Ask anyone from India about Holi and the answer will be, "Colours. More colours. Wet colours. Dry colours." Other elements of the festival will be mentioned only after colours have been extolled in enthusiastic and orgasmic tones.
Of course there is more to Holi than just colours. There are legends connected to it that go right into the heart of Kamadev (Cupid) or into the games between Lord Krishna and Radha or the emotionally charged story of Holika and Prahlada. The festival even has links to the ogress Dhundi.
There are diverse ways of celebrating Holi and with so many states in India, the formats followed can be entirely different. There are specific pujas that can be performed where, for instance, badkoolas (handmade from cow dung) are strung on a rassi (coconut fibre string). Delicacies to mark the festival range from sweets that include sugarcane juice to savouries such as dahi wada, poori, dried moong dal etc.
"But there must be some common features that connect Holi celebrations?"
Yes, for sure. This festival is celebrated on the Poornima (Full moon) of Falgun, the eleventh month in the Hindu Calendar (Vikram Samvat) and announces spring. The first of Falgun coincides with the 13th of February in the Gregorian Calendar and this is when Holi is celebrated. So the dates for Holi will be different each year. But let me tell you that the modern day Indian simply follows the date for Holi that is marked on their Gregorian calendar or the date that is declared a holiday by the state government.
The other features of Holi that are similar everywhere, include:
1. The underlying philosophy of the triumph of good over evil. Yes, Diwali and its celebration of the victory of Rama over Ravana also symbolises this concept, but there is enough evil in the world to make many festivals happy.
2. This is a community festival which attempts to dissolve boundaries wherever it can. "Colour my heart and mind with the colours of your goodness," people seem to say to each other as they spray them with gulal and abeer!
I showed this text to my wife and she immediately said, "But you're making Holi seem so serious and complex."
"Isn't all this correct?" I asked. Specky looked at me and said, "Well, it is accurate but seems so unreal. Holi is more like a Bollywood party where colours, loud music, and unrestrained fun go hand in hand with bhang and bawdiness!"
Well, I agreed with her, but I want to dedicate this post to legends, as they are so much a part of Holi and so few people know all the connected stories.
The katha of bhakt Prahlada
Hiranyakashapu is the evil king in this katha or story. He has a boon of invincibility from the Gods that makes him arrogant and full of evil. His sister Holika also has a boon to remain unscarred by fire. However, Hiranyakashapu's son Prahlada, who is a devotee of Lord Vishnu, appears to be getting more popular than him and the king decides to get rid of this competition. He asks Holika to sit in a massive fire, taking Prahlada with her. Prahlada invokes the gods and asks for divine intervention. Holika gets incinerated leaving Prahlada safe! The story doesn't end here and there is another interesting incident telling us how the king is ultimately killed.
But the reference to Holi is the incineration of Holika - or Holika Dahan - and this is why we have the bonfire on the eve of Holi. A few diehard fans of Holi still hurl cow dung into the fire and shout obscenities at it, as if it were Holika burning in the flames.
The ogress Dhundi and gaalis during Holi
This story is aimed at justifying shouting gaalis or rude insults, hurling abuses and playing pranks during this festival. The story simply tells us how Dhundi, an ogress, is chased away by village youngsters in the Kingdom of Prathu. They yell insults at her - the only weapon to pierce the armour of invincibility that Dhundi had been granted by the gods. This chink in her armour was because of a curse by Lord Shiva.
The Kamadev myth
Some people believe that it was on this day that Kamadev or the god of love was burnt to death when Lord Shiva opened his third eye on him. This was all due to the machinations of lord Indra... and Kamadev was reborn as the son of Lord Krishna... but that's another story. During Holi, people offer a mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste to pacify lord Shiva.
The story of Radha-Krishna
This is the charming story of baby Krishna asking his mother Yashoda, "Why am I so dark and Radha so fair?" Yashoda has the ingenuity of a mother and asks her child to apply colour on Radha's face and see it change. So Krishna does it with all the Gopis in Vrindavan and is happy. Thus Holi is a festival where the application of colours actually makes us all so similar! There are a lot of romantic tales woven around the love of Krishna and Radha. This love has inspired a slew of Bollywood songs filmed against the backdrop of Holi celebrations.