Festivals of Colors
Holi is celebrated at a time of the year when everyone has had enough of the chilly winter and looks forward to the warmth of the sun. Trees get fresh new leaves that are at their glossiest best and the flowers begin to pop open to claim their share of fun in the sun. Even grandmothers abandon their knitting for the glorious sunny days. They know that it's time to give in to good cheer, for harsh Indian summers are just around the corner.
The Great Legend
Originally, Holi was a fertility festival. All festivals must have a story, and ancient lore trace the roots of this festival to the story of Prahlad (a devotee of Lord Vishnu - Preserver of the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer). His arrogant father, the demon King Hiranyakashyap demanded to be worshipped by everyone. Being Vishnu's devotee, Prahlad refused to comply with the king's wishes. The king was outraged by his ward's refractory attitude and ordered him to be put to death. It is said that the king used a wide range of techniques to kill Prahlad, including throwing him off a cliff. But Prahlad escaped each time without a scratch! In the end, the disgruntled demon king ordered Holika (Hiranyakashyap's sister who was given a boon that made her 'fire proof') to sit on a burning pyre holding Prahlad in her lap. Terrified of her brother's tyranny, Holika was left with no choice but to agree. As the story goes, Prahlad remained unscathed but Holika was charred to death. But that's not all, the story goes on.
Then Vishnu, Prahlad's saviour, appeared in the form of Narasimha (half lion and half man) to kill Hiranyakashyap at twilight in a porch. Why? Because Hiranyakashyap was blessed with a boon according to which he could neither be killed by man nor beast, neither during day nor at night, and he could not be killed indoors nor outside (phew!). Well, as is evident, this boon made him almost invincible. The operative word here is 'almost', and Vishnu understood this like no one else. Disguising himself as Narasimha at twilight, Vishnu chose the porch to do the honours and Hiranyakashyap became history. You know, gods find a way to get around things. Hence every year in spring, on the eve of Holi, a ritualistic bonfire is lit with much festivity and jollity to solemnise this legend.
Holi- Closely Associated With The Tales of Lord Rama
Holi is also closely associated with the life and times of Krishna (the blue god famous for his sense of mischief and light-hearted revelry). Krishna played Holi with so much gusto and enthusiasm that to this day, songs sung during Holi narrate the pranks that he played on people. Krishna is perhaps the most accessible and human of all Hindu deities. Hindu mythology is replete with tales of his early years and antics. He spent his childhood in an idyllic village called Gokul in Uttar Pradesh. He grew up amidst green pastures in the company of cowherds and village children and had everyone spellbound by the way he played the flute. He was notorious for stealing butter, milk and other goodies from the village folk and for doing many other mischievous things. He got away with it all though, for he was so charming that no one could really be cross with him.
He was also the Casanova of Indian mythology. He was the sweetheart of all women and it is said that he had the ability to 'please' all of them at the same time! An amazing number of paintings, sculptures and other art forms, especially of the 17 th , 18 th and 19 th centuries celebrate Krishna and the gopis ' (milkmaids') passion for each other. The Rangamala miniature paintings found in Rajasthan depicting Krishna with the gopis, and especially with Radha (his favourite) constitute one such rich collection. In a nutshell, Holi aims to bring to the fore the more frolicsome avatar of Krishna. Kama (god of love), and Rati (Kama's consort) are also worshipped on Holi to commemorate Shiva's destruction and resurrection of Kama.
Unlike Diwali, which is more of a family affair, Holi is quite inconceivable without a community. First comes Choti Holi or 'Little Holi'. This is the night of the big bonfire, so everyone gets busy collecting firewood. Families and friends get together around the bonfire, put together mostly by the men and children. The women busy themselves as well. As every festival has its own ritualistic cuisine, so does Holi (see Cuisine). So the womenfolk do the all-important work of buying or preparing sweets, munchies and other tidbits, packets of gulal (coloured powder), pichkaris (syringe-like objects used to shower coloured water on people) water colours and other things for the festival.
The Burning of Fire
The bonfire is lit amidst loud cheer and singing. Children dance around the fire with a twinkle in their eyes, eagerly awaiting the next morning, and rightly so, for thanks to Krishna, on Holi not only children but adults too are granted their share of pranks.
Dawn finally paints the Indian horizon. For it is a special day for India as well as for Dawn. It is Holi, the festival of colours and Dawn understands the relation India has with colour. She sees mothers getting up hurriedly, for there is so much to be done. 'Special' clothes are dug out for the entire household (the kinds that won't be missed). More toothsome sweets are prepared, and the children are woken up, with greetings of Happy Holi! For a change, children spring out of bed, as they have 'important matters' to attend to.
The Festival Fun
Holi demands big time planning. Buckets and barrels of strongly coloured water have to be concocted and water balloons filled to greet friends and neighbours. The gala time starts in the morning itself. People go around smearing each other with gulal (coloured powder) and coloured water. Children shoot jets of water from their pichkaris, screaming gleefully. A lot of people spend the day alternating between getting drenched and coloured, and consuming thandai (a marijuana-based drink) in large quantities as the day progresses. Singing and dancing to the beat of dholaks (drums) completes the picture.
The evenings are not 'as' exciting. A good part of what's left of the day is spent in that special room of the house - the bathroom. Scrubbing and scrubbing, and then scrubbing some more. It is an exercise that is repeated for days as it's a normal sight to see people with patches of pink skin, green hair, purple hands and silver nails, for days and even weeks after Holi. Even the neighbourhood cows and buffaloes get their share of colourful patches.
The Grand Celebration In The Cities of India
In the cities of Barsana (a town 60km from Mathura and home of Radha) and Vrindavan (the most famous sites around Mathura and the place where Krishna played with the gopis) Holi is celebrated is a special way.
Thousands of people flock to Vrindavan on this festive occasion and watch Vrindavan transform into a puffy colourful cloud of gulal from which emerge magically as it were, endless narratives on Krishna's pranks.
There is an especially interesting ritual practised by the people here. Bhabis (sisters-in-law) beat the devars (younger brothers-in-law) to pulp! What follows is a delirious scene of bhabis chasing, cornering and pounding the devars, while they exhaust every trick in their arsenal to dodge the former. But this is done in good cheer and no offence is taken. In fact the devars look forward to it as much as the bhabis do. Well, 'almost' as much as the bhabis.
Like all of us, Dawn has a job to do, so she steals one last glance at this multi-coloured canvas, breathes a little sigh and moves on to Pakistan. and sometime in between, she keeps her annual tryst