Holi is a famous ancient Indian festival, also known as the Festival of Spring, the Festival of Colours, or the Festival of Love.
The Holi festival is an important Hindu festival with cultural roots mentioned in the Puranas, celebrated by Mughal kings in ancient India.
Holi is a famous ancient Indian festival, also known as the Festival of Spring, the Festival of Colours, or the Festival of Love. The festival commemorates the eternal and divine love of Radha Krishna. It also signifies the triumph of good over evil as it celebrates the victory of Lord Vishnu as Narasimha Narayana over Hiranyakashipu. It originated in the Indian subcontinent but has also spread to other regions of Asia and parts of the Western world through the South Asian diaspora.
Celebrations of Holi
There are several cultural rituals associated with Holi:
Bonfire: On the eve of Holi, typically at or after sunset, the pyre is lit, signifying Holika Dahan. The ritual symbolizes the victory of good over evil. People gather around the fire to sing and dance.
Playing with colours: In North and Western India, Holi dance and celebrations begin the morning after the Holika bonfire. Children and young people form groups armed with dry colours, coloured solution and water guns (pichkaris), water balloons filled with coloured water, and other creative means to colour each other.
Traditionally, washable natural plant-derived colours such as turmeric, neem, dhak, and kumkum were used, but water-based commercial pigments are increasingly used nowadays. All colours are used. Everyone in open areas such as, streets and parks is game, but inside homes or at doorways only dry powder is used to smear each other’s faces.
People throw colours and get their targets completely coloured up. It is like a water fight, but with coloured water. People take delight in spraying coloured water on each other. By late morning, everyone looks like a canvas of colours. This is why Holi is given the name “Festival of Colours”.
Singing and Dancing: Groups sing and dance, some playing drums and dholak. After each stop of fun and play with colours, people offer gujiya, mathri, malpuas and other traditional delicacies. Cold drinks, including drinks made with marijuana, are also part of the Holi festivity.
In the Braj region around Mathura, in north India, the festivities may last more than a week. The rituals go beyond playing with colours and include a day where men go around with shields and women have the right to playfully beat them on their shields with sticks. It is known as Latthmaar Holi, traditionally celebrated in the Barsana village. Barsana is the village of Radha and women assume the role of gopikas (Radha’s friends) and men as gopas (Krishna’s friends).
In southern India, some worship and make offerings to Kamadeva, the god of love in Indian mythology.
Later in the day: After a day of play with colours, people clean up, wash and bathe, sober up and dress up in the evening and greet friends and relatives by visiting them and exchanging sweets. Holi is also a festival of forgiveness and new starts, which ritually aims to generate harmony in society. Many cities in Uttar Pradesh also organize Kavi Sammelan in the evening.
Cultural Religious Significance
The Holi festival has rich cultural importance among different Hindu traditions of the Indian subcontinent. It is the festive day to end and rid oneself of past errors, to end conflicts by meeting others, and a day to forget and forgive. People pay or forgive debts, as well as deal fresh with those in their lives. Holi also marks the start of spring, an occasion for people to enjoy the changing seasons and make new friends.
Radha Krishna playing Holi
In the Braj region of India, where the Hindu deities Radha and Krishna grew up, the festival is heralded until Rang Panchmi in commemoration of their divine love for each other. The festivities officially usher in spring, with Holi celebrated as a festival of love.
There is a symbolic legend behind the festival. In his youth, Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha would like him because of his dark skin colour. His mother Yashoda, weary of his distress, asks him to approach Radha and ask her to colour his face in any colour she wanted. This Radha did, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. Since then, the playful colouring of Radha and Krishna’s face has been commemorated as Holi.
Beyond India, these legends help to explain the significance of Holi (Phagwah) are common in some of the Caribbean and South American communities of Indian origin such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. It is also celebrated with incredible zeal in Mauritius.
There is a symbolic legend to explain why Holi is celebrated as a festival of triumph of good over evil in the honour of Hindu god Vishnu and his devotee Prahlada. King Hiranyakashipu father of Prahlada, according to a legend found in chapter 7 of Bhagavata Purana, was the king of demonic Asuras, and had earned a boon that gave him five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons), and neither on land nor in water or air. Hiranyakashipu grew arrogant, thought he was god and demanded that everyone worship only him.
Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, however, disagreed. He was and remained devoted to Vishnu. This infuriated Hiranyakashipu who punished Prahlada, none of which influenced the boy or his willpower to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika, Prahlada’s evil aunt, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. Holika was wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada was not. As the fire roared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada, who survived while Holika burned. Vishnu, the god who appears as an avatar to restore Dharma in Hindu beliefs, took the form of Narasimha – half human and half lion (which is neither a human nor an animal), at dusk (when it was neither day nor night), took Hiranyakashyapu at a doorstep (which was neither indoors nor outdoors), placed him on his lap (which was neither land, water nor air), and then eviscerated and killed the king with his lion claws (which were neither a handheld weapon nor a launched weapon).
Kama and Rati
In Shaivism and Shaktism, the significance of Holi is linked to Shiva in yoga and deep meditation, goddess Parvati wanting to bring back Shiva into the world, seeks help from the Hindu god of love called Kamadeva on Vasant Panchami. The god of love shoots arrows at Shiva, and the yogi opens his third eye and burns Kama to ashes. This upsets both Kama’s wife Rati (Kamadevi) and his own wife Parvati. Rati conducts a meditative asceticism for forty days, upon which Shiva forgives out of compassion and restores the god of love. This return of the god of love is celebrated on the 40th day after the Vasant Panchami festival as Holi. The Kama legend and its significance to Holi have many variant forms, particularly in South India.
The Holika bonfire and Holi signifies the celebration of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.
Mentioned in History:
Kālidāsa mentioned Holi during the 4th-century reign of Chandragupta II. Days before the festival, people start gathering wood and combustible materials for bonfires in parks, community centers, near temples and other open spaces. On top of the pyre is an effigy to signify Holika who tricked Prahalad into the fire. Inside homes, people stock up on pigments, food, party drinks and festive seasonal foods such as gujiya, mathri, malpuas and other regional delicacies.
The festival of Holi is also cited in the 7th-century Sanskrit drama Ratnavali. The celebration of Holi caught the attention of European traders and British colonial staff by the 17th century. Various old editions of Oxford English Dictionary mention it, but with varying, phonetically derived spellings: Houly, Hooly, Huli (1789), Hohlee, Hoolee, and Holi in editions published after 1910.
Many Mughal Indian emperors observed Holi
In Mughal India, Holi was celebrated with such exuberance that people of all castes could throw colour on the Emperor. According to Sharma (2017), “there are several paintings of Mughal emperors celebrating Holi”. Grand celebrations of Holi were held at the Lal Qila, where the festival was also known as Eid-e-gulaabi or Aab-e-Pashi. Mehfils were held throughout the walled city of Delhi with aristocrats and traders alike participating. This changed during the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb. He banned the public celebration of Holi using a Farman issue in November 1665.
The Mughal Indian emperor Jahangir celebrated Holi with ladies of the zenana. The festival has traditionally been also observed by non-Hindus, such as by Jains and Newar Buddhists (Nepal).
While Aurangzeb banned Holi, the celebration were later restarted after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. Bahadur Shah Zafar himself wrote a song for the festival, while poets such as Amir Khusrau, Ibrahim Raskhan, Nazeer Akbarabadi and Mehjoor Lakhnavi relished it in their writings.
Sikhs have traditionally celebrated the festival
Sikhs have traditionally celebrated the festival, at least through the 19th century, with its historic texts referring to it as Hola. Guru Gobind Singh – the last human guru of the Sikhs – modified Holi with a three-day Hola Mohalla extension festival of martial arts. The extension started the day after the Holi festival in Anandpur Sahib, where Sikh soldiers would train in mock battles, compete in horsemanship, athletics, archery and military exercises.
Holi was observed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Sikh Empire that extended across what are now northern parts of India and Pakistan. According to a report by Tribune India, Sikh court records state that 300 mounds of colours were used in 1837 by Ranjit Singh and his officials in Lahore. Ranjit Singh would celebrate Holi with others in the Bilawal gardens, where decorative tents were set up. In 1837, Sir Henry Fane who was the commander-in-chief of the British Indian army joined the Holi celebrations organised by Ranjit Singh. A mural in the Lahore Fort was sponsored by Ranjit Singh and it showed the Hindu god Krishna playing Holi with gopis. After the death of Ranjit Singh, his Sikh sons and others continued to play Holi every year with colors and lavish festivities. The colonial British officials joined these celebrations.