It is the time of the year when people dive in color and festivity! Yes, it is the time of the most colorful festival – ‘Holi.’ Holi usually falls in March every year and is a festival of having fun and enjoying myriad hues. People smear colored powder on each other and splash water to enjoy Holi. Though most prominent in North India, the festival is also celebrated across the country with much festivity. But are you aware of the legends of Holi?
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However, there is more to Holi than just the color and the water. There are the legends of Holi! Holi festival dates back its origin thousands of years back into mythology and legendary acts. It is primarily the festival that celebrates the start of the spring season. The early mentions of the colorful festival date back to 7th century works and play ‘Ratnavali’ by King Harsha. He described Holi as ‘a beautiful cupid festival which ignites curiosity among the people dancing amidst the colorful water and scented powder blown in the air. Holi also finds a place in several revered scriptures like the Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-Sutras and the Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras. There are also detailed explanations of the festival in the Narad Purana and Bhavishyad Purana texts.
Legends of Holi
The mythological legend behind Holi is the story of ‘Holika,’ the female demon. She was the sister of the demon king- King Hiranyakashayap. The ferocious Hiranyakashayap ruler always thought of himself as the force ruling the universe and the supreme commander of all Gods. However, his noble son Prahlad devotedly follows Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu is the preserver and ultimate protector of the entire universe. Prahlad always prayed to Lord Vishnu, which angered Hiranyakashayap. The son’s decision to go back on the father left the ferocious rule burning and with no choice to kill him. So one day, along with his sister Holika, Hiranyakashayap developed a plot to kill Prahlad.
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The plot was simple. Holika would take nephew Prahlad on her lap and walk into the bonfire and sit there. She will have a unique garment that would prevent her from any burns by the fire. Prahlad, who would be in her lap, will be burnt to ashes by the fueling fire. However, the plan failed big time. As the fire roared, Prahlad prayed religiously to Lord Vishnu, who summoned a wind that blew the protective garment off Holika and fell and covered Prahlad. This resulted in Holika burning to ashes, and Prahlad came out unharmed. Soon after the incident, Hiranyakashayap tried to kill Prahlad by himself. But Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of Narasimha and killed Hiranyakashayap, and Prahlad became the King. This burning of Holi is celebrated as ‘Holika Dahan.’ It is signified by lighting bonfires across the country on the night before Holi. Some religious people also collect the ashes from the bonfire and smear them on their bodies to purify themselves.
Shiva and Kamdev
Another legends of Holi is believed primarily in Southern India includes Lord Shiva and Kamadeva (who is the God of lust). Kamdev’s body was burnt to ashes by Lord Shiva when the former shot a flower-draped arrow at the Lord to disrupt his meditation. When Kamdev’s wife Rati pleaded to Lord Shiva, the Lord restored him but as a mental image. It represented true love than any physical lust or desire. The Holi bonfire ritual is a tradition to celebrate this legend.
Chhoti Holi (First Day)
The bonfire lighting day signifies ‘Holika Dahan’ is the Chhoti Holi. On this day people don new clothes, clean their homes, freshly paint and decorate them. All the household dirt is removed from the houses and thrown in the ritual Holika Dahan bonfire. This ritual also signifies the removal of evil and dirt from their homes. People gather around the fire and sing folk songs in local languages. Unlike Hindu rituals, the bonfire of Holika Dahaan doesn’t have any priest conducting the rituals. Holi is also a pure harvest festival. On the first day, farmers pray for a good harvest in the coming year and protect themselves and the crops from any evil and problems.
Badi Holi (Second Day)
The second day of Holi is called ‘Badi Holi,’ where people from every walk of life come together to play with water and colored powder (also known as gulaal). Colour is the theme of the second day of Holi, and the day starts with everyone applying ‘tika’ to Gods and then to each other. Holi is an all-inclusive festival, and no one is left behind from playing this colorful festival. People also splash colored water to total strangers on the roads and nearby lanes. The second day also witnesses people partying, dancing to songs, and making merry. Also, groups of kids and adults visit from one house to another and play with colored powder smearing one another. It shows that Holi is an all-inclusive festival and a tradition signifying that any bygones are forgotten. The second day is also known as ‘Rangwali Holi’ and the playful tradition of smearing colored powder and water on one another is believed to have originated from Lord Krishna and Radha’s love story.
Different Forms of Holi across India
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Rang Panchami in Maharashtra
In Maharashtra, Holi is called Rang Panchami or Shimoga. The rituals include the Holika Dahan bonfire on the first day and the Rang Panchami on the second day when people celebrate the festival with colors and water. Festivities of Rang Panchami go on for a week.
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Royal Holi in Rajasthan
In Udaipur Rajasthan, people follow the bonfire, Holika Dahan, on the first day, but differently. The celebrations become grand by the royal Mewar family and the second day includes a fancy procession with decked-up horses and the royal band playing songs along the streets.
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Hola Mohalla in Punjab
In Punjab, Holi becomes Holla Mohalla and is celebrated one day after Holi and recognizes the bravery and courage of Sikh Warriors. The Nihang Sikh sect of Punjab primarily celebrates the rituals through traditional martial art moves and practices, followed by beautiful music and joyous dancing.
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Kahila Holi in Uttarakhand
Holi in Uttarakhand is famous by names like ‘Baithaki Holi,’ beautiful ‘Mahila Holi,’ and ‘Khadi Holi.’ People on the daywear new traditional clothes, sing and dance to folk songs. They gather in ‘Tolis’ and smear color on each other.
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Lathmar Holi in Uttar Pradesh
Uttar Pradesh, the largest state of India, has spectacular Holi celebrations. The Holi played here is called Lathmar Holi, as called by the Bhojpuri. In this festival, women take lathis, and they hit the menfolk and boys as a part of festivities. The men, on their part, protect themselves with a dhal. Unlucky men who get caught by the beating women need to dress up in female attire and dance on the lanes. The beating and mocking are all done as a playful jest and not in an aggressive way.
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Phaguwa in Bihar
Holi in Bihar is known as Phaguwa. The rituals start with Holika Dahan, and the second day marks the celebration of Holi with water and dry colored powder followed by traditional music and songs.
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Yaosang in Manipur
The Northeastern state of Manipur witnesses the celebration of Holi as Yaosang and exists for six days. Yaosang has both North Eastern and traditional Hindi rituals. There is a celebration of Holi as legends of Holi with both wet and dry forms. The distinctive feature of Holi celebrations here is Thabal Chongba, a traditional folk dance of Manipur performed in the Holi celebrations.
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Dol Jatra in West Bengal
Holi is celebrated as “Dolyatra” across Bengal. The tradition of Dolyatra signifies the legends of Holi- the love story of Radha and her lover Lord Krishna. As a young boy, Krishna would often drench the girls and ladies with water as a fun sport. Soon after, the other boys in the village also started drenching the girls, which became a tradition. Holi is also known as “Dol Purnima” or “Basanta Utsav.” In Holi, the womenfolk traditionally wear yellow garments, which signify prosperity and abundance. The celebrations primarily occur in Bolpur in Shanti Niketan that portrays rich Bengali tradition and culture. Here, Holi celebrations also witness recitals of Rabindranath Tagore poems along with traditional music and dance programs. On Dol Jatra, devotees take part in a grand procession of glory Lord Krishna. The Lord is taken across the streets of Bengal by devotes singing, dancing, and making merry. They also smear Holi on one another.
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Dola in Odisha
Holi is famous as Dola in Odisha, and the rituals are pretty similar to West Bengal. The distinctive feature about the celebrations here is that Odisha celebrates the pious Lord Jagannath, also popularly known as Dolagovinda. Revelers smear color and splash water on one another and take out Lord Jagannath’s processions as legends of Holi in different parts of Odisha.
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Manjal Kuli in Kerala
Holi in Kerala is known as Ukuli or Manjal Kuli and the communities of Kudumbi and Konkani of Kerala celebrate legends of Holi traditionally. The distinctive feature of Ukuli in Kerala is that people use turmeric instead of colored powder to celebrate Holi.
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Shigmo in Goa
The Goan people celebrate Holi and the onset of spring elegantly. People indulge in street dances, sing folk dances, and take out traditional Shigmo Parades to celebrate legends of Holi in different parts of the state.
Holi across the World
Holi in Nepal
Holi in Nepal is similar to celebrations in India. Nepal people celebrate Holi with colored powder and water and throw water balloons called ‘lolas.’ The festival lasts almost a week in Nepal. On the first day, people build a ceremonial bamboo pole known as ‘chir.’ They tie strips of cloths around the pole, which they consider good luck charms. These are then kept like that until the festivities finish, and they add those cloths and poles to a bonfire.
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Holi in the UK
In the UK, Holi is celebrated mainly in places that have a substantial international population. Friends and families gather to party and throw colored powder and water on each other. The celebrations include live DJ music, dancing, and fanfare before enjoying rich and South Asian cuisine.
Holi in the Caribbean
Across the country of Trinidad and Tobago, the Hindus celebrate Holi by fusing traditions with Caribbean carnivals. People sing folk songs called ‘Chowtal’ and play drums and cymbals along with it.
Holi in Guyana
Holi is celebrated from a month ahead of the exact date in Guyana. Hindus plant traditional castor oil plants that will burn a month later in the form of Holika Dahan.
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Holi in Singapore
Singapore elegantly witnesses the celebration of Holi. There are full-on dance parties, live DJ music, and color throwing in these parties. One can also see water showers where people gather to rain dance, and there are also showers of rich vodka and champagne drinks.
Distinctive Elements of Holi
Thandai is an integral part of Holi celebrations. It is a refreshing drink taken during Holi and revelers drink it when playing with colors. Drinking thandai is also pleasant for the season during Holi celebrations as it is a coolant in the hot weather.
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Bhang is the official drink element during Holi. It acquires from leaves, and tiny buds of Cannabis are intoxicating and fuels the excitement of Holi celebrations. The tradition of taking bhang is more prevalent in Northern India.
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The grand ‘Holi Melas’ exists across the country. The fairs see a vibrant color display and is perfect for those who want to celebrate the colorful Holi differently. It is a gathering of people and also are a good source of entertainment for all. Colour becomes the primary theme of these Holi Melas, and there are also aromatic colors displayed in thalis.
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Water balloons are a distinctive element of modern-day Holi. People throw water balloons filled with clear or colored water and drench one another.
Some people draw Rangolis during the Holi festival. They make intricate designs from colored powder and decorate them with beautiful adornments.
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Any festival is incomplete without sweets. Even during Holi, people share trays of sweets and seek blessings from the elders. People also offer decorated puja thalis with gulaal, pichkaries, and chocolates. Sweets and gulaal are distributed to friends and family, and they also smear colored powder and celebrate Holi.
Holi is a colorful and rich festival filled with fun and festivity. It is a gathering of rich colors, vibrant hues, and people making merry and enjoying together. So head to these places and enjoy the rich traditions and legends of Holi that accompany the festival.
Significance in Anthropology
Understanding different festivals and cultures occurring around the world give us an insight into the behaviors and roots of the people. Similar festivals might shed light into common ancestors and also shed light into future cultural trends. The Holi festival is a great use case of a vibrant festival celebration originating in India and is an example of culture at the root of an ethnic people.