Holi – The festival of colors

Holi is a festival of joy, gaiety and merry-making. In the modern context, Holi is a carnival, Thanksgiving day, New Year Eve, the Calgary Stampede, first April Fools Day, and Halloween, all rolled into one. Holi is celebrated in March (Phalgun in Hindu Calendar) to mark the arrival of the spring which brings colours, and also represents the spirit of youthful vigour and vitality. People are happy that the winter is over. The farmers are joyous to see their crops ready for harvest.

Apart from welcoming the spring, Holi is celebrated for different reasons and called with different names in various regions of India. In Northern India, it is believed that the word Holi is derived from Holika, a female demon and one of the characters of a mythological story. The story is about the conflict between a demonic and atheist king, Hirnakashyap, and his son Prahalad who was a staunch devotee of God. Hirnakashyap wanted his people to worship him instead of God, and tortured those who refused to do so. When his own son defied him, Hirnakashyap tortured him and arranged many accidents to have him killed, but Prahalad miraculously survived each time. Hirnakashyap hatched another conspiracy with his sister Holika to kill him. Holika had the boon of being indestructible by fire. She sat on a pyre and persuaded Prahalad to sit in her lap. To everyone’s surprize, Holika was burnt to death but Prahalad came out unhurt and alive. The over-joyed followers of Prahalad went berserk. They pushed, shoved and lifted each other, and in a mood of sheer frenzy they started a mock fight throwing sand, water, mud or whatever else they could lay their hands on. The riotous crowd ran amuck in the streets shouting “Holika is dead.” According to another legend, Holi was celebrated to mark the slaying of a female demon Putna by baby Krishn when she attempted to murder him. In both cases, the central theme of Holi is the victory of good over evil.

The celebration starts one night before the Holi when the boisterous groups of boys go around the streets gathering wood that includes old furniture people throw away after spring cleaning. The collected fuel is piled high in the centre of the village square to create a bonfire. Before the fire is lit, the women perform rituals and offer prayers while circling around the pile. People sing and dance around the bonfire accompanied by drums and cymbals, while noisy youths make merry and play practical jokes on each other.

The next day is the Holi or Phag day (derived from the name of month Phalgun) when the spirit of goodwill and friendship breaks all barriers and disparities. Holi turns enmity into amity; old enemies forgive each other, shake hands and become friends again. People of all ages, castes, economic or social status abandon their differences, shed all inhibitions and go wild with an ecstasy of merry-making. Adults go door to door boisterously exchanging greetings and sharing homemade sweets with everybody in the neighborhood. They put garlands of fresh flowers around each other’s necks and embrace each other joyously. People amuse themselves by splashing each other with coloured water and throwing coloured powder, called Gulal or Abeer, on each other while chanting “This is Holi. This is Holi.” Boys recreate the frenzied aftermath scene of Holika’s destruction by running amuck in the streets, playing pranks, clowning around, breaking into mock fights, shouting and screaming. The chaotic and riotous celebrations end in the afternoon when everyone goes home to wash and clean. The fun and frolic resume in the evening in a more orderly manner. Entertainment during the evening ranges from the reciting of raunchy jokes and poems to sophisticated cultural events such as poetry recitals and plays. Some city folks organize an amateur public comedy show called Maha Moorakh Sammelan or the Convention of great fools. The performers are, usually, politicians and other prominent persons of the city. They recite comic poetry, tell jokes and select The Greatest Fool who is `roasted’ with friendly insults, offered booby prizes and a large garland of old shoes.

Apart from its spiritual and social aspects, Holi is an annual mass psycho-therapy which allows Hindus an outlet for the release of their pent up emotions. The Holi spirit turns even the most serious and stern adults into jokers, clowns and pranksters, all without the use of alcohol.

Book: Hindus of Canada

Author: Ajit Adhopia