkmaids. The story represents the fun and flirtatiousness of the gods but also touches on deeper themes: of the passing of the seasons and the illusory nature of the material world.

Traditionally the colors used in Holi came from flowers and herbs—which in the hot climate of India tend to produce bright natural dyes—but today they’re usually synthetic. The tub of crimson powder the driver handed me was almost fluorescent holding this as my weapon of choice, I walked into the Holi smoke.

It was mostly yellow, a medieval painting of hell with figures vaguely visible through sulfurous fog. But the gloom was lifted by exuberant puffs of pink, blue and green. To be inside the tinted mist was to enter a delightful, unpredictable world, filled with contagious laughter.

At first people politely avoided the foreigner. But then a girl in a blue-splattered sari ran up giggling and smeared paint on my face. I returned the favor with a handful of pink. After that, nothing was off-limits—legs, arms, hair, clothes—everything was a potential canvas.

With its gorgeous textiles, exotic flowers, exuberant advertising billboards, hand-painted rickshaws and trucks covered with lights, patterns and brightly painted pictures of gods, India is one of the most colorful places on the planet.

But there’s something else to know about colors here. They are not just pretty: In India they have meaning.

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“Your face is blue, madam. Like that of Krishna,” the taxi driver said affably, as he took me back to my hotel.

In Hinduism there are three main deities: Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver. Vishnu spends eternity sleeping, until when called upon in a crisis, he wakes and like the most powerful of superheroes saves the world. 

One name for him is Nilakantha, the blue-necked one, because of a story that he drank a pot of poison to save creation. So blue is a reminder that evil exists but can be contained, through courage and right actions. 

Krishna is a manifestation of Vishnu. His name means “dark,” and like Vishnu he is portrayed with blue skin. 

In addition to being associated with the gods, blue—through the indigo dye—is also historically linked with India. In the first century a. d. the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about “indicum, a production of India,” which “yields a marvelous combination of purple and cerulean [sky blue].”

He suggested that the dye was a kind of slime sticking to the scum on river reeds. It actually comes from a bush with small green leaves that when dried and fermented in a dye vat look pretty scummy, which explains the misunderstanding. 

In Pliny’s time, indigo would probably be shipped to the Roman port of Ostia in the form of hard cakes. It was valuable enough to fake: Pliny reports people selling “indigo cakes” made from dried pigeon dung, stained with just enough genuine dye to pass as real.

Indigo is intensive to process, and has historically been cultivated where labor is cheap. It had a brief heyday on slave plantations in the Caribbean and South Carolina in the 18th century, pricing the Indian plantations out of the market. But when slavery was abolished, the British planted indigo again in Bengal, where weather conditions are ideal. 

Because laborers were subject to abuse, there were two “blue mutinies”—one in 1860 and another in 1917. The second was initiated by the 47-year-old Hindu lawyer Mohandas (later known as Mahatma) Gandhi, as one of his first acts of peaceful civil disobedience against British rule, which finally led to Indian independence in 1947.

If blue is the spiritually complex color of the gods, green is the color of nature and happiness. It’s the color of another manifestation of Vishnu, Prince Rama, who spent most of his life in exile in the forest. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in central India, married women often wear green bangles and a green sari in Rama’s honor a widow, however, never wears green. 

There is no naturally green dye in India, so dyers would often double dip their cottons and silks in indigo and in turmeric or pomegranate peel, which made vivid yellow dyes.

Yellow is also associated with the third caste, of Vaisyas, or merchants. The 3,500-year-old Rig Veda book of sacred hymns refers to Lord Vishnu as tantuvardhan, or weaver, because he is said to have woven the rays of the sun into a garment for himself. He and Krishna are almost always shown dressed in yellow. In paintings of these deities, artists in India sometimes used one of the stranger pigments in history: Indian yellow.

Yellow is associated with the third caste of Vaisyas, or merchants. (Deba Prasad Roy, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, wooden boxes of this strange-scented pigment would arrive at the London docks. When the colormen, whose job was to process and sell paint to artists, picked up the deliveries, they had little idea of how it was made or what it was. Just that it made a fairly good watercolor, even though it was rubbish in oil. 

Perhaps it was urine mixed with turmeric, speculated amateur artist Roger Dewhurst in 1786, writing anxiously to friends, wondering how to make these strange cakes into paint. Or perhaps it was “the urine of camels,” suggested leading colorman George Field. Others thought it might come from snakes, or buffalo.

Then in 1883 a communication was delivered to the Royal Society of Arts written by a Mr. Mukharji of Calcutta (present day Kolkata). He had visited the only place where Indian yellow was sourced—a suburb of Monghyr (now Munger) in Bihar, about 300 miles north of Kolkata, where he watched cows eating mango leaves, and then being encouraged to urinate into a bucket (the process is not unlike milking). But the practice was cruel the restricted diet left the cows thin and malnourished. Within 30 years or so of that letter, the trade in Indian yellow stopped completely, partly because of tougher rules about animal cruelty and partly because new, more stable paints were available, and there just wasn’t the demand. 

I visited Munger in 2001 while researching a book about the stories of colors around the world. My translator had not turned up, and unable to speak more than a few words of Hindi, I acted out a ridiculous charade of cows, urine, mango leaves and paint to a gathering crowd of amused locals. 

It felt insane to think that any trace of this obscure paint might be found. But when the good-natured laughter died down, a young man at the back suddenly said in English: “We do not have this paint. But we do have a mango garden.” 

A crowd of excited, singing children led me to the walled mango orchard. And like an explorer come finally to the source of a river, I knew I was at the place that for years had provided a mysterious yellow to soldier artists of the British Empire and Hindu artists wanting to paint the garments of Krishna and Vishnu the elusive color of sunshine. 

I remember wishing I knew what this oddest of paints had smelled like and thinking I would probably never know. But several years later, in the wonderful, old-fashioned L. Cornelissen & Son art supplies shop near the British Museum in London, I learned that the store still had a few balls of Indian yellow reserved in small batches for conservators who really needed it. 

“Could I sniff?” I asked. The director, Nicholas Walt, opened a jar. It smelled of spices and sunshine and heat and flowers and dust. In a funny way that jar of Indian yellow smelled absolutely of India.

Red is the color of weddings, life and festivals. (Somenath Mukhopadhyay, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)

In 1829, a deserter from the Army of the British East India Company traveling in disguise as an American from Kentucky became the first foreigner to record what he saw in the ruins of Mohenjo Daro, in what was then northern India. 

The deserter, James Lewis (traveling under the alias Charles Masson), was later to become one of Britain’s most dedicated archaeologists. But he didn’t spot this site in the Indus Valley for what it was—the world’s largest Bronze Age urban settlement—and instead thought it was some kind of castle. 

It wasn’t until 1921 that a team of archaeologists did a thorough excavation and, among the artifacts, discovered a fragment of cotton fiber stuck to an ancient silver vase. The fiber most likely had been bright red—or perhaps bright orange or deep purple—and had been dyed from the root of the madder plant. 

Woven 4,300 years ago, it is the oldest piece of decorated cotton cloth ever found. Its presence, together with dye vats from a similar period found nearby, joyfully suggests that ancient India must have been as full of brilliant color as modern India is.

Today brides and married women wear red. It’s the color of weddings and life and festivals and all-around auspiciousness, not just for Hindus but also for Muslims, Buddhists and Jains. 

When a married woman dies, her body is covered with a red cloth, perhaps rather like the one found in Mohenjo Daro, symbolizing her wedding sari. But a woman who becomes a widow never wears red again and at her death is covered in white, the color of purity and renunciation.

Many people in India mark a red dot, or tilak, on their forehead. The red color is called kumkum and is made from turmeric powder, which is yellow except when mixed with lime, which miraculously turns it to scarlet. It is always put on deities, and is a sacred mark of protection. 

“Color is a physical thing: It’s not just a surface,” said the British artist Anish Kapoor in a BBC interview, in explaining his bold use of primary colors. “… It’s that sort of interplay between the ‘stuffness’ of color and its illusory, somewhat evasive, ‘other’ qualities that much of the work is about.” 

You might say something similar about how colors work in India. On the surface, they provide pleasure as well as useful signals of tradition and ritual. But if we’re attentive, colors in India also remind us of that which is easy to forget: the evasive nature of matter, and of our own special relationship with light, whatever that light may be.

Holi Photos Submitted by Our Readers to Our Annual Photo Contest:

Tradition of Holi

Holi is a spring festival to say goodbye to winters. In some parts the celebrations are also associated with spring harvest. Farmers after seeing their stores being refilled with new crops celebrate Holi as a part of their happiness. Because of this, Holi is also known as Vasant Mahotsava’ and ‘Kama Mahotsava .

Nowhere it is celebrated with so much charm and enthusiasm as in Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon – the places associated with the birth and childhood of Lord Krishna. At Barsana Holi assumes the name of Lathmaar Holi. Here, women of Barsana give a tough time to men of Nandgaon as they come to play Holi with them.

In several states of India, specially in the north, effigies of Holika are burnt in the huge bonfires that are lit. There is even a practice of hurling cow dungs into the fire and shouting obscenities at it as if at Holika. Then everywhere one hears shouts of Holi-hai! Holi-hai!’.

Women of Haryana, specifically the bhabhis too get an upper hand on the day as they get a social sanction to beat their devars and take a sweet revenge for all the mischiefs they have played on them. This revengeful tradition is called the Dulandi Holi.

The most enjoyable tradition of Holi, of course, apart from the play of colours is the tradition of breaking the pot . It is celebrated with much fan fair in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Holi is celebrated in the most dignified manner in the state of Bengal. At Vishwa Bharti University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore founded the tradition of celebrating Holi as ‘Basant Utsav’ or ‘Spring Festival’. In other parts of Bengal, Holi is celebrated as Dol Yatra where the idols of Radha and Krishna are placed on a decorated palanquin and taken out in a procession.

The tradition of burning ‘Holika’ is religiously followed in Gujarat and Orissa also. Here, people render their gratitude to Agni, the god of fire by offering gram and stalks from the harvest with all humility.

For Sikhs, Holi calls for the display of their physical strength and military prowess as they gather at Anandpur Sahib a day after Holi to celebrate Hola Mohalla .

In the north east, Manipuris celebrate the festival in a colourful manner for six continuous days. Here, the centuries old Yaosang Festival of Manipur amalgated with Holi with the introduction of Vaishnavism in the eighteenth century. The highlight of the festival here is a special Manipuri dance, called ‘Thabal Chongba’ .

Well, there are many-many more ways in which Holi is celebrated. Different states, different cities and different villages have come out with their unique and innovative styles of playing Holi. It may not be possible to describe all of them at one place. What is noteworthy though is the fact that the spirit of Holi remains the same throughout.

The Evening of Bonfires

Holika Dahan or the lighting of bonfire takes place on the eve of Holi. The day is also popularly called ‘Chhoti Holi’ or the ‘Small Holi’.The bigger event – play with the colour takes place on the next ‘big’ day.

Holika Dahan is an extremely popular tradition and is celebrated with fervour all across the country and is symbolic of triumph of good over evil. There are numerous legends associated with this ancient tradition and it is difficult to pin-point as to when actually the tradition started.

A Brief History
Holikotsav finds a mention in the Vedas and Puranas. It is stated that during the Vedic period the sacred fire of Holi was burnt amidst the chanting of specific mantras which were intended for the destruction of the demonic forces. It is also said that on this very day Vaishwadev oblation commenced in which offerings of wheat, gram and oat were made to the sacrificial fire.

Some scholars believe that Holikotsav is named after fried cereals or parched grains called ‘Holka’ in Sanskrit. These parched grains were used to perform hawana (a fire ritual).The vibhuti (sacred ashes) obtained from this ritual was smeared on the forehead of those who participated in the ritual to keep away evil. This vibhuti is called Bhumi Hari. Till date there is a tradition of offering wheat and oat into the Holika fire.

According to Narad Purana, this day is celebrated in the memory of Prahlad’s victory and the defeat of his aunt ‘Holika’. The legend has it that there once existed a mighty demon king by the name of Hiranyakashyap who wished that everybody in his kingdom should worship him. His son, Prahlad became a follower of Lord Naarayana. Hiranyakashyap instructed his sister, Holika to sit in the burning fire with Prahlad in lap. She was blessed with a boon, as a result of which no fire could burn her. But the opposite happened, Prahlad survived and Holika was charred to death. Thus ‘holi’ is celebrated to commemorate the victory of virtue over evil.

It is because of this event, Holika (a bonfire) is burnt every year on Holi. The burning of the effigy of Holika is called Holika Dahan.

Another legend mentioned in the ‘Bhavishya Purana’ is also considered to be related to the festival of Holi. The legend goes back to the kingdom of Raghu, where lived an ogress called Dhundhi who used to trouble children but was finally chased away by them on the day of Holi. This is said to be the reason why the tradition of Holika Dahan is so popular amongst children and why they are allowed to play pranks on the day.

The Tradition
There is also a specific way in which Holika Dahan takes place. A log of wood is kept in a prominent public place on the Vasant Panchami day, almost 40 days before the Holi Festival. People go on throwing twigs, dried leaves, branches of trees left through the winter besides any other combustible material they can spare, on to that log which gradually grows into a sizable heap. On the day of Holika Dahan an effigy of Holika with child Prahlad in her lap is kept on the logs. Usually, Holika’s effigy is made of combustible materials, whereas, Prahlad’s effigy is made of non-combustible one. On the night of Phalguna Purnima, it is set alight amidst the chanting of Rakshoghna Mantras of the Rig Veda (4.4.1-15 10.87.1-25 and so on) to ward off all evil spirits.

Next morning the ashes from the bonfire are collected as prasad and smeared on the limbs of the body. If spared by the fire coconuts are also collected and eaten.

Metaphorically though, the fire is meant to signify the destruction of evil – the burning of the ‘Holika’ – a mythological character and the triumph of good as symbolised by Prahlad. However, the heat from the fire also depicts that winter is behind and the hot summer days are ahead.
Next day after Holika Dahan is called Dhuleti, when play with colours actually takes place.

Samvatsar Dahan
It may be noted that in some places like Bihar and UP Holika Dahan is also known as ‘Samvatsar Dahan’. The concept of Samvatsar New Year varies in different provinces of our country. In some provinces the month commences from ‘Krishna Paksha’ while in others it commences from ‘Shukla Paksha’. For Krishna Paksha, the year ends on ‘Purnima’ of the month of Phalgun and thus the new year begins the next day – Chaitra, first day of the Krishna Paksha.

Happy Holi: Ancient Legends Behind India's Colorful Celebration - History

Holi is celebrated every year on the night of the full moon that comes in late February or early March and also on the day after the full moon. This year it will be celebrated on March 15-16th.

Holi is a celebration of the beginning of spring and the first harvest of the year.

The Origin of Holi

There are different legends behind the origin of Holi. The most well-known is about the triumph of good over evil.

The story is that in ancient India there was an evil demon king called Hiranykashipu, who wanted everyone to worship him instead of the supreme Hindu god Vishnu. He declared that no one was to worship Vishnu and that if they did, they would be killed. However, the demon king’s son, Prince Prahlad, continued to worship Vishnu. The demon king warned him that if he did not stop he would be killed, but Prahlad continued anyway. The demon king tried to kill him but failed. He tried poisoning him and he tried to have him trampled by elephants, but his son survived. Finally the demon king asked his sister Holika for help. Holika thought she was immune to fire so she took her nephew Prahlad into a big fire. Much to everyone’s surprise, Holika was burnt to death and Prahlad was unharmed.

The name of the holiday Holi comes from the defeat of Holika.

Nowadays, huge bonfires are lit on the night of the full moon of Holi. The fires are supposed to burn away the evil spirits. The bonfires also symbolize the coming warmth of Springtime.

Spraying Village Girls with Colored Powder and Water

To understand the next part of Holi’s traditions, it’s important to know a little about Hindu avatars. In Hinduism avatars are earthly manifestations or reincarnations of the God Vishnu. Krishna is one of the avatars of Vishnu.

Krishna literally means “dark” or “black”. He is called “the dark one” because of his dark complexion. He is also known to be a prankster.

The legend is that Krishna would spray the village girls with colored powder and water. At first they were annoyed at him, but they liked him so much that eventually it became a game and all the boys of the town joined in.

Today in India on Holi you’ll see colored powder in the air. Sometimes it’s mixed with water and everything turns into a rainbow of color.

Krishna and Radha

Many of the village girls were called Gopis which are cowherd girls. Krishna fell in love with one of the Gopis whose name was Radha.

One day Krishna asked his mother why he had such dark skin while Radha was so fair. His mother said to him, why don’t you smear her with color so that she can be any color you want. So he did!

People in India still smear each other with color on Holi. There’s an element of courtship behind this ritual echoing the love between Krishna and Radha. Thus, Holi is also a celebration of the love that comes in the springtime.

Holi is a great festival of color in which there is much dancing, singing and rejoicing. What a happy time it is when spring is in the air!

Many thanks to G.Kavitha for helping me learn about the tradition of Holi in India.

Come visit the Mama Lisa’s World India Page for Songs from India.

This article was posted on Saturday, March 11th, 2006 at 10:47 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Hindi, Hinduism, Holi, Holidays Around the World, India, Languages. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


The colorful festival of Holi is celebrated on Phalgun Purnima which comes in February end or early March. Holi festival has an ancient origin and celebrates the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘bad’. The colorful festival bridges the social gap and renew sweet relationships. On this day, people hug and wish each other ‘Happy Holi’.

Holi celebration begins with lighting up of bonfire on the Holi eve. Numerous legends & stories associated with Holi celebration makes the festival more exuberant and vivid. People rub ‘gulal’ and ‘abeer’ on each others’ faces and cheer up saying, “bura na maano Holi hai”.

History of Holi

Holi is an ancient festival of India and was originally known as ‘Holika’. The festivals finds a detailed description in early religious works such as Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras. Historians also believe that Holi was celebrated by all Aryans but more so in the Eastern part of India. It is said that Holi existed several centuries before Christ. However, the meaning of the festival is believed to have changed over the years. Earlier it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was worshiped.

Story of Behind the Celebration of Holika Dahan

There are numerous mythological explanations that are described in the historical books regarding the death of Holika and its reference for the celebration of Holi. In accordance to those historical explanations Holika was booned by Brahma for not getting any harm from fire or never getting burnt in fire. Following the order of his Brother Hiranyakashyap (who was also the father of Prahlad) Holika sat on fire with Prahladf in order to burn him in fire and let to death. It was Prahlad’s prayers to Lord Vishnu that saved him from burning in fire. It was the protective shawl of Holika that flew to cover Prahlad’s body from Holika who was having it. This is the story behind the celebration of Holika Dahan that is still followed by the people of India.

The Legend of Holika and Prahlad

There was once a demon king by the name of Hiranyakashyap who won over the kingdom of earth. He was so egoistic that he commanded everybody in his kingdom to worship only him. But to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana and refused to worship his father.

Hiranyakashyap tried several ways to kill his son Prahlad but Lord Vishnu saved him every time. Finally, he asked his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. For, Hiranyakashyap knew that Holika had a boon, whereby, she could enter the fire unscathed.

Treacherously, Holika coaxed young Prahlad to sit in her lap and she herself took her seat in a blazing fire. The legend has it that Holika had to pay the price of her sinister desire by her life. Holika was not aware that the boon worked only when she entered the fire alone.

Prahlad, who kept chanting the name of Lord Naarayana all this while, came out unharmed, as the lord blessed him for his extreme devotion. Thus, Holi derives its name from Holika. And, is celebrated as a festival of victory of good over evil.

Holi is also celebrated as the triumph of a devotee. As the legend depicts that anybody, howsoever strong, cannot harm a true devotee. And, those who dare torture a true devotee of god shall be reduced to ashes.

The Legend of Radha-Krishna

Young Krishna is known to be very playful and mischievous. The story goes that as a child, Krishna was extremely jealous of Radha’s fair complexion since he himself was very dark.

One day, Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about the injustice of nature which made Radha so fair and he so dark. To pacify the crying young Krishna, the doting mother asked him to go and colour Radha’s face in whichever colour he wanted.

In a mischievous mood, naughty Krishna heeded the advice of mother Yashoda and applied colour on her beloved Radha’s face Making her one like himself.

Well, there is also a legend to explain Krishna’s dark complexion. It so happened that once a demon attempted to kill infant Krishna by giving him poisoned milk. Because of which Krishna turned blue. But Krishna did not die and the demon shriveled up into ashes.

The Legend of Dhundhi

It is believed that there was once an Ogress called Dhundhi in the kingdom of Prithu (or Raghu). The female monster used to specially trouble little children who became fed- up of her.

Dhundhi, had a boon from Lord Shiva that she would not be killed by gods, men nor suffer from arms nor from heat, cold or rain. These boons which made her almost invincible but she also had a weak point. She was also cursed by Lord Shiva that she would be in danger from boys going about crazy.

Deeply troubled by the Ogress, the King of Raghu consulted his priest. Giving the solution, the priest said that on Phalguna 15, the season of cold vanishes and summer starts. Boys with bits of wood in their hands may go out of their house, collect a heap of wood and grass, set it on fire with mantras, clap their hands, go around the fire thrice, laugh, sing and by their noise, laughter and homa, the ogress would die.

The legend has it that on the day of Holi, village boys displayed their united might and chased Dhundhi away by a blitzkrieg of shouts, abuses and pranks. It is for this reason that young boys are allowed to use rude words on the day of Holi without anybody taking offence. Children also take great pleasure in burning Holika.

Lathmaar Holi

In what is known as the hub of holi in India – Barsana, Holi is known as Lathmaar Holi. Sounds violence?? There is more violece than the name signals off. The stick is in the hands of the women on this day and the men need to work a lot to save themselves from the immensely charged up womenfolk.

The birth place of Lord Krishna’s beloved Radha, Barsana celebrates Holi with extreme enthusiasm as Krishna was famous for playing pranks on Radha and gopis. In fact, it was Krishna who started the tradition of colours by first applying colour on Radha’s face.

Womenfolk, of Barsana it seems, after thousands of centuries want to take a sweet revenge of that prank of Krishna. Even men have not left their mischief and are still eager to apply colour on the women of Barsana.

Following the tradition, men of Nandgaon, the birthplace of Krishna, come to play Holi with the girls of Barsana, but instead of colours they are greeted with sticks.

Completely aware of what welcome awaits them in Barsana, men come fully padded and try their best to escape from the spirited women. Men are not supposed to retaliate on the day. The unlucky ones are forcefully led away and get a good thrashing from the women. Further, they are made to wear a female attire and dance in public. All in the spirit of Holi.

The next day, it is the turn of men of Barsana. They reciprocate by invading Nandgaon and drench the womenfolk of Nandgaon in colours of kesudo, naturally occurring orange-red dye and palash. This day, women of Nadagow beat the invaders from Barsana. It is a colourful site.

Watch the video: India, featuring the Holi Festival of Colours, by David Lazar (June 2022).


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