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Holi

A medley of colors mingling together on this auspicious day of Holi gladdens the very core of everyone’s hearts. It is a festival when people forget all their animosity and extend hands in friendship.

Holi, the most colorful of Hindu festivals, falls on the full moon day in the Hindu month of Phalgun, which is the month of March as per the Gregorian calendar. This festival marks the coming of spring with its refreshingly cool breeze wafting across the country from the South. The brightness of the summery sun wipes away the wintry gloom when a fresh bloom of leaves and flowers sprout on the branches laid bare by the cold winter months. What’s unique about Holi is the riot of rich colours, which when combined with high spirits rejuvenates life on the earth. It can truly be said that Holi is a celebration of life, love, happiness and good spirits. 

There are quite a few delicacies that are associated with this merry festival. Though the traditional dishes may vary from place to place and from family to family, one thing which is common is the bhaang. It is still prepared and served as it has been for years. The buds and leaves of Cannabis are squashed and ground into a green paste in a mortar with a pestle. Milk, ghee and spices are then added to make this highly intoxicating drink. It is commonly believed that when a person has a shot of this potent drink, the first emotion experienced by him thereafter and his reaction to it, continues till the effects of drink last. So if he starts laughing he continues to do and if he starts crying he continues to cry.

The non-alcoholic alternative to this is the traditional thandai which is a cold drink made of almonds, fennel seeds, melon seeds, rose petals, pepper, vetiver seeds, cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar. Besides Holi, both these drinks are also served during Mahashivratri. Thandai can also be mixed with ghee and sugar to make a tasty halwa, and into peppery, chewy little balls called golis. The stress is more on sweets, but of course different states have their own specialties to savour and enjoy.

Dahi vade or dahi bhalle is another popular dish that is prepared almost throughout the country. In Maharashtra, puran poli is associated with this festival – Holi re holi, purana chi poli is a proof of this. In the north, gujiyas and malpuas are very popular. Besides, a lot of savouries like samosa, kachori, mathris, kanji bada and kanda bhajiya are also enjoyed. Chaats also find a place in the Holi menu.

The Holi goodies for you…

There is very little fasting. From early in the morning, people start the merriment by smearing each other with colours and feasting in between on the various goodies prepared beforehand by the housewives. Here is an array of the delicacies that most households prepare during this colourful festival.

Triumph of good over evil

Holi, like most of the Hindu festivals, is a celebration of triumph of the good over the evil. The origins of Holi can be traced to medieval times. It finds an honourable mention in old Sanskrit texts like ‘Dashakumar Charit’ and ‘Garud Puran’. There is also a glorious description of the Holi festival in the play ‘Ratnavali’ written by Harshdev in the 7th century.

Let’s have a look at various interesting legends associated with the celebration of Holi.

# The legend of Prahlad
The literal meaning of Holi in Hindi is "burning". The reference of how it became associated with "burning" can be found in ancient Indian Mythology. The celebration of Holi is associated with an evil king named Hiranyakashipu who wanted to avenge the death of his brother, Hiranyaksha, who was killed by Lord Vishnu (one of the supreme trio, who preserves life and death in the Universe). For this, he performed intense penance and prayed for many years, for which he was granted a boon of immortality. Powered by the boon, Hiranyakashipu thought he had become invincible and arrogantly ordered everyone in his kingdom to worship him instead of God.

However, he found an adversary in his own son, little Prahlad, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. Despite his father's orders, Prahlad continued to pray to Lord Vishnu. This angered the king so much so that he wanted to get rid of his son. His many attempts went in vain and Prahlad always escaped unscathed.

The king’s sister Holika had a boon that fire would never burn her. So the king asked her to sit amid a flaming pyre with Prahlad in her lap, so that the child would be devoured by the fire. Prahlad sat with eyes closed, praying to Lord Vishnu and came out unscathed whereas Holika was burnt to ashes.

The complete submission to Lord Vishnu saved little Prahlad. It is from Holika that the name of the festival originated. This legend is relived today and on the Holi-eve huge bonfires are lit to symbolize the burning of Holika and to celebrate victory of "good" over "evil".

# The legend associated with Lord Krishna
Another legend is about Putana, a she-demon sent by the cruel King Kansa, to kill his nephew, the infant Krishna, who is the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Under the guise of a beautiful woman she went around the village of Nandgaon, suckling every child to death with her poison. But when she came to Krishna, he suckled at her breasts till blood started oozing out, resulting in her death. So on the full moon night of the month of phalgun, bonfires are lit to celebrate the victory of Krishna and death of Putana.

# Legend related to Lord Krishna and Radha
According to legend, Lord Krishna was very jealous of Radha who had a fair complexion, while he was dusky. When he complained about this to his mother Yashoda, she suggested that he could smear Radha’s face with different colours. This is perhaps the reason why Holi is the festival of colours.

Holi, as it is played today, is more representative of Lord Krishna’s frolics with Radha and Gopis, the young maidens of Vrindavan. This is also corroborated by most of the songs sung during Holi which describe the pure love of Radha and Krishna. He played Holi with much enthusiasm, spraying everyone with coloured water through pichkaris, a tradition that has survived the passage of time.

# The Legend of Kamdev
Another Holi legend, which is popular in the Southern states of India, revolves around Lord Shiva and Kamdev, the God of love according to Hindu Mythology. As per the legend, God Kamdev carried a bow, made of sugarcane, with a line of humming bees as its string. The arrow-shafts were tipped with passion that consumed every heart it pierced. His favourite pastime during spring was to move through the woodlands hunting for birds, beasts and men. Once he committed severe blasphemy by aiming his arrow at Lord Shiva who was sitting in deep meditation. Furious, Lord Shiva opened his third eye and burnt Kamdev to ashes. Kamdev's grief-stricken wife Rati beseeched the Lord to take pity on her and bring her husband back to life. Shiva relented and restored Kamdev to life but on condition that she would be able to see her husband but he would remain anang (without the physical human form). The Holi bonfire, it is believed, is also about this event. Hence, the songs sung during Holi tell the pathetic tale of Rati.

# The Legend associated with Maratha Empire
In Maharashtra, Holi takes another form, called Shimga or Rangapanchami. Going back to the days of the Maratha regime, this legend is about Jijabai, the 5-year old daughter of Lakhooji Jadhav. It seems that she had innocently sprinkled coloured water and gulal on young Shahaji, son of Malajirao Bhosale on the day of Holi. This was taken as an auspicious indication by their parents and they announced their engagement. Soon after they were married and Shivaji, their son, went on to fight the powerful Mogul empire and shake its very foundation. He was also the one who started guerrilla warfare to establish the Maratha Empire and changed the course of history. During the Maratha regime this festival was celebrated with a lot of fanfare.

Celebrations take many forms

The day dawns with everyone – young and old, men and women, rich and poor, breaking all social barriers – flocking to the streets. It is a day when people smear each other with coloured powder called abeer or gulal and soak each other with coloured water sprinkled through pichkaris (these look like big syringes). 

Holi is largely celebrated by applying gulal (a red coloured powder) on friends and foes alike. In fact, people take this opportunity to end their differences. Nowadays, the gulal has given way to many colors like orange, yellow, green, purple, blue and even metallic. Kids throw water-filled balloons at each other, sometimes even from the balconies or from building terraces, thus catching their victims unawares. Friends get together and roam on the streets for hours, throwing colours at each other and also at passersby. They also feast on sweets and savouries alike. It is only late in the afternoon, after being happily exhausted, they head home to clean up and further enjoy a delicious spread with family.

The celebrations of Holi differ from state to state and have their roots in the ancient Indian culture.

Bengal: Bengalis call it Dol Yartra or Dol Purnima. Traditionally the festival is celebrated by placing the idols of Krishna and Radha on swings and the devotees take turns to swing them. Women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs, as men spray coloured water and abeer, a type of coloured powder. But these days rarely does one get to see these traditional rituals, for people play in the mornings with coloured waters and abeer instead and later on they join the festive processions.

Nobel laureate Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore introduced Basanta Utsav, the festival of spring, in the school at Shantiniketan. As per the tradition, the students dressed up in saffron-coloured clothes and garlands of fragrant flowers, and sang and danced, to the accompaniment of musical instruments, before their teachers and the invited guests. At the end of the programme everyone applied the auspicious red abeer to each other. Liquid colours were strictly forbidden. The boys and girls greeted the spring season not only with colours, but also with songs, dance and hymns, in a serene environment. Today, though Shantiniketan is a full-fledged university, the students welcome Spring in the same way.

Orissa: The traditions here are similar to those in Bengal. The only difference being that idol of Lord Jagannath replaces that of Lord Krishna and Radha. This is probably because the famous Jagannath Temple is situated in Puri, in Orissa. Anyways "Jagannath", meaning 'the Lord of the Universe', is yet another name of Krishna.

Mathura and Vrindavan: Finally, let us see how this festival is celebrated in the land of Lord Krishna. Holi in Mathura is celebrated for over a week. Being a city of temples, each day of the week Holi is celebrated in a different temple. The festival is also celebrated with lot of fun and frolic in Vrindavan. Holi celebration in the Bakai-Vihari Temple in Vrindavan is considered sacred.

Holi festival is also celebrated at 'Gulal-Kund' in Braj, a marvellous lake located near the Govardhan hill. At this sacred site tourists and pilgrims drench themselves in colour.

The men-folk of Nandgaon and the women-folk of Barsana, which is the birth place of Radha, come together and play the game of Huranga. As part of the game, men abuse women and in retaliation the women beat their tormentors with sticks. The men try to protect themselves with shields. It is all done playfully and with much merriment.

Punjab: The Sikhs also celebrate Holi but call it Hola Mohalla. And like the rest of the country the festivities are marked with feasting and merriment.

Gujarat: In Gujarat the vibrantly colourful Bhagoria festival coincides with Holi which attracts hundreds of tourists to partake in the festivities. The celebrations take on a slightly different form, somewhat similar to the Govinda festival in Mumbai, which is celebrated during Janmashtami. Both the festivals are connected with Lord Krishna. Earthen pots filled with buttermilk are tied up high on a rope at various streets between two buildings and people form a human pyramid so that the person at the top can reach the pot and break it. All the while people from the neighboring building throw water on the pyramid.

Maharashtra: Here people have a social get together and celebrate Holi with great fervour. The fisher folk celebrate it in their own special way. The men and women perform a special dance called Balya Dance to ward off evil spirits, thoughts and desires. The dancers make a peculiar sound, called Bombne, by striking their mouths with the back of their hands.

South India: Holi is not celebrated with as much intensity as it is in North India. But people do indulge in merrymaking. The legend of Kamdev is quite prevalent in this part of the country. The folk songs narrate the tragic story of Kamdev and Rati and it is considered as a festival of love. Holi in these parts is known by three different names - Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-dahanam.

Holi as a Harvest festival:
In years that followed these historic events, Holi acquired a new significance. Besides being a spring festival, it is also celebrated as the harvest festival when the winter rabi crop ripens and the corns of wheat become golden, and is ready for harvesting. Farmers offer oblation or prayer to God as thanksgiving for a good harvest and also offer their first crop to Agni dev, the God of Fire who for centuries has been looked upon with love and esteem by the Aryans. Only after this first offering, the farmers use the crop for their personal consumption or sell it in the markets. To celebrate a good harvest, the farmers play Holi with great joy.

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