Hindu Festival: Holi

Holi or Holika, also called holikotsava, is an extremely popular festival observed throughout the country (India). It is especially marked by unmixed gaiety and frolics and is common to all sections of the people

This festival is very ancient. Known originally as ‘Holika’ it has been mentioned in very early religious works such as Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-sutras and Kathaka-grhya-sutras. It must have therefore existed several centuries before Christ. It was at first actually a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was the deity worshipped by them.

There are two ways of reckoning 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 latter reckoning is more common now, the former 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-rtu (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.

According to the stories in the Puranas and various local legends, this day is important for three reasons.

  1. It was on this day that Lord Siva opened his third eye and reduced Kamadeva (the god of love, Cupid or Eros) to ashes.
  2. It was on this day that Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakasyapu, who tried to kill the child devotee Prahlad by taking him on her lap and sitting on a pyre of wood which was set ablaze. Holika was burnt to ashes while Prahlad remained unscathed!
  3. It was again on this day that an ogress called Dhundhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Prthu (or Raghu) was made to run away for life, by the shouts and pranks of the mischievous boys. Though she had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, this – noise, shouts, abuses and pranks of boys – was a chink in her armour due to a curse of Lord Siva. The day itself came to be called ‘Adada’ or ‘Holika’ since then.

There are practically no religious observances for this day like fasting or worship. Generally a log of wood will be kept in a prominent public place on the Vasantapanchami day (Magha Sukla Panchami), almost 40 days before the Holi Festival. An image of Holika with child Prahlada in her lap is also kept on the log. Holika’s image is made of combustible materials whereas Prahlada’s image is made of non-combustible ones. People go on throwing twigs of trees and any combustible material they can spare, on to that log which gradually grows into a sizable heap. On the night of Phalguna Purnima, it is set alight in a simple ceremony with the Raksoghna Mantras of the Rig Veda being sometimes chanted to ward off all evil spirits. (Coconuts and coins are thrown into this bonfire).The next morning the ashes from the bonfire are collected as prasad (consecrated material) and smeared on the limbs of the body. Singed coconuts, if any are also collected and eaten.

In some houses the image of Kamadeva is kept in the yard and a simple worship is offered. A mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste is partaken as the prasad.

The day - Phalgun Krishna pratipad – is observed as a day of revelry especially by throwing on one another gulal or coloured water or perfumed coloured powder. Throwing of mud or earth dust was prevalent in the earlier days also, but among the low culture groups.

Instead of the gay and frenzied celebrations that are witnessed elsewhere in the country, Bengal observes this festival in a quiet and dignified manner as Dolapurnima or Dolayatra (the festival of the swing). The festival, said to have been initiated by the king Indradyumna in Vrndavana, is spread over 3 or 5 days, starting from the sukla Chaturdasi of Phalguna. A celebration in honour of Agni and worship of Govinda (Krsna) in image on a swing are the important features. The fire kindled on the first day is to be preserved till the last day. The swing is to be rocked 21 times at the end of the festival.

Holi is associated to a great extent with Lord Krishna, who in his childhood and youth., ran around with his band of cowherds and maidens of the village, completely captivating everyone. He loved festivity, and the hamlets of Brindavan, Gokul and Barsana were full of fun and frolic.


Lord Krishna played Holi with so must gust that even today the songs sung during Holi are full of the pranks that he played on the Gopis and the Gopis played on him, especially those on his  childhood sweetheart Radhika, who lived in Barsana. She remained the heart throb and none of his eight wives could ever take her place.

Holi is played with pichkaris(a brass syringe which squirts water in a spray or even in a straight line) and Gulal. Gulal is made up of numerous colours such as pink, magenta, red, yellow and green, along with Abeer (small crystals or paper-like chips of mica). Abeer and gulal are an essential part of Holi Folk Songs.


Then comes the day of Puno, when Holi is 'burnt' in the evening. Usually, it is a community celebration and bonfires are lit on crossroads. People do pujan and bring green sheafs of gram known as 'boot', to be roasted black with shells on; wheat shears are also roasted likewise. They are then taken out of shells and eaten right there. One gets quite black in the face and the hands, but it is very enjoyable nonetheless, and the stuff is quite tasty.

The next day is the real day of Holi. This day is called Parva. From the morning onwards, people gather and play Holi. They visit each other's houses, carrying colour and water, drenching each other as they visit different places.

Celebrations of Holi In India:

Holi takes on different images and flavors across the country. While the bonfire is burnt everywhere, Krishna and Radha are courted mostly in Eastern India and along the eastern coast of Southern India in Tamil Nadu. Then there is the ‘ride of the King’ that is celebrated in the Western state of Gujarat, in Central India and in the tribal forests of Eastern India. This is a rite of passage where the King (an imaginary one) is paraded through the village and lampooned. Perhaps a way of pressure-release by the King’s subjects (again imaginary). And a story reflecting of repression and repeated quite inescapably and endlessly around the world. In the North Western state of Rajasthan, Holi is an occasion for tournaments wherein horsemen pelt each other with pellets filled with colour. Along the coastline of Maharashtra, which is a western state bordering the Arabian Sea, the men and women get together in a special dance that is meant to provide them with a release for all their repressed feelings, needs and desires. This is done by these people uttering sound through their mouths, made peculiar by the striking of their mouths with the back of their hands.

This is for them an occasion for ‘Bombne’ (yelling to one’s heart’s content). In Punjab, which is northern India its people hold wrestling tournaments, while at the other end of the spectrum of activity, virgins from Gujarat on India’s west create images of their Goddess ‘Gauri’ out of the ashes left by the bonfire of the night before. Conceivably, not the last variation of Holi is played along India’s eastern state of Orissa that straddles the Bay of Bengal. Here married women carefully sweep away the ashes of the bonfire, to mark the spot with drawings made out of a paste of powdered sundried rice and water.


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