Ancient Heritage and Living Traditions
Holi, Spring Festival of India
Holi is one of the most ancient festivals of Hinduism. It marks the end of winter and the revival of Nature with its colours, flowers, and the ever-symbolic triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated on the full moon day of February-March. It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the day preceding the full moon. This year it starts on 17th March and ends on 18th.
The eve of Holi is called Holika Dahan, the burning of the demon Holika. People make bonfires and symbolically burn everything considered evil while remembering the story of the mythical Indian king Hiranyakashipu, who considered himself more powerful than the God Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu was powerful indeed, he even received a boon from the gods that neither a hand-held, nor a launched weapon could kill him. His unlimited pride and confidence made him demand his son, Prahlada, worship him instead of Vishnu. Prahlada didn’t obey him and remained a true devotee to Vishnu. The infuriated father asked his evil aunt, Holika to destroy Prahlada. Holika tried to burn his nephew but Vishnu interfered and saved Prahlada while Holika burnt to ashes. Vishnu then, in his incarnation of the half-lion, half-human Narasimha, eviscerated the king using lion claws, therefore killing him with neither a hand-held nor a launched weapon.
On the day of Holi people throw colourful powder at each other, pour coloured water from rooftops, and streets are crowded with people who dance and sing and feel free to do any mischief. In India, it’s possible to behave outrageously. People throw paint at strangers, and soak anyone with coloured water using water pistols or huge syringes called ‘pichkari’. It is not the time to feel offended or be upset.
The origin of the coloured water splashing goes back to the mythical times of India when Krishna and his friends living in Vrindavan used to tease the village girls by drenching them with coloured water. The girls lovingly engaged themselves in this play that in the course of time became the traditional way of celebrating the coming of spring in North India. In modern times whole cities turn green, red, pink, and blue during Holi festival, though the original colours used in ancient India must have been only yellow and red. The colour red undoubtedly represent fertility. It is the colour of the goddess Earth and the goddess of creation and the traditional bridal saree is also red for the same reason. Turmeric powder when mixed with the juice of the hill lemon of India called galgal gives a vermillion red paste which is used to mark the forehead and the parting of the hair of married women. When this powder is mixed with water it produces an orange-red coloured fluid. Another organic way to make orange dye is to gather the flowers of the ‘tesu’ tree, dry them in the sun, and then grind them up. In the last few years there has been much concern about the contents of the dye that people throw at each other. It is often mixed with dangerous materials, oxidized metals, industrial dyes causing illness, in some cases even blindness.
The mythic play of Krishna and the milkmaids has strong erotic traits. It is not surprising since Holi, as we know it today is the successor of a most ancient Saturnalia-type fertility festival that must have included erotic games, staging of erotic plays, singing, and dancing.
In India’s various regions it is celebrated in many ways. In Mathura it lasts for at least a week and women can beat men with sticks. In South India, Kamadeva, the god of love, in the west, Krishna and Radha are worshipped.
It is a festival of friendship and forgiveness, of love and happiness. Though it is originally a Hindu festival, like all main festivals of India, it is also celebrated by people regardless of their religion. It is also a Cupid’s festival with couples marking themselves by smearing the same colour on their faces.
The South Asian communities all around the World celebrate Holi in various places, parks, squares, streets in many large cities, and since Indians are ready to embrace anyone who is willing to celebrate with them it has been slowly turning into an international spring festival.
Like at all major festivals around the World, there are extremities. Cases of violence and accidents happen every season, and since it has slowly become an international festival, new ideas are becoming attached to it – Holi marathons, colour music festivals are all organised by Holi enthusiasts outside India.
Spring is one of the greatest wonders of the Earth, it has been worshipped and celebrated by all the various peoples and communities of the World no matter where they live or come from. Ancient spring festivals have slowly turned into the religious festivals of our days, but no matter what idea they represent today they still have some traces of the past. The idea of coloured eggs, for example, is shared by Christians celebrating Easter, Jews celebrating Passover seder, Iranians celebrating Nowruz… and all these festivals including Holi mark the beginning of spring and celebrate this yearly wonder of fertility with colours, happiness, sweets and love.
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