Holi! The very utterance of this term takes one to the arrival of divine colours. The advent of Basant (spring season); killing of Asura Shankachuda by Krishna; celebration of Bhagwan Krishna, Radha, and gopis; burning of Holika to ashes and Prahlad’s protection by the grace of Bhagwan Vishnu – connotations are myriad, but the colourful festive fervour is same across the country.
Regional terminology for Holi varies from State to State. It is Dol Yatra in West Bengal and Odisha, Lathmar and Phoolon Ki Holi in Uttar Pradesh, Phakuwa and Dol Jatra in Assam, Dhulandi in Haryana, Hola Mohalla in Punjab, Phagua in Bihar, Manjul Kuli in Kerala, Kaman Pandigai in Tamil Nadu, Khari Holi in parts of Uttarakhand, Shigmo in Goa, Yosang in Manipur and Rangpanchami in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Holi symbolises the victory of good over evil.
According to Puranic history, Prahlad, child-devotee of Vishnu, regained a new life on this day. Prahlad was the son of Hiranyakashipu, an Asura king, who ruled a vast stretch of land. Angered by the death of his brother, Hiranyaksha, at the hands of Varaha, one of the avatars of Vishnu, Hiranyakashipu did severe penance to please Brahma. He left for the woods for penance, leaving behind his pregnant queen Kayadhu, at his palace. During that time, Indra attacked Hiranyakashipu’s kingdom. Rishi Narad gave shelter to Kayadhu, protecting her from the attack. During her stay at Narad’s hermitage for a few days, Kayadhu received transcendental instructions from the sage. Narad also narrated to Kayadhu the glories of Vishnu. Such was the effect of divine instructions on her unborn child that when he was born as Prahlad, he became a devotee of Vishnu. Meanwhile, Brahma, satisfied with Hiranyakashipu’s severe penance, granted him a boon according to his wish. By the grace of Brahma’s boon, Hiranyakashipu started creating chaos in all three worlds – heaven, earth and the netherworld. He enforced a law that everybody should stop worshipping Gods and Goddesses and should worship Him instead.
Whoever did not worship Hiranyakashipu was put to death. His little son Prahlad did not obey his orders. This enraged Hiranyakashipu. Despite his repeated orders, Prahlad refused to accept him as God. Instead, he worshipped Vishnu with extreme devotion. This infuriated Hiranyakashipu further. He planned the death of his son. He ordered his soldiers to throw him down from a high hill. The soldiers threw him down from a mountain, yet Prahlad did not die. Vishnu came to his rescue. Hiranyakashipu made several other attempts to kill his son but in vain.
In parts of Southern India, devotees re-enact the episode of Bhagwan Kamadeva and Bhagwan Shiva with Kama Dahanam rituals. Kama Dahanam is similar to Holika Dahan, witnessed a day before Holi across various parts of the country
The Asura king then requested his sister Holika to help him eliminate his son Prahlad. Holika received a boon that she could walk or stand unharmed in fire. Both brother and sister planned something new. According to the plan, Holika would enter the fire with her nephew Prahlad. However, Holika forgot a condition of the boon that she would not perish in any fire only if she entered it alone or caught up in flames alone. Accordingly, as planned, Hiranyakashipu lit a huge bonfire. Holika carried Prahlad in her arms and entered the fire. Holika died, but Prahlad remained unharmed. When the fire extinguished itself, Hiranyakashipu was surprised to find his sister burnt to ashes and Prahlad alive, unharmed. His son was in a trance, uttering the name of Vishnu.
Vrindavan celebrates Krishna’s victory
According to another episode from Puranic history, Krishna was in Vrindavan during the onset of spring. Here he played the flute. Enchanted by the divine melody of the flute, the gopis of Vrindavan, basked in devotion for Krishna, headed towards Him. Shankachuda, an asura, kidnapped few gopis while they were on their way. Krishna came to their rescue. He killed Shankachuda and saved the gopis. The gopis and gopas of Vrindavan celebrated Krishna’s victory. Both these episodes symbolise the victory of good over evil.
Different colours, same ethos
Khari Holi- Kumaon region, Uttarakhand: Khari holi is played in the Kumaon region, which includes mainly towns in Uttrakhand. As a part of the celebration, the locals wear traditional clothes, sing Khari songs and dance in groups.
Dhulandi Holi in Haryana: Dhulandi Holi is celebrated with great enthusiasm in Haryana. People smear each other with bright-coloured powders and water, dance to the beats of dhol, and sing traditional Haryanvi Holi songs. In the state, the festival is also known as “Phagwah” or “Phalguni” and is celebrated on the full moon day of the Hindu month of Phalgun.
Phoolon Ki Holi in Vrindavan: It is played with petals of fresh flowers in Banke Bihari temple, Vrindavan, with great enthusiasm by Krishna’s disciples. The exquisiteness lies in the ambience of fragrance and flowers, and the scenic vista takes you to a different world. Unlike the usual Holi festival, played with colours and water, Phoolon ki Holi is more about connecting with Bhagwan with love and joy by showering him with flowers.
Dol Jatra- West Bengal: Dol Jatra is a part of the main Holi festivities. On Dol Purnima, idols of Radha and Krishna are taken to the streets in a procession. Men spray water and colours at this procession to add to the fun.
Shigmo – Goa: Shigmo festival is a massive spring celebration in Goa. It is one of the major festivals of Hindus. Here, traditional folk and street dances are done by farmers. Even tourists in Goa celebrate this festival with a lot of excitement.
Yaosang: In Manipur, Holi or Yaosang is celebrated for six days. It starts on the full moon day and combines Hindu and indigenous traditions. The festival’s highlight is the Thabal Chongba, a Manipuri folk dance performed during the celebration.
Manjal Kuli – Kerala: Holi is called Manjal Kuli in Kerala and is celebrated in the Konkani temple of Gosripuram Thirumala
Hola Mohalla – Punjab: Known as the warrior Holi, Hola Mohalla is celebrated in Punjab. Nihang Sikhs observe this festival. They exhibit martial arts and sing their hearts out on this day; Hola Mohalla is usually celebrated a day before Holi.
Kaman Pandigai in Tamil Nadu: The significance of Holi in Tamil Nadu differs as it is believed that it was on this auspicious day that their revered Bhagwan Kaamdeva- the God of love was brought back to life by Bhagwan Shiva. Unlike the usual colour-smearing tradition, the folks offer sandalwood to Kaamdeva, believing it would ease His pain.
Phaguwa: In Bihar, the festival is known as Phaguwa in the local Bhojpuri dialect. However, in Bihar, it is essential to light the Holika pyre before playing Holi. After that, Holi is played with folk songs, water and powdered colours derived from natural sources. Consumption of Bhang is also a part of the Holi celebrations in the State.
Rang Panchami: Maharashtra celebrates Holi in the most fun way possible. Colour celebrations take place on the fifth day after Holika Dahan. It is also celebrated in Madhya Pradesh.
Royal Holi – Udaipur, Rajasthan: On the eve of Holi, locals light bonfires to mark the occasion and eliminate evil spirits in the Holika Dahan. Udaipur’s Mewar royal family does this celebration at a great level. The fancy procession includes decorated horses and the royal band. Later, the traditional sacred fire is lit, and an effigy of Holika is burnt.
In parts of Southern India, devotees re-enact this episode of Bhagwan Kamadeva and Bhagwan Shiva with Kama Dahanam rituals. Kama Dahanam is similar to Holika Dahan, witnessed a day before Holi is celebrated across various parts of the country. On both the occasions, bonfires are lit in open spaces in front of homes, temples, and community centres. Dried cow dung cakes, dried sticks and grass are offered to the pyre. Various types of sweet dishes are prepared in homes and offered to the deities.
In Assam, my home State, the ancient festival of Holi witnessed further enthusiasm with the celebration of Dol Poornima by Vaishnavite Mahapurush Srimanta Shankaradeva at Bordowa in the fifteenth century. Shankardeva created a new version of Vaishnavism called Ek Saran Nam Dharma (surrender to one God). Today community temples in Assam called namghars and community temples called Vaishnavite monasteries known as sattras have the Bhagavad Gita in the Garbhagrihas (sanctum sanctorum). Shankardeva established the first sattra at Bordowa in Nagaon district of Assam. He was 21- years-old when he celebrated Dol Poornima here, revering the leelas of Krishna with different colours derived from nature, filled in seven kalasas (pots). His disciple Madhavdev composed several songs dedicated to Fakhuwa, which he sang at the sattras, especially at Barpeta sattra. These songs are sung to this day during Holi. A popular composition by Madhavdev is Phaku khele korunamoy, meaning the ‘compassionate devotees playing Holi/Phaku’.
In parts of Bengal, Odisha, and Assam, Dol Yatra celebrates Vishnu and His incarnation Krishna. Bonfires are lit in front of temples; the murti/image of Krishna is carried around the fire with the accompaniment of the beating of drums, cymbals, blowing of conch shells and invocation of Deities. On the second and third day, the image/murti of Krishna is smeared with colors and the festivity continues. On the fourth day, Krishna as Vishnu is supposed to return to Lakshmi’s place. Splendidly adorned murtis or images of Krishna and sometimes with Radha, besmeared with colours, are taken out in a procession in a highly decorated swinging palanquin. Bhajans hailing the deities, blowing of conch shells, chanting in the name of Hari fill the air along with the procession. The devotees throw coloured powders on one another in joy. Devotees enact the Puranic historical story of Lakshmi getting angry over Vishnu for His spending several days at Ghunucha’s place followed by Lakshmi’s yielding. Dol Yatra ends with this episode of celebration.
During Holi in 1757, Mathura and Vrindavan witnessed genocide of Hindus and vandalism of temples. Here is an excerpt from the book Ahmad Shah Durrani by Ganda Singh on this genocide: “To quote from Samin’s Memoirs, ‘wherever you gazed you beheld only heaps of the slain; you could only pick your way with difficulty, owing to enormous number of bodies lying about and the amount of blood spilt. At one place that we reached, we saw about two hundred dead children in a heap. Not one of the dead bodies had a head. . . The stench and fetor and effluvium in the air were such that it was painful to open your mouth or even draw a breath.”
Jat prince Jawahar Singh (son of Raja Surajmal Jat), with 5,000 men, offered resistance against Ahmad Shah Abdali’s forces outside the village of Chaumuha, 8 miles from Mathura. The battle took place for nine hours with the Hindu soldiers fighting till their last breath. Jawahar Singh was defeated with 3,000 of his soldiers attaining Veergati in the battlefield. Abdali’s forces then marched towards Gokul. The Naga Sadhus there, 4,000 of them, offered resistance. They saved the people and temples of Gokul. The Afghans left. The Mathura and Gokul episodes of resistance are described in detail in Book 2 of Saffron Swords. Amidst Holi celebrations, may we pray for the Sadgati of the victims of Mathura genocide and the Naga Sadhus who sacrificed their lives in battle, protecting Dharma and the motherland. May Bharat’s luminosity prevail with the festival of colours!