What’s Holi? How do people celebrate Holi? What’s the mythology behind Holi? Read on to find out…
Holi. For those who don’t celebrate, images of bright powders and raucous laughter tumbling from carefree smiles might spring to mind. But for those who celebrate Holi, the day is steeped in history and deep personal and cultural meaning.
Originating in Hinduism, people around the globe of Indian descent celebrate Holi. But while it’s rooted in Hindu Mythology, Holi is celebrated by most who identify as Indian regardless of religion.
What Does Holi Celebrate?
Holi – also often referred to as the “festival of love” – is a revered festival throughout India. Celebrating the triumph of good over evil, Holi encourages participants toleave their resentments to the past. On this day of unity and renewal, vibrant colored powders act as a visual metaphor for encouraging positivity and freedom. Each color represents something different – red inspires purity, blue offers serenity, green suggests vitality, and yellow represents pious feelings.
Mythology Behind Holi
There are a few stories surrounding the origin of Holi, which comes from the word “Holika,” which translates to “burning.” Most well known is the tale of the Demon King Hiranyakashyap. However, The Legend of Dhundhi, The Legend of Kaamadeva, The Legend of the Ogress Pootana, and The Legend of Radha-Krishna are all ties to the global celebration.
Demon King Hiranyakashyap
King Hiranyakashyap wanted everyone in his kingdom to worship him and him alone. However, his son – Prahlad – continued worshipping Lord Vishnu, a god known for preserving the balance between good and evil. Upon discovering his son’s betrayal, King Hiranyakashyap ordered his sister – Holika – to kill Prahlad in a fire. Believing herself protected from the flames by a boon, Holika escorted Prahlad into the blazing fire. She didn’t realize the boon only worked if she entered the flames herself, and Holika burnt to death. Prahlad remained unscathed, protected by Lord Vishnu. Holi celebrates the burning of Holika as a representation of evil being burned away, leaving behind the good and devotional.
The Legend of Kaamadeva
This legend begins shortly after the death of Lord Shiva’s wife. Shiva’s wife had killed herself in a fire after her father disgraced her husband. After his wife’s death, Lord Shiva withdrew from his worldly responsibilities in a deep depression, content to meditate instead. But without Lord Shiva, the world began to crumble. For this reason, the gods asked Lord Kaamadeva – god of love and passion – to return Shiva to his original self.
Kaamadeva knew he might suffer consequences – Lord Shiva is the god of destruction and rebirth, after all. But still Kaamadeva shot his love arrow into Shiva. Enraged, Shiva opened his third eye and reduced Kaamadeva to ashes on the spot, but the arrow did its work. Shiva fell in love with Parvati – daughter of the mountains – and the world returned to order. Later, Kaamadeva’s wife Rati told Shiva of the god’s plan to awaken the old Shiva with an arrow of love. Hearing this, Lord Shiva returned Kaamadeva to life. It’s said that Holi marks the day Lord Shiva turned Kaamadeva to ashes.
The Legend of the Ogress Pootana
When Lord Krishna was an infant, his uncle Kansa sought the help of the Ogress Pootana to kill his nephew by breastfeeding him poisoned milk. Disguising herself as a simple, pious woman of the town, Pootana slipped in and fed Kirshna her milk. Unfortunately for her, Krishna sucked out all her blood, revealing the beast beneath Pootana’s disguise and killing her. On the night of Holika, many burn the effigy of Pootana as symbolic of victory over evil.
The Legend of Dhundhi
In the Kingdom of Prithu lived Dhundi, an ogress blessed with a boon that made her invulnerable to man-made weapons. While her boon protected her from natural disasters, gods, and men – Lord Shiva left her one achilles heel. Troubled by the ogress’s existence, King Raghu set upon a solution. He’d gather all the boys in town to drive Dhundhi out with teasing and pranks. For this reason, it’s customary for boys to say rude words and play as many pranks as they want. On Holi, there are no rules but one: to have fun.
The Legend of Radha-Krishna
Young Krishna – blue from an incident with poisonous milk – desperately wished he could have different skin. One day, Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about wishing his skin was more like Radha’s. To comfort her son, Yashoda suggested he apply color on Radha’s face, so they could be as one. Krishna painted Radha’s face, ritualizing the throwing of colorful vibrant powders and spraying water on each other during Holi.
How to Celebrate Holi
Most people celebrate Holi over the course of one night and day. The festival begins the night of the full moon, also known as Purnima in the month of Falgun. Falgun marks the arrival of spring. The Hindu calendar year marks Falgun as the 12th month, while the Bengalic calendar has it as the 11th. The 1st of Falgun typically correlates with February 13th, and runs through the middle of March.
This first night of celebrations on the evening of Purnima is called Holika Dahan or Choti Holi, and is celebrated with the burning of an enormous bonfire to signify the burning of evil and the triumph of good. Some bring home embers to keep the purifying flames going at home as children play pranks and taunt Holika.
Holi begins the morning after the symbolic burning of Holika. This day is called Dhuleti, and is celebrated with enthusiasm and fun. As you cross through different towns across India, you’ll find folks singing Bollywood Holi songs and dancing to the beat of dholak. Turn your head and you’ll likely spot friends and strangers alike taking delight in covering each other with colored powders and spraying water at each other with pichkaris.
How do Different Regions Celebrate Holi?
Different regions around the world all have their own traditions for celebrating Holi. In South India, many spend the day in gratitude, worshipping Kaamadeva, the god of love.
However, nowhere is Holi celebrated with more zest and enthusiasm as in the cities of Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana, and Nandgaon, which are associated with the birth and childhood of the god of tenderness, love, and compassion – Lord Krishna.
Other towns celebrate Holi with playful teasing and mischief as women take turns pranking the men of the town. In the state of Haryana, women often engage in the revengeful tradition of Dulandi Holi, where they avenge themselves of all the mischief men have played on them over the past year.
Perhaps one of the most familiar traditions of Holi is the breaking of the buttermilk pot. In the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, you can find buttermilk pots hung high above the streets. Women sing Holi folk songs and toss water as men form human pyramids to reach and break the pot.
Citizens who identify as Sikh gather at Anandpur Sahib a day after Holi to celebrate the holiday of Hola Mohalla, celebrating military prowess and physical strength. Manipuris in the north east celebrate Holi for six continuous days. Here they’ve combined the festival of Holi with the centuries old Yaosang Festival of Manipur. A particular highlight of the conjoined festival is a special Manipuri dance called Thabal Chongba.
Regardless of different traditions, the spirit of Holi remains the same.
Emphasizing love, unity, and brotherhood, Holi is about bringing people together. No matter how far folks travel, Holi reconnects those of Indian descent with their history and to each other. It’s a day of reunification, camaraderie, and joy around the globe.
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