Significance of Holi

via V N Gopalakrishnan published on March 1, 2010

Holi is the spring festival celebrated on the full moon day of Phalguna (February-March). It is an ancient festival of India and was originally known as Holika. Holi helps the people to believe in the virtue of being truthful and honest and also to fight away the evil. It helps to bring the society together and strengthen the secular fabric of our country. The tradition of the Holi is that even the enemies turn friends. Besides, on this day people do not differentiate between the rich and poor and everybody celebrate the festival together with a spirit of brotherhood. The full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merry-making, announcing the commencement of the spring season of love. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival-Vasanta Mahotsava and Kama Mahotsava. This year, Holi is being celebrated on March 1.

The festival finds a detailed description in Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa Sutras and Kathaka Grhya Sutras. A detailed description is also given in the Vedas and Puranas such as Narada Purana and Bhavishya Purana. A stone inscription belonging to 300 B.C found at Ramgarh in the province of Vindhya has a reference on Holikotsav on it. King Harshavardhana has mentioned about Holikotsav in his work Ratnavali written during the 7th century. In Bengal and Orissa, Holi Purnima is celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu A.D. 486-1533.
Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the festival. Lord Krishna is believed to have complained to his mother about the contrast between his dark skin complexion and Radha’s fair skin complexion. Krishna’s mother decided to apply colour to Radha’s face. Lord Krishna also played Holi with a picker (brass syringe) so much gusto that even today the songs sung during Holi are full of the pranks that he played on the Gopis. A variety of pickharis in plastic and aluminium are used today. Gulals made up of many colours such as pink, red, magenta, yellow and green are used.

There is another story associated with the origin of Holi. It is about Kamadeva, the God of Love. Kamadeva’s body was destroyed when he shot his weapon at Lord Shiva in order to disrupt his penance and help Parvati to marry Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva then opened his third eye and Kamadeva’s body was reduced to ashes. For the sake of Kamadeva’s wife Rati (passion), Shiva restored him, but only as a mental image, representing the true emotional and spiritual state of love rather than physical lust. The Holi bonfire is believed to be celebrated in commemoration of this event.

In South India, people follow the tradition of worshiping Kamadeva. People have faith in the legend which speaks about the great sacrifice of Kamadeva. After a fun-filled day people greet friends and relatives by visiting them and exchange sweets. Holi get-togethers are also organised by various cultural bodies to generate harmony and brotherhood in the society. Rangapanchami occurs a few days later on a Panchami (fifth day of the full moon), marking the end of festivities involving colors.

The literal meaning of the word Holi is ‘burning’ and there are many legends associated with the festival. One legend is associated with King Hiranyakashipu, the king of demons. Hiranyakashipu wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his disappointment, his son Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Narayana. Hiranyakashipu commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. She paid a price for her sinister desire and Prahlad was saved from death. Hence, the festival celebrates the victory of good over evil and the triumph of devotion.  

Holi is a festival when new clothes are made for a married daughter and her children. In olden days, the household purohit (priest) was invited to start the function, but now the eldest male member takes the thali, already decorated with gulals and tesu water in a small lota. Beginning with the elder member, each male member goes round and sprinkles gulals and coloured water onto each individual. Children put colour on the elders. Earlier, it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families.

The main emphasis of the festival is on the burning of the holy fire or Holika. The origin of the traditional lighting of Holi is attributed to the burning of demo nesses like Holika, Holaka and Putana who represent evil. On the eve of Holi, the effigy of Holika, is placed in the wood and burnt. There is a scientific reason for celebrating the Holi especially pertaining to the tradition of Holika Dahan. When Holika is burnt, temperature rises to about 145°F. When people perform Parikrama (circumambulation) around the fire, the heat from the fire kills the bacteria in the body thereby cleansing it. The day after the burning of Holika people put ash (Vibhuti) on their forehead and they would mix Chandan (sandal paste) with the young leaves and flowers of the mango tree.

Children hurl abuses at Holika and pray pranks, to chase away Dhundhi who once troubled little ones in the Kingdom of Reghu. Some people take embers from the fire to rekindle their own domestic fires. The main day of Holi celebrations is called Dhuleti when the actual play of colours take place. There is no tradition of puja during Holi but only merry-making and enjoyment.

(The author is a social activist and Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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