Holi (pronounced ho-lee), also known as Phagwa, is marked at the transition from the Hindu months Phalguna to Chaitra. The Hindu calendar being lunisolar, this date changes every year. In 2010 it fell on March 1st. Besides India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, it is observed by the South Asian diaspora in all its regional varieties throughout Europe, America, Canada, Australia, in New Zealand, South Africa, and of course, Suriname, Trinidad, Mauritius and Fiji which are notable countries where South Asians were brought for labor and now constitute a significant proportion of the population.
In a timeless past of the Satya Yuga, a ruler from a race of giants, known as Daityas, held power and riches unrivaled, except by his own attire. Thus, he was known as Hiranyakashipu, or, ‘Golden-robed’. After performing austerities (tapas) and being granted a boon by Brahma which had made him nearly invincible, the ‘Demon King’ attacked the Heavens, lorded over earth, demanded people worship him, and squandered his wealth on destruction and his own greatness, even challenging Lord Indra.
This all was at odds with his own son, Prahlada, a pious devotee of Lord Vishnu; a Vaishnava, whom sought to correct his father in the right virtues of a Maharaja and to guide him in Bhakti realization of the Supreme Soul by renouncing avarice and absorbing his thoughts on Him. This only made his father furious,
[T]he daitya ruler daunted upon seeing how the attempts ran futile, devised with determination for a variety of ways to kill him. Crushing him with an elephant, attacking with the king’s poisonous snakes, with spells of doom, throwing him from heights, conjuring tricks, imprisoning him, administering venom and subjecting him to starvation, cold, wind, fire and water and with piling rocks upon him, was the demon unable to put his son, the sinless one, to death… (Srimad Bhagavata Purana, 7.5.42-4)
And yet, the boy through his devotion to the Lord was protected from his father’s persecution time and time again. At long last his father’s wrath brought him before the court, and challenged to see this God who could challenge his own deific powers. He would try to kill his son himself this time, but before the boy’s head could be severed by his father who scoffed that no one could save him, God made his omnipresence known to all assembled from a pillar. The universe cracked open, and a cacophony of sounds and kaleidoscopic dimensions could be seen; the omnipresence of God within everything. Narasimha, the fourth avatara of Vishnu, a hybrid with man’s torso and lion’s head then appeared from this pillar and mauled the Demon King Hiranyakashipu to shreds. The king had used a boon from Brahma gained by devotion for evil; thus God had to manifest himself in earthly form to correct this terrorizing and subjection of earth and heavens alike.
Among the schemes Hiranyakashipu hatched against his son was when he asked his sister to have Prahlada to sit in her lap in a bonfire. Hiranyakashipu’s sister had received a special boon that gave her immunity to fire. However; she was burned to death and Prahlad saved. There are numerous accounts as to the reason for this, but suffice it to say, the sister of the king died and good triumphed.
Hiranyakashipu’s sister was named Holika, from which Holi is believed to derive. It is this event that Holi celebrates in Holika Dahan (the burning of Holika), in which bonfires are lit, primarily in North India, the day before Holi. Originally these included effigies of Holika, but in most parts this is now replaced by a simple pyre. Comparisons to their fellow Aryans’ (if only common traditional heritage; I have no intent of opening the Aryan Invasion Theory can of worms here) celebration of Cheharshanbe-Souri in Iran and indeed, bonfire spring festivals in Indo-European cultures throughout Europe, are readily seen. The triumph of light over darkness.
The main story as recounted and summarized above, can be considered by some to be a Vaishnava polemic, with Hiranyakashipu representing Lord Shiva. As such, given where you are, an alternate account is of Kama and Shiva.
As recounted in the Saura Purana, there was another daitya called Taraka whom had achieved a boon from Brahma after severe austerities. He asked for the boon of being invincible to the gods; and like Hiranyakashipu, effectively immortal. Of course, Brahma thought this too much so asked for an exception. The wily Taraka made the condition that only the child of Shiva could kill him. Shiva was doing penance and lost in himself after losing his first wife, Dakshayani (which is the subject of another famous myth which is the source of the practice of sati; Sati being another name for Dakshayani), therefore Taraka had reasoned that Shiva would be unable to produce a son.
Of course, Taraka does what demons granted boons of immense power by Brahma do, he terrorizes the universe of gods and men. He battles Vishnu for 30,000 years alone, but Vishnu has to retreat in confusion and hide. Beleaguered, the gods meet with Brahma, who tells them of Taraka’s weakness. They hatch a plan.
Parvati, who had realized she was the reincarnated Dakshayani from a young age, and had performed severe penances for Shiva’s hand in marriage, was put before Shiva. The only problem, is that Shiva was absorbed in yogic asceticism, having renounced the world after the loss of his first wife. So, Kama (yes, as in the Kama Sutra; and, counterpart to Greek Eros; Cupid) is enjoined to put lust into Shiva and wake him from his trance to produce the progeny that will defeat Taraka.
But, when Shiva awakens from his meditation after being immovable by either Parvati or Kama, he sees Parvati there, and then, sees Kama with his five flowered arrow drawn in its bow and aimed at him. Shiva’s third-eye shoots forth a fire accumulated in his tapas and incinerates Kama by its own power independent of Shiva’s will. Parvati is now distressed, and rebukes Shiva. It is now that she asks for her boon from him, having suffered as an example to all yoginis past and present. She asks that Kama be revived. Consenting, Shiva replies, “Let [Kama] be without a body in order to please you, lady with beautiful eyes. In that form he will be able to shake the world.”
Long story short, Shiva and Parvati beget Skanda (the Hindu ‘Ares’), who destroys Taraka. In South India, Holi is thus referred to as Kama Dahanam. But of course, the larger lesson was the victory of love, for now the disembodied Kama, with his wife Rati, could flit from one corner of the earth to another like the wind. In this context, Holi is like an Indian Valentine’s Day.
In this spirit, the Ras-Lila is celebrated (literally, ‘Passion Play’ and quite different from the Christian form, of course!); particularly in Mathura and Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna (the eighth avatara of Vishnu) was born and the place of the Ras-Lila, respectively. The Ras-Lila is the all-famous tale of the gopis’ (milk maidens) love and adoration of the perfect youth Krishna, who playfully teased them mercilessly in the 10th Book of the Srimad Bhagavata Purana (not to be confused with the Bhagavad Gita of the Mahabharata), and the tryst between him and Radha, whom is never actually named, in chapter 30, where she is only a mystery woman held in awed jealousy by the pining gopis who follow the couple’s footsteps into the forest. This story with elaborations is a staple of bhajans and Indian poetry, drama, and naturally, today’s transmitter of myth, Bollywood (here’s an example).
A word of warning. To suggest anything unchaste about Radha, or to reduce Krishna to a Casanova, to suggest anything sexual at all beyond romantic metaphor, is extremely offensive to devout Hindus; particularly Vaishnavas. It has an invective history with the Christian missionaries and continues to this day on Christianist supremacist websites. Having said this word of warning though, of Holi, the entry in A Dictionary of Hinduism says,
A spring festival dedicated to Krishna and the gopis. It took the place of an earlier kind of Saturnalia, ‘the survival of a primitive fertility ritual, combining erotic games, “comic operas” and folk dancing’. Some of the earlier elements remain, such as the singing of suggestive songs, the throwing of coloured water, and jumping over bonfires, the ashes of which are believed to possess magical powers.
Indeed, I tend to take this view, and see the other myths as later accretions or adaptations to an earlier Indo-European fertility festival, as do I see the Radha-Krishna relationship a sublimation of an earlier myth. During Holi, caste distinctions are suspended, and the sexes may mix freely; likely customs surviving from the ubiquitous “safety valve” many early cultures observed at least once a year – just as modern ones do to this day.
In a 7th century play, Ratnavali, it was said,
Witness the beauty of the great cupid festival which excites curiosity as the townsfolk are dancing at the touch of brownish water thrown from squirt-guns.
They are seized by pretty women while all along the roads the air is filled with singing and drum-beating.
Everything is coloured yellowish red and rendered dusty by the heaps of scented powder blown all over.
This is the first recording of Dhulhendi, the day of Holi most recognizable today. Let me set the scene. You know nothing of Holi, you are a visitor in India. This delightful scenario is played in this scene from the 2006 film, “Outsourced”:
Instruments of Fun:
Abir and Gulal – colored powders
Originally made from natural dyes, some with Ayurvedic properties, there has been concern over toxic ingredients in recent years, and a move towards organic products. The symbolism with spring, of course, is self-evident.
Pichkari – soaker type of syringe
While many of these still retain their traditional design, many more kids can be seen with super soakers and custom pichkaris with Bollywood actors and actresses, cartoon characters and other themes, even in shapes like elephants or one designed as a bow and arrow (like the ancient Hindu heroes).
Bhang, made from grinding cannabis leaves and flowers into a paste is mixed into chilled drinks and munchie snacks alike. The signature drink of Holi is thandai, a milk based drink flavored with pistachios, almonds, and, of course, marijuana! But, a bhang lassi can also be whipped up, as seen above. Oh, and if you happen upon a sadhu in Varanasi, see if they will pass the chillum. This is one of a few times where social use of marijuana is acceptable, though generally not by women (patriarchal societies’ ‘designated drivers’). Watch this Bollywood song with the information and vocabulary you have just gained!
Although not widely celebrated in Pakistan, in India Holi is now a secular holiday celebrated by all: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Christian, Jew, Parsi, Sikh, atheist, etc. The day after Holi, as well, is the closely related Sikh holiday of Hola Mohalla, most visible in the Sikh homeland of Indian Punjab. In warrior-saint Guru Gobind Singh’s martial tradition, Sikhs will mock fights, sing, play music, recite poetry and kirtans, and eat communally, as is per Sikh practice.
So, alas, to explain my title. It is common to say “Holi hai!” which means “it’s Holi!” as a greeting. Unfortunately, due to timing, I fell off on writing this, and thus added the Hindi ‘was’, tha, to reflect the belated nature of this article.
To end with, I only chose one Bollywood Holi song among a plethora of possibilities, as this one clearly lays out several elements outlined herein and brings it to life! (plus my crush on Rani Mukerji didn’t hurt the selection process)