A visitor to India can be forgiven for thinking that Indians have as many festivals as the days in the calendar. Some are purely religious and some cultural or regional in nature, with a link to ancient legends and mythology. But a few transcend religious, cultural and regional barriers to become a festival that encompasses people from all walks of life and symbolizes the idea of a secular state. One such fun-filled festival, aptly named the ‘festival of colours’ is Holi. It is celebrated on a full moon day in the Hindu month of Phagun or the month of March in the Gregorian calendar.
Origin and legends
Holi started as a spring festival that celebrated the regeneration and awakening of life after the long slumber through the dark winters. The promise of new life in the form of blooming trees and flowers and fresh crops is celebrated with colours, sweets and greetings.
As with most festivals, not just Asian, Holi’s origins can also be traced to mythology, the most popular one being the legend of Prahlad and his aunt Holika.
The story revolves around the devout son of an egoistic demon ruler – Hiranyakashyapu – who is livid at his son Prahlad’s insistence on worshipping Lord Vishnu, one of the trinity Gods of the Hindus, rather than his father. At his father’s command, his aunt Holika who is blessed with the boon of immunity to fire enters it with Prahlad in her lap. The evil Holika, ignorant of the fact, that the boon only works when she enters the fire alone is reduced to ashes while the son, protected by the Lord, escapes unscathed. People celebrate this triumph of goodness over evil with small bonfires across localities on the night before Holi.
Holi is vigorously celebrated in North India compared to the south and other parts of India. It takes on regional hues going by the names of Dulandi, Hola Mohalla, Rangpanchami, Basant Utsav, Dol Purnima, Phagu Purnima, Shimgo,Lathmaar, and Kaman Pandigai
Most of the country sports a festive look with markets loaded with goods catering to the celebrations. Stalls and hand carts filled with colours, flowers, pichkaris or water syringes and balloons can be seen in every street corner.
Some communities make special sweets and edibles like puran polis, gujjias and papri. Holi is also the time of the year when people clean their homes and surroundings, ridding them of old and dirty things. These are thrown into the Holika bonfire, a practice that indirectly improves the sanitation of the localities in question.
Children enjoy this day the most, drenching everyone in sight in coloured water. Funnily enough, people sport pristine white clothes as they go about adding colour to each other faces and clothes. Bosses have no choice but to be lenient the next day when their employees turn up with faint stains of pink or blue on the hair and face.
Last but not the least; Holi is incomplete without the use of Bhang – an opiate derived from the flowers and leaves of the female cannabis plant – and Thandai – a homemade, cooling beverage. Holi is one of the few occasions when the consumption of Bhang is legal with government backing.
Holi is celebrated in India and Nepal. Migrations over the centuries has ensured that the festival is celebrated in Fiji, Surinam, Trinidad and Tabago, Guyana, Mauritius and South Africa. It is also celebrated by the Hindu community in Pakistan and Bangladesh. With significant diaspora across the globe, the festival is celebrated in the US, UK, Canada and Australia among others.
Eco friendly Holi is slowly gaining popularity with initiatives such as the use of natural colours, community bonfires that use waste products rather than wood, and limited use of water.