A festival of joy and social merriment, it proclaims the passage of winter and the onset of the harvest season.
If Spring is around can Holi be far behind! One of the major Hindu festivals, it is celebrated on the full moon day of Phalgun. Festivities begin almost 15 days before Holi. With each passing day, revellers gather in groups to sing and dance to the accompaniment of traditional instruments like the duflee, dholak, manjira and harmonium. Money is collected for buying wood, cowdung-cakes and sweets for bonfire on the penultimate night of Holi.
Hindu mythology has many legends associated with the festival. According to a popular one, Hiranyakashyap, a proud and powerful demon-king was the father of Prahlad. Enraged at his sonís unflinching devotion to Lord Vishnu, Hiranyakashyap wanted to teach him a lesson. Holika, the sister of Hiranyakashyap, expressed her desire to sit on a burning pyre with Prahlad on her lap. Holika, from whose name the word Holi is derived, was immune to fire. But when she sat on the burning pyre, divine intervention reduced her to ashes while Prahlad survived unhurt.
The present day tradition of bonfires on the full moon day symbolises the burning of Holika. The following morning, called Dhulendi, celebrates the victory of good over evil, with people running riot with colours and water.
In Uttar Pradesh Holi is a special occasion. In places like Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandgaon and Barsana, the festival is celebrated for a period of almost 50 days. From Basant Panchami to Chaitra Krishna Dashmi, the entire Braj area comes alive. Barsana, the legendary hometown of Radha, the consort of Lord Krishna, is famous for its lathmar or Holi played with sticks. The women or the gopis of Barsana challenge the men of the neighbouring Nandgaon (the home of Krishna) to throw colour and water. When men retaliate, women attack them with wooden sticks. The day after the Holi at Barsana, it is celebrated in Nandgaon. Hurihare or males of Goswami family from Nandgaon come well-equipped for the beating. After gulping few glasses of bhang and thandai, the males cover their heads with shields and muster the blows singing and dancing. The gopis of Barsana use the opportunity to give a good beating, befitting the tradition. In Dauji, near Nandgaon, revellers welcome Holi by thrashing the men with whips made out of old clothes.
In Gujarat, Holi is popularly known as Hulosani, and sacred ash from the pyre of Holika is utilised in preparing idols of Goddess Amba. These idols are adorned with flowers and colours by young maidens who pray for a handsome groom.
In Rajasthan, while the royal family of Jaipur enjoy this festival riding on elephants, Jaisalmer and Banswara are famous for their bloody Holi where men and women pelt each other with stones. Usually the women hit the men-folk with stones and the popular belief is that the person who bleeds the most is considered to be lucky.
In Punjab the Sikhs observe Hola-Mohalla, a day after Holi, and stage mock battles with ancient weapons. In Orissa, people gather in large numbers to sing in praise of Lord Jagannath. Mouth-watering delicacies such as gujia, aaloo puri, kanji-ke-vade, rayata puri add to the festive mood.