A Brief History Of Holi & How It's Celebrated Today
We all know Holi as a festival of colours, a time when friends, families and loved ones come together and celebrate over food, decorations, games and other cultural traditions. It is one of the most joyous, colourful and exuberant festivals that brings people together devoid of caste, religion or creed. Holi is also celebrated as the welcoming of a new season - the arrival of spring season after the end of a long winter.
While many of us celebrate Holi for the fun element, there are stories behind these traditions that help us put things into perspective. There are two versions of the story of Holi that are recognized today - one being the story of Holika and Prahlad, and the other being the story of Radha and Krishna.
Stories are how we make sense of our times and all the things that bring us together. Each story connects us to the past, brings us to the present, and paves the way for a better future. Through each of these Holi stories, there are learnings we imbibe and carry forward even today.
The Story of Holika and Prahlad -
When it comes to the story of Holi, the story of Holika and Prahlad is one that is most popular, widely recognized and retold. According to the story, legendary King Hiranyakashipu, who wielded a lot of power, had made himself out to be god. He forced every person in his kingdom to also see, treat and worship him as they would any other god. The King was however enraged when it came to his attention that his son Prahlad pledged his allegiance to Lord Vishnu and became his devotee. Because of his devotion to Lord Krishna, Prahlad refused to accept and worship his own father, the King, as his god. Out of anger Hiranyakashipu plotted to murder his son several times. After multiple failed attempts, he took the help of Holika, Prahlad’s sister, who had the gift of immunity from fire. Together they fooled Prahlad into getting inside the fire and sitting on Holika’s lap in the hope that he will burn. However, Holika’s gift couldn’t save her because of her evil intent, and Prahlad was bestowed with her immunity. This is the reason Holi is considered to be a symbol of the triumph of good over evil.
The story of Holika and Prahlad has left such a deep imprint on our society that even today pyres are made as a symbolism and ode to burning evil intentions and a cleansing by fire. In several parts across India, people come together to make effigies of Holika and signify the overcoming of good over evil. In Gujarat and Orissa, the reverence for fire is taken very seriously and people show their gratitude to the fire god for having saved Prahlad from Holika. This tradition is carried forward even when Holi ends in the way several people carry home a piece of the fire with them in order to cleanse and purify their homes. Houses are cleaned on this day and the old and dirty possessions burned on the fire to make space for new and good things as evil is kept at bay.
The Story Of Radha and Krishna -
In this version of the story, Holi is celebrated as an ode to Radha and Krishna and the shared love and passion for devotion that exists between them. Lord Krishna is said to have grown up in a small town called Braj in Uttar Pradesh. Here, Holi is celebrated with much pomp and fervour. However, there is a story that goes about on this day wherein the first colour was applied on Radha’s skin by Lord Krishna as an act of his love for her, and a soft rebellion against the forces that discriminated against his dark blue skin colour. The origin behind Lord Krishna’s blue skin is said and retold in many versions, however, in this particular story, Krishna’s skin is said to have turned blue due to having consumed the poisoned breast milk of the demoness Putana. The sudden change in skin colour made Krishna sad and feel unworthy of love. To help him combat this problem and promote a love that is devoid of colour or creed, Krishna’s mother suggested he go and apply any skin colour on Radha’s face. On doing so, both Radha and Krishna transformed into a couple in love and began to see each other as one, all differences aside.
This unique tradition of applying colour to one’s face continues to this day reminding us every year that we are not defined by what’s external, and that we are a make up of several internal parts that exist beyond differences. Holi comes as a reminder to us all that we are no different from each other by virtue of skin, and that underneath our internal differences and unique makeup, we are still unified when we remember and exist as one.
How is Holi Celebrated across different parts of India?
Bhil Tribes of North West India -
The Bhils, a tribe in Rajasthan and MP, gather together under the context of Holi and celebrate by starting bonfires and offering prayers to the goddess. As the fire rages, the tribes gather together and chant out the death of Holika and reign in Prahlad’s victory of good over evil. During this time, many young folks find their partners within the tribal festivities and marriages flourish. To welcome the newness in the air, the villagers come together with flowers and seeds to celebrate a good harvest.
While Goa is popularly known as a predominantly Christian state, there are several parts of Goa that are still Hindu dominated, rich with their own renditions and cultural traditions/ customs around Holi. In Goa, it is considered to be a spring festival and is called Shigmo. As it is in most parts of India, here too people gather together to cook up a feast, offer prasad, play with colours and much pomp. Street plays of the story of Holika and Prahlad are performed at the parades, and several other dramas and skits are depicted. Effigies are burned and people come to collect prizes for community competitions and functions.
Panaji is famous for their parades during this time which are usually hosted by the Panaji Shigmotsav Samiti that makes special customs to welcome the people of Goa to celebrate Holi. Like Panaji, there are smaller parades that take place in Mapusa, Vasco Da Gama and even Margao.
Andhra Pradesh -
While several communities in Andhra Pradesh celebrate Holi in their own ways, it is not as glamorous as one would expect Holi to be in the northern states of India. This time of the year, there is much peace and harmony with families visiting their local temple and offering food to the goddess. Smaller communities gather together to make merry, cook special food, and apply colours on each other. Not just that, this is a time when many young people seek out the blessings of the elders in the community by washing their elders feet and applying gulal and abeer on their feet.
There is a tribe in Andhra Pradesh called the Banjaras who celebrate Holi as a festival devoid of religion, bringing people from all walks of life together to dance, sing and make merry. Effigies are burned and Banjara gypsies dance their unique dances around fires, making it a memorable time of the year.
Tamil Nadu -
As it is in Karnataka, here it is the story of Kaamadeva - the God of love, passion and romance, who is said to roam through the woods during the Spring season, with his bow and arrow pointed at the hearts of people who cross his path.
According to the story, Shiva went into depression after Sati killed herself and had to find a corner wherein he could meditate and return back to himself. While Shiva was grieving and in remission, Parvati began to fall in love with Shiva and also started her own meditation to reach Lord Shiva. However, even though she tried to reach him, she realised that Lord Shiva was becoming unreachable and losing himself which raised much concern for him. Lord Kaama was called and his help was requested. Kaama thought that by piercing his arrow into the heart of Lord Shiva, he would be able to restore him back to himself.
However, as soon as Kaama shot his arrow, Shiva’s third eye was open to the real intentions of Kaama, and in an instant, Kaama was burned to ashes. Seeing Parvati’s devotion and love for him, Shiva eventually marries her.
In places like Puducherry, the story of Prahlad and Holika is widely accepted with communities burning effigies and setting fire to their old belongings to make way for the new. Houses are decorated, special feasts are prepared and Prahlad’s victory of good over evil is celebrated with much glamour.
Karnataka is another state in South India where Holi is treated with much pomp and grandeur. It is an extravagant festival and goes by a more local name called Kaamana Habba, another name for Holi.
Here, Kaamana Habba is celebrated as an ode to Kaama, the God of erotic love, desire and pleasure. The story is very similar to that of Holika and Prahlad, with Manmatha playing the role of Holika. The story goes something like this: One time, the entire Dev Lok was threatened due to the lust of Kaama (Manmatha), and this sent Lord Shiva into samadhi to intercede for the sake of his people. Kaama started to feel threatened by this and sent himself as Manmathaa and Rati (Kaama’s partner) to distract Shiva with their sexual prowess and sensuality. On becoming aware of this, Lord Shiva’s third eyes are thrown open and he, in an instant, burns Manmathaa to ashes. His act came as a reminder to all those around him and even today, that when one achieves an inner state of awareness and peace, there is nothing that can distract them away from it.
This is a celebration and a reminder of who we are and that with enough focus and awareness we can overcome anything. On this day, the men are allowed to steal goods from neighbouring houses and burn them on a pyre and the women cook up storms in the kitchens with holige and prasadams.
Holi - A bright and happy festival for all
India being a vast nation, it has many different cultures and traditions around Holi. The way Holi is celebrated in the northern parts would be slightly different from the way it is celebrated in the southern part of India. While there may be a few customs and traditions that remain uniform across the festivities, there are cultural variations that add to the versatility of this bright Indian festival.
The road ahead:
While it is all fun and games, having context to these eccentric traditions eventually goes a long way in shaping the way we relate to one another. Holi, for example, promotes equality devoid of caste, culture or creed. Radha and Krishna’s story comes as a reminder that love and freedom can truly exist only outside the confines of our own mind’s limitations. The way we Indians all gather together to apply colours on each other's faces reminds us that at the end, we are all one and the same. Traditions and customs exist with meaning, and as we find our meanings within them, we also learn to embrace the world for what it is rather than how we think it should be.
Stories bring us closer to each other and lessens the gap between people and communities.