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Holi Festival – A Riot of Colour

The festival of Holi symbolizes the victory of good over evil. It also marks the advent of spring and people celebrate joyously with a splash of colour.

As nature blooms in full colour, people of India join the celebrations with the festival of Holi, one of the most boisterous festivals of the Hindus. People celebrate joyously with friends and relatives, putting gulal and throwing coloured water on each other.

The antiquity of the festival is as old as Indian civilization itself. The Nilmata Purana says tht people were aggressive and even abusive on this day because they hoped to frighten away the pisachis or demons, hoping when joy holds sway, evil is kept at bay.

Ancient paintings and writings glorify this riot of colours with exuberance forming the canvas. A unique sculptured panel from a Vijaynagara temple at Hampi shows young lovers and damsel dancing in the centre celebrating Holi, while a maiden on either side is depicted throwing coloured water on them with pistons held in their hands. Painters have reveled in painting Lord Krishna playing Holi with Gopis and Gopas (cowherds and girls). Many beautiful paintings show kings of various kingdoms celebrating in great splendour in their palaces with a tank in the centre full of coloured water. In fact in olden days most palaces were built with an earmarked courtyard and tank just for the Holi celebrations. During this festivals Hindus and Muslims celebrated together breaking down the religious barriers.

This origin of this festival lies in the story in Hiranya Kashiypu. He was a King of ancient times who got a boon from Lord Shiva that nobody could kill him. After being granted the boon the King became arrogant. He insisted that his subjects pray to him saying, “Om Hiranya Kashipu namaha” (Salutations to Hiranya Kashipu) and not to Lord Vishnu as “Om Narayana namah” (Salutations to Vishnu). Only one voice darted object. That was his son Prahalad. Hiranyakashipu put Prahalad through many tests and Prahalad always emerged the winner. One such was when Hiranyakashipyu set a fire to Prahalad who was seated on Holika’s (Haranyakashipu’s sister) lap. Holika had like her brother got herself a boon too. She was fireproof. But when the flames died Holika had turned into ashes. Only Prahalad remained. To celebrate this victory, Holi is celebrated.

There, however, is yet another myth that is equally associated with Holi celebrations. It is said that Parvati who once was desperately in love with Shiva adorned herself and preened before her lover, but he took no notice. She threw a tantrum, and had to appease herself. As Parvati sat desolate, Kama, the God of love felt for her. He offered to shoot his floral arrows of love towards Lord Shiva so that the powerful ascetic may abandon his meditation and give Parvati the attention she so much yearned for. But when the arrows anointed with love fell on the Maha-Yogi, he opened his third eye and burnt into ashes Lord Kama. The God of love was brought back to life by Parvati. This day since these has been celebrated as Holi.

Being a land of diversity, Holi is celebrated differently in various parts of India. In Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, for instance the celebrations reach a feverish pitch. The whole town is decorated and all temples observe different ceremonies from a week before Holi. Ascetics and religious leaders come from all over India to rejoice. They draw from yet another legend of Hindu mythology. There was once a demoness named Holi of Putana. She lived during the time of Lord Krishna. When the infant Krishna was born, his maternal uncle Kamas, was all set to kill him. Kamsa had been told by a voice from heaven that this child would grow up to kill him.

Similar to the story of Moses, Kamsa had ordered that all infants be killed. But Krishna got left out. So he sent Putana to kill him. Puratana or Holi picked up the child from the cradle and put him to her breast which had been smeared with poison. Bu the Lord knew. He bit so hard that he sucked the life out of Holi. So much so, the local legend, goes that body of Putana disappeared. So happy were the cowherds or Yadava tribes of Mathura on the death of the demoness that they made an effigy of ‘Putana and burnt it. Thus Holi is celebrated even today in Mathura.

The Holi celebrations matched the mood of nature. The riot of colours matched the flowers in full bloom. The coloured powders used for playing were made from flowers, roots and herbs that were good for the skin which had become dry during the winter months. On the eve of holi, a bon-fire lit in the memory of Holika, was also supposed to cleanse the surroundings. Special sweets called ‘gujjia’ were made which are very popular to this day. Thus even though Holi is celebrated differently in different parts of the country, the essential message is the same victory of good over evil.

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