Holi is one of the world’s most celebrated religious festivals in India and Nepal. It is also known as the Festival of Colors due in part to the way people color themselves in paint. Powdered dye also flies up through the air. But what is this festival all about and why do Hindus come together during the last full moon day of the lunar month?
History of Holi
Hindus celebrate Holi primarily during springtime to welcome the new season, but the festival has a fascinating origin.
The festival started several centuries ago, but its purpose has evolved. It was supposedly a ceremonial rite for married women to bestow prosperity and good fortune on their new life chapter. Today, however, the central theme is centered on the triumph of good over evil. Hindus believe that this is the time of the year when their gods try to eliminate evil demons for a new beginning (Bhandari, 2017). The colors denote sins and therefore, they wash them off at the culmination of the festival to signify clean rebirth.
The festival can be traced back to the tale of King Hiranyakashipu. He proclaimed himself as immortal and ordered his people to worship him as such. However, he was dismayed to find his son, Prahlad, worship Lord Vishnu over him. As the story continues, the Hindu deity appeared in a half-lion, half-man form and killed the evil king.
Another story that is often linked to the festival is the love story of Radha and Krishna. Hindu legend depicts Krishna, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, as a blue-skinned deity. His skin turned as such after drinking poisonous milk from an evil demon as an infant. He fell in love with Radha but was afraid his skin would cause the lady deity not to love him back. To assure him, Radha asked Krishna to color her skin as well. This is the reason why people paint each other’s skin on Holi.
Religious and cultural significance
The Holi Festival is celebrated mostly in India and some parts of the world. The theme of celebration varies per region. Dancing and singing are dominant activities in the West Bengal, where the festival is celebrated a day ahead. The celebration is highly inclusive of foreign tourists in Rajasthan, meanwhile, probably because the region has Pushkar and Jaipur as favorite travel destinations. The Festival of Colors is also widely observed in Lord Krishna’s birthplace Vrindavan and Mathura. Both are around four hours away from India’s capital, Delhi.
There are many rituals observed during Holi. Similar to other festivals in India, these rituals have a mythical association. You can found most of them in Bollywood movies. Some of these are as follows:
During the full-moon eve of the festival, people burn Holika’s effigy on a pyre along with jubilant exclamation. This ritual was inspired by the supposed burning of King Hiranyakashyap’s sister after she ordered the burning of Phrahlad and other devotees of Lord Vishnu. According to Hindu mythology, the Lord saved the little boy and burnt the king’s sister to ashes. The deity then killed the evil king and ended the terror. This is the reason why women in their traditional attire pray to the deity and praise him during the ceremonial rite.
Playing Holi with colors
This is a pre-Christian era tradition that is being observed on the day after Holika Dahan. People engage themselves in various mischievous activities involving playing Holi with colors using water or powder colors. Some of these activities include shooting and aiming others with water guns, throwing water balloons on them, and a lot more. It originates from mythological accounts telling about Lord Krishna playing pranks with the village girls by throwing water.
This is a custom that is mostly followed in the northern and western parts of India, including Punjab and Maharashtra. It involves hanging a butter-milk-filled pot or Matka from a great height. Men will aim to reach it by forming human-pyramids. On the other hand, women will throw buckets of water to them in an attempt to obstruct them.
According to Finlay (2019), Holi colours are not only meant to induce a lively spirit, but they have meanings in Hinduism as follows:
1. Blue. The blue color is associated with deities Krishna and Vishnu. It reminds people that good virtues and courage can trample down evils.
2. Red. Red is not meant for blood among Hindus. It represents the color of life, weddings, festivities, and prosperity. This is the reason why married women and brides wear red.
3. Green. The green color is associated with Prince Rama, another incarnation of Vishnu, who was exiled in the forest throughout his lifetime. It depicts nature and jubilance.
4. Yellow. Yellow signifies Lord Vishnu and Krishna in a yellow dress. The former is often referred to as the weaver or ‘tantuvardhan.’ The Hindu myth went on to say that he weaved the sun’s rays into a piece of cloth for himself.
Holi colours are sourced originally from plant sources. In the modern era, however, advanced synthetic chemistry made them brighter and more toxic in some cases. A contemporary, yet more benign Holi hues are made from over 95% cornstarch mixed with cosmetic-, drug-, and food-grade dyes. They are known in the U.S. as FD&C colors. They are the same pigments responsible for candies’ rainbow colors.
Cultural Influence of the Festival
Holi’s cultural significance lies in the fact that it originated from different mythological stories, which lead to a more profound respect and faith towards its celebration (Sethi, 2019). The theme of the festival promotes the triumph of good over evil, which teaches a lot of moral lessons to ordinary people. The mythological stories strengthen the faith of man into God’s ultimate power and mercy over the human race, particularly its devotees. The festival of colors encourages people to live a righteous life. Moreover, the celebration is often held when the harvest is at full bloom, providing a chance for people to rejoice.
Holi: Gender Dynamics and the Festival of Colors in Northern India, Siddhi Bhandari, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Articles Vol. 60, http://berkeleyjournal.org/2017/02/holi-gender-dynamics-and-the-festival-of-colors-in-northern-india/, Feb.15, 2017.
The Meaning Behind the Many Colors of India’s Holi Festival, Victoria Finlay, Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/holi-festival-colors-meaning-180958119/, updated March 21, 2019.
The Significance of the Festival Holi, Sweekriti Sethi Global Journal For Research Analysis: Volume-8 | Issue-3 | https://www.worldwidejournals.com/global-journal-for-research-analysis-GJRA/article/the-significance-of-the-festival-holi/MTA2Mzc=/?is=1 March-2019.