Also known by the name Fagu Purnima around the world, a global festival it is indeed, for the powder that revellers throw on each other, leaving festival-goers coated in colour by the end of the day, the Hindu spring festival is rightly called the Festival of Colors.
Observed much pomp and splendour, it lasts in most regions for a night and a day, starting on the evening of Purnima, the full moon day of the Month Phalguna (Hindu Calendar), in the Georgian calendar which falls somewhere between the end of February and the middle of March. The festival of colours has two famous stories of how it started to be celebrated, i.e. the origin of Holi.
However, colours and rich traditional cuisine isn’t all to the festival, it, in fact, has a deeply-rooted historical significance, the triumph of good over evil; the day officially marks the arrival of the much-awaited spring bringing the gloomy days of the winter to an end, and for farmers, they celebrate it as the thanksgiving for a good harvest.
We will here travel back in time and speculate on the historical events that led to the origin of Holi and its celebration.
Sri Krishna and Radha
In the Braj region of India, also known as Brij or Brijbhoomi, particularly in the two cities of Vrindavan and Mathura, where Lord Krishna is closely associated with, the festival is celebrated in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna. The spring festival has a symbolic myth behind commemorating Krishna as well.
As a baby, Krishna developed his characteristic dark blue skin colour because the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. The Hindu deity despaired by his dark-blue skin whined to his mother whether the fair-skinned Radha and other girls would like him despite him being so dark. His mother, tired of the desperation, advised him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he does, and ever since, the playful colouring of Radha’s face has been commemorated as Holi.
Holika, Hiranyakashyapu, and Prahalad
The origin of Holi traces to time immemorial. The ancient festival of colours finds its mention in numerous scriptures, Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras with detailed descriptions of the celebration of the festival. It has also been mentioned in much-revered texts such as the Narada Purana and Bhavishyad Purana. The widely circulated legend about the festival’s origin is the burning of Holika ashes, somebody but Holika who was said to have an immunity to fire and the eventual defeat of the Asura King Hiranyakashyapu.
As the tales have it after Lord Vishnu assassinated the younger brother of the Asura King, Hiranyakashipu. Apart from avenging his brother’s death, and also because he had been granted a boon that earned him five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by Astra, projectile weapons, nor by any Shastra, handheld weapons, and neither on land nor in water or air, the Asura king had the ulterior motive of ruling the heaven, the earth, and the underworld by defeating Vishnu. His boosted ego made Hiranyakashipu feel invincible; on his orders, his whole state started praying to him, dismissing the gods; he aimed to establish himself as the principal deity and of all.
On the other hand, his son Prahlad, maintained his deity to be none but Lord Vishnu. Angered, the tyrant king decided to kill Prahlad with the help of Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, who was immune to fire. A pyre was lit and Holika sat on it, clutching Prahalad. But astounded many, including the demon Lord, Prahlad emerged out of the fire unscathed, whereas Holika burned to ashes. Hiranyakashipu, too, was eventually killed by Vishnu, taking the avatar of Narashima.
Even today, the story of Holika is re-enacted by actors on Holi. Bonfires across the country are lit up to celebrate the burning away of evil spirits and the triumph of good over evil. This is the most famous event believed by the Hindus to be the key reason for the origin of Holi.
Adding to the smearing of colours on each others’ faces, splashing people with water by throwing water balloons at them and heartily indulging in sweet delicacies made especially for the occasion, the observers of the festival also have a beautiful history from time immemorial to boast.