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Quick, think of spring and what comes to mind? The festival of Holi, of course!! Think of Holi and what springs to mind? ‘Gulal’ or dry colours in bright shades, ‘pichkaris’ or water pistols, and buckets of water to drench people, right? For, winter has finally come to an end, and the friendly mischief of spring is in the air.

And so, on the day of Holi, huge armies of children and adults come out on the streets. They come armed with pichkaris and gulal, waiting to get their coloured hands on anyone with a clean face! It is difficult to recognise even your best friend through layers of gulal, red, blue and green. When applied with water the gulal refuses to leave the skin, at least for a while. There are those who go to the other extreme and smear ugly paint and grease.

Holi - The Colours of Spring
Holi – The Colours of Spring [Illustrations by Kusum Chamoli]
The mud bath

All this action is tuned to shouts of ‘Holi Hai’ (it is Holi) and frantic drum beats. The more adventurous ones fill up specially prepared mud baths to dunk people in. They laugh uproariously – until someone throws them in. And while the adults go on a hugging spree, including neighbours, friends relatives and even strangers, children are busy taking aim with water balloons!

Finally, they all spend hours in their baths, trying to rub away the colours that stick to them like second skin. Exhausted, they tuck into the special sweets made on the occasion of Holi, like the ‘gujiya’ and ‘malpua’ of northern India (made of flour, milk, sugar and dry fruits), and savouries like ‘dahi vada’. They go to school, college, office or the vegetable market the next day with ears and nose that are red and green.

This is the kind of Holi that is usually played in the big towns and cities of India these days. But Holi began as a rural festival, celebrating the fertility of the land and the passage of the seasons. On that day, people forgot their hard lives and tried to colour the day bright. On that day, people living in huts could play mischief even with those living in mansions. But the next day, life went back to normal.

Journey of Holi- from the village to the city

Do you know how far the Hindu festival of Holi has travelled? It has travelled from the village to the city. Once only the common people used to celebrate Holi, but it later became a festival of kings. Imagine, the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jehangir and then Shahjehan, too, played Holi in their royal courts. About one hundred and seventy five years ago, another Mughal emperor at the Delhi court brought his children new clothes on the occasion! And today, Holi is played by people of all communities.

While celebrated in most parts of the country, Holi is more popular in the northern, western and eastern parts of the India.

The stick beating Holi

Wait till you see the celebration of Holi in Mathura and Vrindavan — the land of Radha and Krishna. The people here have grown up listening to the tales of mischievous young Krishna breaking the gopis (damsels’) earthen pots, and his love for and fights with Radha. On Holi they act out scenes from those legends.

But on Holi, it is Radha’s side which is stronger, in a celebration spread over two weeks. On Holi, it is the turn of the women to get even with men – by beating them with lathis or sticks!! Fittingly, this Holi is called the ‘lath’ (stick) ‘maar’ (beating) Holi!!
The men come prepared for the beating – their heads and faces are padded with turbaned cloth and on their bodies are leather shields. The women just beat them until their arms ache. But the wonder is that nobody gets hurt in this enactment of Holi!!

The bonfire or the story of Holika

The night before Holi, is the night of huge bonfires of leaves shed by winter trees, to make way for spring’s budding leaves. But there is another story attached to the bonfire – a story of the victory of good over evil.

The evil king was Hiranyakashyap. He believed that he was greater than God Vishnu, whom his son Prahalad worshipped. One day, when his father asked him, “Who is greater, God or I?” Prahalad calmly replied, “God, for you are a mere king.”

Angered, the king ordered his soldiers to throw Prahalad from a mountain, but the boy was saved by the god he worshipped. Furious, the king ordered his sister Holika to see that Prahalad was burnt alive. Holika had a boon that no fire could burn her. So she sat on the pyre with Prahalad on her lap, to prevent him from escaping.

As the flames leapt up Holika was reduced to ashes while Prahalad’s devotion saved him once again! And so the bonfire on the eve of Holi marks the victory of good over evil. It also marks the death of winter and welcomes the new life of spring.

When the God of love played mischief

Eastern India has its own legends of Holi. According to one of the legends, Lord Shiva was in deep meditation, when Kama or the god of love, shot an arrow towards Shiva, just to tease him. Disturbed, Shiva reduced him to a heap of ash with his anger. But, immediately he felt sorry for his cruel act and brought back Kama to life! There is also the custom of rocking the image of Krishna in decorated swings and making colour offerings.

Preparations for this colourful festival begin a week in advance, all over the country. Houses are white-washed and intricate ‘rangolis’ or floor patterns are drawn near the main entrance. Marketplaces wear a festive look, with crowded sweet shops. And of course, pyramids of multi-coloured gulal, are displayed at every step of the way.

When Holi colours meant flowers

Ask your grandmother and she will tell you that in her grandmother’s time, Holi colours were prepared at home, using the flowers from the tree called palash or ‘flame of the forest’. The flaming red flowers which were dried in the sun, ground into a fine powder and then mixed in water to give the colour of the setting sun.

Unlike the chemical powders now used as gulal, this lovely colour was actually considered good for the skin. And, unlike the plastic and metal pichkaris of today, our great-grandparents used water pistons made of bamboo!

Processions and wrestling matches

There are many other events that our great grandparents saw during Holi. For example, before independence, Lahore city was famous for its public events in which men dressed up as gods. The Punjabis, especially in villages, preferred wrestling matches on the day of Holi.

Each generation has added its own touch of celebration to Holi. While some of the old practices have disappeared, new ones have taken its place. Today, many of us hate the thought of being smeared with colour, and are satisfied by sending friends colourful greeting cards, saying ‘Holi Hai’. I am sure our great-grandmothers are giggling in heaven at this thought!!

In cities, particularly, the friendly mischief often turns into serious violence – the friendliness is gone, and the mischief turns into terrible fights between gangs of children or adults.

How can we bring back that spirit of friendly mischief? Through the friendly colours of the palash? By not forcing people who are scared, to play Holi? Do you have any ideas? If so, you know where to reach us — at Pitara.

HAPPY HOLI to all of you out there!!