Holi, one of the most festive holidays of the year, is celebrated primarily in the North of India and falls on the full moon day of Phalguna (February - March). The festival is marked by revelry as partakers in th event paint each other with brightly colored powders. Song, dance and bright red, green, yellow and pink powders are the hallmark characteristics of the occasion.
During Holi, in India, the streets are overtaken by crowds awash with colored powder. Not only clothes, but faces, arms and hair are smeared and sprayed with every color of the rainbow. People of all ages sing, dance, play, hug each other and smile with such child-like joy that it makes one wonder where so much happiness comes from! It is a celebration of love, forgiveness, hope and just plain fun.
From a joyous spring-time festival to the killing of the demoness Holika by Lord Krishna, Holi is celebrated for many reasons and is known by several names such as Kamadahana and Dol-yatra.
On the day of Holi, people celebrate by playing with colors, dancing and running in the streets. Water pistols are filled with colored water and squirted on family, friends and strangers alike. Dyed powders and water balloons are a big part of the play. The wise ones wear old clothes, usually white, in anticipation of the mess! Virtually anything goes, including ribald humor, practical jokes and teasing—all excused with the saying, “Don’t mind, it’s Holi!” (Hindi: Bura na mano, Holi hai.) Men are at the playful mercy of women, who dance with them and even dress them in drag. Especially in North India, people celebrate without inhibition, even splashing colors on their homes as a prelude to the more sober custom of renewing the paint with shell-based white. Deities and images of ancestors are hand-painted and placed in beautiful altars. Dramatic events featuring devotional songs and the retelling of the love epic of Radha and Krishna are carried out. Bonds are renewed, particularly among in-laws and extended family. Etiquette on Holi requires that one accept all overtures with an open heart, burying grievances to begin relationships afresh. People of all walks of life mingle and greet, applying vermilion on each others' foreheads in an uninhibited exchange of goodwill.
In addition to playing with colors, various songs are sung in jubilation. Traditionally, songs of Shiva-Parvati, Sita-Rama, and Radha-Krishna are sung. Then local heroes, such as Kunwar Singh in the Varanasi region are also praised in song. In other regions, songs of Alha-Udala, Haradaula, etc. are sung.
The dry powder colors are called "gulal," and once mixed with water, the colors are called "rang."
Each color holds a special meaning:
- Red: symbolizes fertility, love, beauty, and most importantly, a sign of a married woman.
- Yellow: is almost synonymous with turmeric, an ingredient of great importance. Known for its antiseptic nature, it is used during auspicious functions and for medicinal use such as for the treatment of inflammatory and digestive disorders.
- Blue: is the color of Lord Krishna.
- Green: symbolizes new beginnings, harvest, and fertility.
- Saffron: is associated with piety, and strength.
Although lately, colored powders and dyes made of toxic chemicals are often used during Holi, they were traditionally made using vegetable components, food and ayurvedic recipes. The idea was to use powders which would benefit the skin in addition to being fun to play with. For example:
- Red: Red pomegranate rind soaked in water overnight. A pinch of edible gypsum mixed with turmeric powder in water. Alternatively, red hibiscus flowers soaked in water overnight.
- Yellow: Turmeric
- Brown: Betel nuts soaked in water overnight and diluted as necessary or boiled tea or coffee in water.
- Purple: Blueberries boiled in an iron vessel and let stand overnight.
- Magenta: Sliced or grated beet root left overnight in water. Diluted as needed for the desired shade.
- Green: Puréed spinach, coriander, neem, or mint leaves in water. Strained prior to use.
The Holi bonfire
Many communities build a bonfire on the night before Holi, starting with kindling and logs which are followed by organic debris that is collected as their property is cleaned. The fire symbolizes the torching of negative or troublesome experiences and memories. An effigy of Holika, a rakshasi (demoness) personifying negativity, is consigned to the flames, and freshly harvested barley and oats are offered. The embers are collected to light sacred fires, and the ashes are used to mark the forehead as a blessing.
Holi, like other festivals, is filled with spiritual meanings and undertones and signifies several events in addition to being a fun, playful festival.
Holi is meant to wean man away from sensual pleasures and gradually take him to the spiritual path and divine communion. As part of the Holi bonfire, people offer freshly harvested grains to the Gods before partaking in them.
In addition to sprinkling colored waters and the lighting of bonfires, Holi is filled with ceremonies for the worship of God, religious gatherings and Kirtan (recitation) of the Lord’s Names. This time is considered most sacred and spent in devotional prayers, visiting holy places, bathing in sacred waters, and Satsang with great souls. Abundant charity is given to the poor and devotees of the Lord remember the delightful pastimes of the Lord on happy occasions such as Holi.
The social element during Holi is the uniting or “embracing” of the great and small, and of the rich and poor, as well as uniting equals. The festival teaches to “let the dead bury the dead.” It helps people forget the outgoing year’s ill-feelings and begin the new year with feelings of love, sympathy, cooperation and equality with all.
Holi also signifies a time of “sacrifice.” The holiday symbolically presents an opportunity to burn all the impurities of the mind, such as egoism, vanity and lust, through the fire of devotion and knowledge. It represents cosmic love, mercy, generosity, selflessness, truthfulness and purity through the fire of yogic practice and rising from the mire of stupidity and absurdity to dive deep into the ocean of divinity.
For many, the call of Holi is to always keep the light of God and love shining in the heart.
Prahlaad and Holika
One story told during Holi is the story of Prahlaad and Holika. The Puranas describe Holi as a celebration of virtue over vice. It is the celebration of the victory of pure, divine Prahlaad over his aunt Holika.
Prahlaad was a young, handsome, pure, divine devotee of Lord Vishnu. However, Prahlaad's father was a powerful king who believed that everyone should worship him as god. At Prahlaad's refusal to do so, due to his single-minded love of God, his father decided to have him killed. Prahlaad's aunt (his father's sister), Holika, had been given a special shawl as a boon from God for various austerities she had performed. When she wore this shawl, she could not be burned by fire. So, Prahlaad's father and his sister devised a plan in which she would wear her shawl and hold Prahlaad tightly in her arms as they sat in fire. In this way, Prahlaad would be killed, but she would emerge unscathed.
However, a strong gust of wind came and blew the shawl off of her, as well as carried Prahlaad to safety and Holika was burned in the fire.
One of the great obstacles to spiritual progress is the difference between what is said or done on the outside versus what is thought on the inside. Holika had performed certain austerities by which she was entitled to this boon from God. On the outside, she was "pious." But, on the inside she was not pure. Prahlaad, on the other hand, was a simple, pure, loving devotee of God. This is what saved him. This inner purity and inner piety are what truly saves devotees.
Thus, on this divine occasion, people pray to be filled with the purity and devotion of Prahlaad. They commit themselves to performing puja, meditation and japa with focus, dedication and deep love for God.
In some regions, this same scene is enacted every year to remind people that those who love God shall be saved, and they that torture the devotee of God shall be reduced to ashes. When Holika was burnt, people abused her and sang the glories of the Lord and of His great devotee, Prahlaad. In imitation of that, people even today use abusive language, but unfortunately forget to sing the praises of the Lord and His devotee!
Dolyatra: Krishna and the Gopis
In some places, Holi is called the Dol Yatra. The word dol literally means “a swing”. An image of Sri Krishna as a baby is placed in a little swing-cradle and decorated with flowers and painted with colored powders. The pure, innocent frolics of little Krishna with the merry milkmaids (Gopis) of Brindavan are commemorated. Devotees chant the Name of Krishna and sing Holi-songs relating to the frolics of little Krishna with the Gopis.
According to Krishna Lila, Lord Krishna noticed one day how much lighter Radha’s complexion was than His own. His mother playfully suggested that He smear Radha’s cheeks with color to make Her look like Him, which Krishna did. The strong willed Radha gleefully retaliated, and a merry chaos ensued. Another story records that Krishna celebrated this festival with His friends and the Gopis. They danced and frolicked, filling the air with color in a joyous welcome of spring.
On the festival day, people clean their homes, remove all dirty articles from around the house and burn them. Disease-breeding bacteria are thereby destroyed. The sanitary condition of the locality is improved. During the festival, boys dance about in the streets. People play practical jokes with passers-by. A bonfire is lit towards the conclusion of the festival. Games representing the frolics of the young Krishna take place joyously around a fire.
Holi is known by name of Kamadahana in some regions of South India.
At the time when Lord Shiva was in the form of Dakshina-murti teaching the sages Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana, Sanatkumara how to realize the Ultimate Truth, the devatas came into hardship by the asuras lead by Surapadma, Simhamukha and Tharaka as a result of a curse for attending the dakshayagna. They were unable to win against Surapadma because he had a boon that none other than the son of Shiva could defeat him. The devatas were desperate for a solution and out of that desperation, they asked Kama devata to induce lust in Lord Shiva towards Parvati (who was herself undergoing penance in order to marry Lord Shiva).
Kama was sure that he was getting into trouble, however out of pressure from the devatas he went to the abode of Lord Shiva and shot an arrow that would kindle lust on the Lord. The arrow of Kama failed to induce lust in the Lord and as the Lord opened his third-eye, Kama was burnt down to a heap of ash. Unperturbed the Lord continued teaching the sages.
This incident of burning Kama is called Kamadahana or Holi. The posture of God burning Kama is called Kama dahana murthi and is one of the twenty-five Maheshvara murthis.
As the lust was won over by the bliss of Lord Shiva, the Kamadahana festival is celebrated as an event associating with the bliss of God. The Holi bonfire is in commemoration of this event. The ash of Kama's body settled over the Lord Shiva. So following kamadahana during Holi, people put the powders on themselves and others remembering this victory over lust. To this day, people offer sandalwood paste to Kamadeva to relieve from his stinging burns and mango blossoms that he loved on Holi.
The Grandchild & Holika
Another legend has it that once upon a time an old woman’s grandchild was to be sacrificed to a female demon named Holika. A Sadhu advised that abuse and foul language would subdue Holika. The old woman collected many children and made them abuse Holika in foul language. The demon fell dead on the ground. The children then made a bonfire of her remains.
Celebrating the Arrival of Spring
Holi is also known as Vasanta Utsava. It is a celebration of the arrival of Spring, the most beautiful period of the year--with trees wearing new leaves and climate becoming pleasant.
Delicacies for the Occasion
Special sweet and savory treats including mathri, puran poli and vadai are made. Many communities make an intoxicating, cooling drink, called thandai, made of purified water, sugar, seeds of watermelon, muskmelon and lotus, along with nuts, cardamom, fennel, white pepper, saffron and rose petals.
- Sri Swami Sivananda, "Hindu Fasts & Festivals", Divine Life Society
- "Holi, Splashed with Colors of Friendship" Hinduism Today, April/May/June 2010, pg 68
- Kunwar Singh was a hero in the 1857 war of Independence that India fought with Britain.
- "How to Turn your Holidays into Holy Days" by H.H. Swami Chidanand Saraswati, Garavi Gujarat House, 2004
- Kama had earlier been vested with the power by Lord shiva to induce lust in all creatures (exists in order to maintain the reproduction as a system)