Edited by: Tanisha Sehgal
A celebration of the beginning of spring, because of which this cupid festival is also called “Ratnavali”, Holi is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in India. From Mathura to Pushkar and Agra to Hampi, it is celebrated with great joy and immense enthusiasm. It is used to mark the harvest of the winter crops grown in various regions.
Holi is of great importance not just religiously, but also because of the joy, peace and equality it brings to the people of the country. Although primarily a Hindu festival, Holi is played by people of various religions, castes and creeds, and the masses seem to forget all human divides.
Like every other festival, Holi is also celebrated for certain reasons. There are various stories and legends behind Holi to explain the practices that take place on this day. Before I outline the above mentioned tales, here is a little background information. On the eve of Holi, the Holika Dahan takes place – a bonfire meant to represent the burning away of evil and bad things as good emerges victorious over evil. The day of, celebrations take place in the form of pujas, sweets and the famous colour and water fights in the streets of neighbourhoods across the country.
So what are the stories behind this legendary festival?
The Demoness Holika
Holika was the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashyap, and is believed to be the namesake of the festival of Holi. The legend goes like this: Hiranyakashyap was blessed with five magical protections, causing him to believe himself to be the almighty ruler of the universe and forcing his subjects to worship him as such. However, his son Prahlad refused to do so, and worshipped Lord Vishnu, the protector and preserver of the universe. This angered the king, and he plotted to kill his son. He made several attempts, and the last one led to his ultimate demise.
Holika, his sister, owned a magical shawl that prevented her from burning. The plan was that she would sit in a fire with Prahlad on her lap, and while the shawl would protect her, her nephew would burn to death. However, Prahlad was a devout follower of god Vishnu, and the god protected him from the flames, while killing Holika. He also went on to kill Hiranyakashyap and crown Prahlad king.
This story is the most famous legend that surrounds the festival. The Holika Dahan, named after the demoness, represents the triumph of good over evil, as the evil Holika is burned and Prahlad survives.
The Burning Of Kamadeva
God Shiva went into a state of deep meditation after he lost his consort Sati, causing the world to fall into a state of chaos. Sati was reborn as the goddess Parvati, who needed to win the god’s love and restore normalcy in the world. After most of her efforts went in vain, Parvati approached Kamadeva, the god of love and desire. Kamadeva made a decision to shoot god Shiva in his heart – this act led to the Destroyer opening his third eye and incinerating Kamadeva on the spot – however, it had the intended effect of brining Shiva out of his stupor, which allowed Parvati to approach him. All was right in the world after that. (Not really, but it was at that moment).
It is believed that Kamadeva burned on the day of Holi. To honour him, many places in South India celebrate Holi. They bring mango blossoms to the idols of the deity, and apply sandalwood to ease the burns he suffered.
Radha-Krishna: A Love Story
The celebrations of Holi are marked by the famed colour fights. The tale behind this is much more profound than it seems.
Lord Krishna is the god of love and compassion, and well known for his dark complexion. He is depicted to have dark blue skin, caused by the intake of a demon’s poison as a child. However, he was very conscious of his dark skin, and went to his mother Yashoda regarding the same, because he was in love with a girl – the beautiful, fair Radha, and he feared that she would dislike him because of his complexion. His mother suggested that he smear colour on Radha’s skin to a different colour as he pleases. Young Krishna took this advice literally and playfully coloured Radha’s skin to be like his. It certainly wasn’t this act that made Radha fall in love with him – fortunately, the young god did get the girl.
This legend is the origin of the colours of Holi – people colour their loved ones much like Krishna coloured Radha.
The Invincible DhunDi
Dhundi was an ogress who terrorized the kingdom of Raghu. She was said to be invincible, except for one Achilles’ heel – wild, mischievous young boys. Due to the distress caused to his people, the king of Raghu, on the advice of a priest, ordered all the boys to light a bonfire and dance around it, laughing and beating drums while hurling insults at the ogress until she left.
Bhaang on Holi is drunk for this very reason, as intoxication is common, along with rowdy behaviour.
Holi has many significances and so do the stories surrounding it. People celebrate it for a variety of reasons. However, at the end of the day, Holi celebrates the end of winter, the death of evil, and welcomes the spring and good things into our lives while reminding us to commemorate our loved ones.