Holi - The Festival of Colours

Jul 27, 2015, 12:01 PM
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Holi, the festival of colour, marking the end of winter and the onset of spring, falls in the month of Phalgun (February or March), on a full moon day, according to the lunar calendar. Though the name it is known by, like Shimga or Dolayatra, and the legends behind the celebrations may vary from state to state.

It is on the eve of the festival of colours that the rituals actually begin. The evening before, is marked by the lighting of bonfires. In the evening, large groups of people congregate at the designated place to light the bonfire. Amidst chanting of hymns, singing of traditional songs and making offerings to the fire, the revelry continues late into the night till the towering flames are muted and only the glowing embers remain.

A popular legend associated with the festival concerns the demon Hiranyakashyap, who was ambitious and ruthless. To attain supreme power over his land and people, the King wanted to be regarded as God and be worshipped as such. Unfortunately, his own son, Pralhad refused to follow such orders and disobeyed his father. He was a fervent devotee of Lord Vishnu and so gave his allegiance and utmost devotion only to his lord. The proud king, unhappy with his son’s behaviour, decided to punish him. He ordered his sister Holika, to jump into a fire with Prahlad. Holika had a boon whereby she could get into a fire and come out unscathed. However, her treachery in luring young Prahlad into entering the fire with her, resulted in Prahlad being saved due to his devotion to Lord Vishnu and, Holika herself, being burnt to ashes as with the sinister thoughts on her mind she failed to pay heed to the fact that her boon worked only if she entered the fire alone. It was thus the triumph of good over evil. 

Then, there is the story of the mischievous young Lord Krishna and his childhood sweetheart Radha. In conversation with his mother, Lord Krishna once asked her why his complexion was dark while that of his friends and Radha was so fair. His mother replied that he could go and colour their faces in whichever colour he wished. In the little village of Barsana, in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, Lord Krishna is believed to have caught up with Radha and the other Gopis (milkmaids) and smeared their faces with colour. The women, unhappy with this prank, chased him out with wooden sticks. And so evolved the tradition of Lath Mar in which, as the men apply colour, the women chase them away with sticks. It is followed even today in Mathura and Barsana.

In certain regions of the country, the festivities of Holi take on a new ‘high’ as the revellers traditionally partake of an intoxicating beverage known as Bhang or Thandai. This beverage is made painstakingly made by grinding together many herbs and spices to a fine paste and mixing it with milk. The addition of cannabis, locally known as bhang, gives it intoxicating powers. Though the consumption of Cannabis is banned by law, shops, in certain areas are licensed to sell it in deference to ancient customs and traditions.

Irrespective of what the origins of this festival really were or the variety of ways in which it is celebrated – one truth remains…Holi is an expression of the sheer joy of life and the overwhelming spirit of acceptance and togetherness. 

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