The Mythological Origins of Holi: Ancient and Colorful Festival of South Asia
Holi is an ancient festival celebrated on the day after the last full moon of Phalguna, the last month of the Hindu calendar (between late February and early March). Traditionally, this was a major religious festival celebrated by devotees of Hinduism. Today, however, Holi is celebrated not only by Hindus, but also by non-Hindus in South Asia, as well as peoples of various communities around the world.
The popularity of Holi today may be understood when its other name, the ‘Festival of Colors’, is taken into account. One of the features of Holi is the use of colored powders and colored water during the festival. Several days before the celebration itself, markets would be filled with colored powders of every hue for the festival-goers to purchase. Whilst this is the norm today, there are those who still make the colored powders by themselves, usually from flowers, in their homes.
A modern Holi festival celebration, India ( Audio Compass )
Don’t Be Offended, It’s Holi!
The coloring of friends and strangers with powder and water is particularly enjoyed by children. Nevertheless, adults also participate enthusiastically in this color fight that begins in the morning of the festival. This color fight seems to be the highlight of Holi, and provides us with the most recognizable images of the festival. In fact, during this celebration, social barriers are broken down, and for a short period of time at least, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are all on an equal footing. There are perhaps some who are not too comfortable with this idea, and the saying ‘ buranamano, Holi hai! ’ (‘Don’t be offended, it’s Holi!’) is meant explicitly for them.
In the tradition of “Braj Lath mar Holi” men living in the Braj region of North India must accept whatever women do to them. One of the common acts is for women to playfully hit the men, who protect themselves with shields. Barasana, India ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Legend of the Demon King: Good Always Triumphs Over Evil
Although the festival of Holi is best known today for its party atmosphere, it also has a religious significance. After all, this festival was originally celebrated within a Hindu context. One legend associated with the festival is that of Prahlad and Hiranyakshyap. According to this legend, there once was a powerful demon king by the name of Hiranyakshyap. This demon king resided in Multan, and was virtually indestructible, due to a boon granted to him by Brahma.
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Hiranyakshyap grew arrogant, considered himself a god, and demanded everyone to worship him. His son, Prahlad, however, was a devotee of Vishnu, and refused to worship his father. As a result, Hiranyakshyap asked his sister, the demoness Holika (it is from her name that we get the word ‘Holi’), for her help to get rid of Prahlad. As Holika had received a boon that made her immune to fire, she went into a pyre with Prahlad on her lap, hoping that her nephew would be burnt alive. Prahlad’s devotion to Vishnu, however, saved him, and the demoness was burnt to death instead.
This story is one of the numerous legends associated with the ‘Holika Dahan’ (‘The Burning of Dahan.’) This is a practice that takes place on the eve of Holi, and is also known as the ‘Chhoti Holi’ (‘Small Holi.’) During the ‘Holika Dahan,’ bonfires are lit to commemorate the deliverance of Prahlad from his evil father and aunt. In many parts of India, an effigy of Holika is also burned on the fire. Thus, the ‘Holika Dahan’ is a reminder that good always triumphs over evil.
Women preparing the Holika Dahan bonfire, Kathmandu, Nepal ( Wikimedia Commons )
Thank Krishna and Radha for the Colorful Addition to Holi
Another legend associated with the festival of Holi is that of Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) and Radha (a gopi, meaning cow-herd girl.) In this story, the playful Krishna was extremely delighted in applying color on Radha and the other gopis. This prank later became a part of the Holi celebration.
Radha celebrating Holi (1788) ( Wikimedia Commons )
In addition, the festival is also a celebration the immortal love between Krishna and Radha. Hence, some have regarded the festival of Holi as nearest in spirit to St. Valentine’s Day. In Vrindavan and Mathura, two cities deeply affiliated with Krishna, the celebration of Holi is spread over a period of 16 days.