Holi is a fun-filled spring festival celebrated on the last full moon day in the month of Phalguna. Known as the ‘Festival of Colours’ it is celebrated in different ways throughout the many regions of India.
The most common element – held the day before the full moon – involves the ritual kindling of a public bonfire which marks the time when the boy saint, Prahlada, was saved by God from a raging fire. The lad’s aunt was trying to kill him by carrying him into a fire. Her plan was to walk unscathed from the flames, protected by her mystical blanket. But the boy saint survived and she was burned to death.
In Gujarati communities the tradition is to place coconuts into the flames and then to retrieve them. The outside shell burns but the pure white interior remains, reminding everyone of Prahlada, the boy saint. Prayers are also said that God will protect His devotees from flames in the forthcoming year. The entire event is known as Holika Dahan, the Burning of Holika.
The next day, and for a full five days, the festival takes a colourful turn when coloured powders are smeared on the faces of family, friends, and even strangers! Tradition has it that with the changing of the seasons it is easy to catch a cold, so colourful, medicinal herbs were used as a precaution. Originally made of ground-up neem leaves (green colour) turmeric root (yellow) and the mineral kum-kum (red) the ingredients were often mixed with water and splashed on others. In northern India, especially in the Vrindavan region associated with Lord Krishna, the inhabitants like to use giant brass syringes or squirt guns, known as pichkaris.
In Varsana, the village most linked with Lord Krishna’s consort Srimati Radharani, the festival even includes a day or two when the women take to beating the menfolk in public with long bamboo staves. In a reversal of normal social roles, the men submit to this and defend themselves with thick shields.
In some regions, such as Bengal and Manipur, the festival involves even more elements of Krishna worship, as devotees take the Divine Couple around the village in a swing and worshippers swing Radha and Krishna and also place coloured powders on their divine bodies. This part is known as Dol Yatra.
In Gujarat, Lord Krishna’s earthly play is celebrated as boys create a human pyramid in order to reach a pot of butter suspended from a rope above the street. Meanwhile, girls spray them with coloured water, trying to stop them. The boy who reaches the top and claims the butter (a favourite activity of the child Krishna) is known as the Holi King.
At this time of year, when everyone was celebrating the beginning of a new season with songs of Krishna, the most merciful incarnation of both Radha and Krishna descended to this world. Known as ‘Gauranga’ or the ‘golden avatar’ this particular incarnation of God was to spread the congregational chanting of the names of Lord Krishna far and wide.
How the Festival of Colours is celebrated in one American town: