Happy Holi!

What is the Indian Spring Festival of Color?

Written & Edited by Jay Kshirsagar & Diva Garg
Illustrated by Himanshi Parmar

Anyone who grew up in India would remember the Spring festival of Holi as one of childhood's most unforgettable precious memories. Think paintball, street version. An inventory of weapons - water balloons, water blasters, and powdered pigments.

Some criminals of war even threw eggs and mud! Sweet sunshine, relief from the heat because of the cold water, delicious food, and tasty summer drinks.

'Holi' is a word that springs to mind images of color, sounds of cheer, and sensations of relief, refreshment, and joyful abandon.

Holi is a holy Indian festival (no pun intended) celebrated ubiquitously all over the Indian subcontinent, and at this point, almost all over the world - within and outside the Indian diaspora. It is the grand celebration of the incoming Spring, celebrated on the full Moon (Purnima) of the month of Phalgun (February-March) in the Vedic calendar. While it looks like it boils down to elated color and water' fights,' like all traditional festivals from the subcontinent (across all communities and religions), there is a more profound history of this multi-layered and ancient Indian tradition.

Mythological lore

Like everything else when it comes to India, there is no single monolithic story that is attributed to traditions. The same goes for Holi. It is celebrated differently as you go to different parts of the country, with changes in rituals of dance, song, food, drink, and garb. The central themes, however, are more or less the same. While some stories remain at the forefront of the Indian consciousness, others are perhaps lost or forgotten over the ages and would be hard to trace.

  1. The most common story is that of the asura (demoness), Holika - where the name Holi originates. Holika was the sister of King Hiranyakashipu, who wished to be immortal and did the required tapas (penance and rituals - not to be confused with Spanish food) to win a boon from Lord Bramha (the Hindu God of creation):
    • Not to die at the hands of any being created by Brahma.
    • Not to perish inside or outside, by day or night, by any weapon, on the earth or in the sky, by men or beasts, devas (divine beings) or asuras (demons), to be unequaled, possessing undiminishing power.
    • Become the one ruler of all creation.

    Upon receiving this boon, he became all-powerful and evil, demanding that the people of his land only pray to him. His son, Prahlada, remained a worshiper of Lord Vishnu (The Hindu God of preservation, restorer of dharma - the eternal law). It infuriated the King so much that he made many attempts to kill his own son, all in vain, as Vishnu protected the boy.

    One of these attempts was suggested by the King's sister, Holika, who persuaded Prahlada to sit atop her lap on a pyre while wearing a fireproof cloak. When the fuel was set on fire to burn the King's son alive, Lord Vishnu came to protect his devotee. The veil jumped from Holika's body and covered Prahlada, keeping him safe from the fire and vanquishing his ill-intentioned aunt.

    After this, Lord Vishnu showed up as a Narasimha (half man, half lion - and so, not a man or a beast) and brought Hiranyakashipu to a doorway (neither inside nor outside), put him on his lap (which is neither land nor water), at dusk (which is neither day nor night) and tore Hiranyakashipu apart with his claws (which is not a weapon). This story traditionally represents the victory of good over evil. It is celebrated on the night of Purnima (Full Moon) by people gathering around large bonfires.

  2. The other story is that of the paramour couple in Hindu mythology - Krishna and Radha. So tied are Krishna and Radha together that their names are rarely said apart. The story goes that Krishna was afraid he was too dark to be liked by the fair-skinned Radha. So, to cheer him up, Krishna's mother, Yashodha, offered to put color onto his face so he could go and meet Radha without this sense of inferiority. It was successful, and Radha and Krishna would never be apart again. This particular story is celebrated in the Braj region of India, where the throwing of colors is seen as a symbol of celebration of divine love, regardless of race, color, or creed.
  3. Yet another story is one of Shiva and Lord Kamadeva (the God of love), coming from the tradition of Shaivism/Shaktism. Shiva sat in a deep state of meditation as part of his yogic practice when his wife, Parvati, wanted him to return to the material world. She sought help from Kamadeva (the God of love), who shot an arrow of love at Shiva to wake him up. This greatly angered Shiva, who opened his third eye (Shiva is the God of destruction, and you don't want him opening his third eye) and obliterated Kamadeva.

This, for obvious reasons, terribly upset Kamadeva's wife, Rati, and Parvati, who was responsible for this circumstance. Rati went on to perform her own ritual meditation for forty days, at the end of which Shiva felt deep compassion and understood his mistake, bringing the God of love back to life. The day Kamadeva was brought back to life is celebrated as Holi, particularly in parts of South India. This version highlights the triumph of love and the importance of compassion and forgiveness.

Pagan perspectives throughout the history of the world, religions, and traditions have sprouted from the pagan practices of indigenous people. Paganism refers to the worship of the elements of nature and organizing rituals around cycles and dynamics within nature. One of the most ubiquitous phenomena that have been celebrated throughout the history of humanity all around the globe is the night of the Full Moon. The other is the arrival of Spring. To celebrate the arrival of Spring is to welcome a new year of natural abundance. Holi marks the beginning of Spring when the winter harvest is procured, and farmers are ready to sow the new seeds for the year.

The core essence of any festival is to bind people together, find common ground, let go of differences, forgive each other, and move on to a new, bright future. Such is the essence of Holi as well. It comes after winter when new life springs abundant. It allows people to meet each other in the space of joy, love, and celebration and allows a therapeutic area to heal old wounds. There is historical evidence of Mughal rulers making it compulsory for Holi to be celebrated with glorious festivities of color at the Red Fort in Delhi, where even the highest ranks of British officials were invited.

A moment like Holi offers an excuse, an opportunity to let go, forgive, love, play, and move on with a renewed sense of hope, joy, and togetherness.

Happy Holi!