Sanatan Dharam Sabha, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Holi - the Festival of Colours

Holi - the festival of colours - is undoubtedly the most fun-filled and boisterous of Hindu festivals. It heralds a spirit of joy and mirth, fun and play, music and dance, and lots and lots of bright colours!

This festival is celebrated in early March and glorifies good harvest and fertility of the land. The new crop refills the stores in every household and perhaps such abundance accounts for the riotous merriment during Holi. This also explains the other names for this celebration - 'Vasant Mahotsava' and 'Kama Mahotsava'.

During the Holi festival, many practices, which at other times could be considered offensive, are allowed and accepted in good sporting spirit. Squirting colored water on passers-by, dunking friends in a mud pool amidst teasing and laughter, getting intoxicated on bhang and reveling with family and friends is perfectly acceptable. In fact, you can get away with almost anything by just saying, "Bura na mano, Holi hai!" (Don't get offended, it's Holi!)

Holi is inextricably linked to various mythical tales. There are at least three legends that are directly associated with the festival of colors: the Holika-Hiranyakashipu-Prahlad episode, Lord Shiva's killing of Kamadeva, and the story of the ogress Dhundhi.

The Holika-Hiranyakashipu-Prahlad Episode

Legend has it that the festival derives its name from Holika, the sister of the mythical megalomaniac king Hiranyakashipu who commanded everyone to worship him. But his little son Prahlad refused to do so, and instead became a devotee of Vishnu.

Hiranyakashipu ordered his sister Holika to kill Prahlad and she, possessing the power to walk through fire unharmed, picked up the child and walked into a fire with him. Prahlad, however, chanted the names of God and was unharmed by the fire. Holika perished because she did not know that her powers were only effective if she entered the fire alone.

This legend has a strong association with the festival of Holi, and even today there is a practice of hurling cow dung into the fire and shouting obscenities at it, as if at Holika.

The Kamadeva Legend

It is believed by many that it was on this day that Lord Shiva opened his third eye and incinerated Kamadeva, the God of Love. Thus, many people worship Kamadeva on Holi day, with the simple offering of a mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste.

The Story of Dhundhi

It was also on this day that an ogress named Dhundhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Prthu was chased away by the shouts and pranks of village youngsters. Although this female monster had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, the shouts, abuses and pranks of the boys were a chink in the armour for Dhundhi, owing to a curse from Lord Shiva.

Radha-Krishna Legend

Another reason to celebrate Holi is to glorify the immortal love of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha. The young Krishna would often complain to his mother Yashoda about Radha's fair and his dark complexion. Yashoda advised him to apply colour on Radha's face to change her complexion. The young Krishna is often depicted in legends as playing pranks like throwing colored powder over Radha and the gopis (cowgirls). During Holi celebrations, images of Krishna and Radha are often carried through the streets, and the festival is celebrated with eclat in the villages around Mathura, the birth-place of Krishna.

Making the Colors of Holi

In medieval times, the colors of Holi, called 'gulal', were made at home from the flowers of the 'tesu' or 'palash' tree (the flame of the forest). These flowers, bright red or deep orange in color, were collected from the forest and spread out on mats to dry in the sun, and then ground to fine dust. The powder, when mixed with water, made a beautiful saffron-red dye. This pigment and also 'aabir', made from natural colored talc, are considered good for the skin, unlike the chemical colours used nowadays.

Holi is a boisterous celebration! Draped in white, people throng the streets in large numbers, smearing one another with bright hued powders and squirting coloured water on one another through pichkaris (big syringe-like hand-pumps), regardless of caste, color, race, sex or social status. There is an exchange of greetings, the elders distribute sweets and money, and all join in a frenzied dance to the rhythm of the drums.

Holi - Day 1

The day of the full moon (Holi Purnima) is the first day of Holi. A platter ('thali') is arranged with coloured powders, and coloured water is placed in a small brass pot ('lota'). The eldest male member of the family begins the festivities by sprinkling colours on each member of the family, and the youngsters follow suit.

Holi - Day 2

On the second day of the festival, called 'Puno', images of Holika are burnt in keeping with the legend of Prahlad. In rural India, the evening is celebrated by lighting huge bonfires as part of the community celebration, with people gathering around the fire to dance and fill the air with folk songs. Mothers often carry their babies five times around the fire, in a clockwise direction, to be blessed by Agni, the God of Fire.

Holi - Day 3

The final day of the festival is called 'Parva', when people visit the homes of relatives and friends, and coloured powders called 'aabir' and 'gulal' are thrown into the air and smeared on one another. 'Pichkaris' and water balloons filled with colours are squirted onto people. Young people pay their respects to the elders by sprinkling some colour on their feet. Coloured powder is also smeared on the faces of the deities, especially Krishna and Radha.

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