Holi: The Festival of Colours

One of the most popular festivals in India, Holi epitomizes the victory of good over bad, love over enmity. As the nation gears up to celebrate the Festival of Colours, let’s have a quick look at the origins of the festival. The Hindu festival is very old and some believed that Holi was celebrated even several centuries before Christ. 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. Holi was originally known as ‘Holika’ and it 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. There are two ways of counting a lunar month- ‘purnimanta’ and ‘amanta’. In the former, the first day starts after the full moon; and in the latter, after the new moon. Though the amanta reckoning is more common now, the purnimanta was very much in vogue in the earlier days. According to this purnimanta reckoning, Phalguna purnima was the last day of the year and the New Year heralding the Vasanta-ritu (with spring starting from next day). Thus the full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, announcing the commencement of the spring season. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival – Vasanta-Mahotsava and Kama-Mahotsava. Reference in scriptures Vedas and Puranas such as Narad Purana and Bhavishya Purana refer to Holi festival. The festival also finds a mention in Jaimini Mimansa. A stone inscription dating back to 300 BC found at Ramgarh in the province of Vindhya refers to Holikotsav on it. King Harsha, too has mentioned about holikotsav in his work Ratnavali that was written during the 7th century. The famous Muslim traveller Al Beruni also referred to holikotsav in his historical memories. Other Muslim writers of that period have mentioned, that holikotsav were not only celebrated by the Hindus but also by the Muslims. The festival of Holi is also finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of old temples. A 16th century panel sculpted in a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, shows a joyous scene of Holi. The painting depicts a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids waiting with syringes or pichkaris to drench the Royal couple in coloured water. A 16th century Ahmednagar painting is on the theme of Vasanta Ragini – spring song or music. It shows a royal couple sitting on a grand swing, while maidens are playing music and spraying colors with pichkaris. Legends The literal meaning of the word ‘Holi’ is ‘burning’. There are various legends to explain the meaning of this word, most prominent of all is the legend associated with demon king Hiranyakashyap. Hiranyakashyap wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his utter disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana. Hiaranyakashyap commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result she paid a price for her sinister desires, while Prahlad was saved by the grace of the god for his extreme devotion. The festival, therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion. Legend of Lord Krishna is also associated with play with colours as the Lord started the tradition of play with colours by applying colour on his beloved Radha and other gopis. Gradually, the play gained popularity with the people and became a tradition. There are also other legends associated with the festival. The legend of Lord Shiva and Kaamadeva and those of Ogress Dhundhi and Pootana. Holi is also linked with Lord Krishna’s childhood plays with the gopis. Krishna used to play pranks by drenching the village girls, with water and colours. When Krishna grew up, the legend of Krishna’s courtship with Radha, and playing pranks with the ‘Gopi’s became more vocal. The girls in Gokul were mostly milkmaids, and, hence locally known as the Gopis. The same tradition has transpired through the ages, turning it into a community festival of the masses. As time kept flowing, the culture spread roots to other regions of the country. Holi Puja During the festival, puja known as Holi Puja is also performed in many parts of the country. Holika Dahan preparations begin almost 40 days before the festival. People start gathering woods on the important crossroads of the city. Holi Pooja or Holika takes place on an auspicious time in the evening a day before the Holi festival. A piece of wood is kept at a prominent public place on the Vasant Panchami day. On the day of Holika Dahan, an effigy of Holika and Prahlad is placed on the huge heap of woods. Effigy of Holika is made of combustible material while Prahlad’s effigy is made of non-combustible material. On the eve of Holi, the heap is set alight and the people chant Rakshoghna Mantras of the Rig Veda to cast away the evil spirits. Left over ashes are collected by people next morning. These ashes are considered holy and are smeared on the limbs of the body as Holi Prasad. Smearing of body limbs is an act of purification. Yaosang In the northeastern state of Manipur, which has a rich tradition of Vaishnavite culture, Holi is celebrated as ‘Yaosang’, the five-day festival of colours. The festival reflects the state’s heritage of Vaishnavism. The festival is celebrated in the spring season with colours and water, much like Holi. On the first day of Yaosang, a thatched hut is built and burned. The children go from door to door, asking for money, called ‘Nakatheng’, to celebrate the festival. On the fourth and fifth days, people play with colours and water.

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