India loves her festivals. Every few weeks, we find reason to indulge in sweets and break into song and dance.
Spring brings with it a festival most associated with Indian culture – Holi. It heralds the spring season and is celebrated over two days in Feb-March. Think Holi, and you think of colourful people dancing on the streets, smearing and spraying each other with colour – it is the Tomatina of India. Except in this case we use colours instead of vegetables (or fruits – depending on which side of the debate you choose!)
But Where is Spring?
Holi is celebrated with more energy in the North than in the South of India. The southern peninsula is pretty close to the Equator, and that gives the South Indians only two seasons. A looooong summer, and a very short rainy season. There is no spring to speak of.
Holi Aunt of God
Our many Gods find pride of place in everything we do, and Holi is no exception. The story most commonly associated with Holi is that of Holika – the evil aunt of Prahlada, whose wicked plan to kill him in a fire…well…backfired.
In Hindu mythology, Hiranyakashipu was an evil demon king who prayed to Lord Bramha and got a boon of invincibility. His sister Holika had another boon – a shawl that kept fire from harming her. Prahlada, the good son of Hiranyakashipu was an ardent follower of Lord Vishnu and started becoming more popular than his father.
This did not sit well with the demon king, and together with his sister, he hatched a plot to get rid of Prahlada. Holika sat the child on her lap, covered herself with her safety blanket, and lit a pyre.
Lo and behold, Lord Vishnu appeared just in time to save Prahlada, wrapped him in the fireproof cloak instead, and Holika was burnt to death. He also found loopholes in Hiranyakashipu’s boon to ultimately kill him.
The first day of Holi, therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil with an evening bonfire, song and dance, and an excuse to hurl abuses at the flames!
The story of why we throw colour at each other is connected to a tale of Krishna, a popular Hindu God, and Radha, his favourite consort. Lord Krishna was supposedly embarrassed by his dark skin and worried that the fairer sex may not find him attractive. When he went to his mother for advice, she told him to simply colour Radha’s face in whatever hue he wanted. So he did, and fall for him, she did!
The ‘rangwali holi’ or ‘holi of colours’ is celebrated on Day 2, heralding the season of spring with the land bursting forth with produce of all kinds.
Another belief says that Kamadeva, the God of love, was burnt to a crisp on this day. He dared to disturb the meditation of Shiva, and so had to pay the price.
Now Lord Shiva is the God of Destruction, and he is easily angered. When he flies into a fit of rage, he opens his third eye and mayhem follows, a fact that Kamadeva can testify to!
The last tale justifies the insult-hurling and prank-playing that is an integral part of Holi. An ogress called Dhundi had received the boon of invincibility from Shiva, but there was a loophole. While she could not be pierced by arrows and spears, she was not immune to insults. You see, the Gods always made room for loopholes in their boons, lest the receiver went rogue!
Dhundi wreaked havoc in her village, until the smart village youngsters chased her out by yelling some choice abuses at her. And that custom still continues!
That’s what’s given rise to the popular phrase “bura na mano holi hai” meaning don’t be offended, it’s holi!