Legends behind Holi festival

Rajput painting
A Kangra painting of the 18th century shows Holi celebrations by Krishna, Radha and others

Today, the full moon day in the month of Palguna on the Hindu calendar, is celebrated as a festival of colours. Every year on this day, people seize the opportunity to reach out to people and play with colours – from the token smearing one another’s faces with powdery colours to splashing watery colours on people with guns and balloons to pouring bucketful of coloured water over people with abandon. Nothing is taboo and no one untouched in this game of fun and frolic, as long as it remains confined to playing with colours.

In some parts of the country, the festival begins with Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) in bonfire, the symbolic act of killing the evil within oneself, either the night before or first thing in the morning. Once the bad is destroyed, it is time to celebrate the good – the joy, the love, the peace. Colours, music and dance are summoned to partake in the celebration. This pattern of Holi festivity has its roots in a Puranic legend from Bhagavata Purana.

Demon king Hiranyakashipu’s brother Hiranyakasha gets killed by Varaha, one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu. Angered by this incident, Hiranyakashipu sits on a penance praying to Brahma, the God of creations, and earns a boon.

However, when the demon king asks for immortality, Brahma refuses to bestow it on him. Then Hiranyakashiput asks for strange conditions to make him meet his death. According to them he shall be killed by neither a human nor an animal, neither during day nor night, neither inside the house nor outside, neither on land nor on water or air, neither by a shastra (hand-held weapon) nor by an astra (ejected weapon). Brahma says “Agreed”.

These special conditions for his death make him virtually invincible and gets to his head. Hiranyakashipu becomes so arrogant that he demands everyone in his kingdom worship only him and none other. But alas, his own son Prahlada refuses to follow his order. For, he is a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and he would take only Vishnu’s name and nothing else.

His own son’s belligerence drives Hiranyakashipu mad. He starts torturing Prahlada subjecting him to severe punishments. His sister Holika, who too has some magical powers, joins hands with her brother. Once, she tricks the boy into sitting with her on a pyre thinking she had covered herself with a magical veil that would prevent her from burning. But the opposite happened. She got fully burnt, while Prahlada escaped unhurt, being protected by Lord Vishnu. Hence, Holika Dahan ritual on Holi.

Now Hiranyakashipu’s frustration keeps growing. He demands Prahlada to show him where Lord Vishnu is.  The son says He is everywhere. The demon king points at a pillar and angrily asks if Vishnu is there inside. Prahlada says, “Yes”. The enraged father tries to break the pillar. But to his shock Lord Vishnu appears as Narasimha (with human body and lion’s face) and grabs Hiranayakashipu and sits on the doorway, putting the demon king on his lap and kills him with his long nails at dusk. So, all the conditions to make Hiranyakashipu die are met. The day marks the victory of good over evil.

There is another legend that focuses on colours, which must be the basis for the grand celebration of Holi for five days as Rang Panchami. Mathura and Vrindavan, the birth place of Lord Krishna and the place where He spent his teenage years are the two epicenters of Holi celebrations.

According to the legend, when baby Krishna sucks the poisonous milk from the breast of Putana, the she-demon, his skin colour turns blue. As he grows up, being surrounded by fair-skinned girls like Radha, he feels sad.  His foster mother Yashoda suggests to him that he apply blue colour to Radha and other Gopis so that all would look like him. When Krisha smears Radha other girls’ faces with colours, the amused Gopis playfully beat him with sticks (lathis). Today this scene is enacted again and again, as ‘Lathmar’ ritual at different temples in Vrindavan and Mathura, attracting a large number of tourists on the day.

Whichever way one looks at it, Holy spells an eternal love for fun and frolic, joy and happiness, and preference for good over evil, entrenched in the depth of human heart.


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