Holi, the Festival of Colours, is a popular Hindu spring festival celebrated in India, Nepal, Srilanka, and countries with large Hindu diaspora populations, such as Suriname, Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, United Kingdom, United States, Mauritius, and Fiji.
Holi is celebrated by people throwing colored powder and colored water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakaship, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion.
Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna (February/March), (Phalgun Purnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March.
In Vaishnava Theology, Hiranyakaship is the king of demons, and he had been granted a boon by Brahma, which made it almost impossible for him to be killed. The boon was due to his long penance, after which he had demanded that he not be killed "during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or on sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra". Consequently, he grew arrogant, and attacked the Heavens and the Earth. He demanded that people stop worshipping gods and start praying to him.
Despite this, Hiranyakaship's own son, (Prahlada), was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from Hiranyakaship, Prahlada continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. He was poisoned but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and survived. All of Hiranyakaship's attempts to kill his son failed. Finally, he ordered young Prahlada to sit on a pyre on the lap of his sister, Holika, who could not die by fire by virtue of a shawl which would prevent fire affecting the person wearing it. Prahlada readily accepted his father's orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as the shawl flew from Holika, who then was burnt to death, while Prahlada survived unharmed, after the shawl moved to cover him. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.
Later Lord Vishnu came in the form of a Narasimha (who is half-man and half-lion) and killed Hiranyakaship at dusk (which was neither day nor night), on the steps of the porch of his house (which was neither inside the house nor outside) by restraining him on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth) and mauling him with his claws (which are neither astra nor shastra).
In Vrindavan and Mathura, where Lord Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days. Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the festival by playing pranks on the gopis here. Krishna is believed to have complained to his mother about the contrast between his dark skin complexion and Radha's fair skin complexion. Krishna's mother decided to apply colour to Radha's face. The celebrations officially usher in spring, the celebrated season of love.
Rituals of Holi
Earliest textual references regarding celebration of Holi have been found the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnavali. Holi has certainly perennial rituals attached to it, the first is smearing of coloured powder on each other, and throwing water, coloured and scented using pichkaris, shaped like giant syringes or squirt guns. Though the festival really begins many days in advance, with 'Holi Milan' or Baithaks, musical soirees, where song related to the festival, and the epic love story of Radha Krishna are sung; specially type of folk songs, known as “Hori” are sung as well. Some classical ones like Aaj biraj mein Holi re rasiya, have been present in the folklore for many generations.
Food preparations also begin many days in advance, with assemblage of gujia, papads, kanji and various kinds of snack items including malpuas, mathri, puran poli, dahi badas, which are served to Holi guests. The night of Holi, the baithak turn into event of churning bhang (cannabis) to make intoxicating milk shakes.
Holika Dahan: The Holi bonfire
The main emphasis of the festival is on the burning of the holy fire or Holika. The origin of the traditional lighting of Holi is attributed by some to the burning of demonesses like Holika, Holaka and Putana who represent evil, or to the burning of Madan according to others.
Traditionally a bonfire on the day of Holi, marks the symbolic anhilation of a demoness Holika the sister of demon, Hiranyakashipu, in Hindu mythology, while trying to kill, a devotee, Bhakta Prahlad.
This is akin to other festivals where effigies are burned, like Ravana Dahan on Vijayadashami (Dusshera) day, also in many other religions across the world, signifying end of dark or demonic forces, though with Holika Dahan, the effigy has now been all but vanished or present in a symbolic form, except in few areas in the Braja region, where effigies are still seen on street corners and public squares, piled on top of an assemblage wood. This set to fire after ritualistic worship, and people make pradakshina of the bonfire. The next day this victory is celebrated as the day of Holi.
Principal ingredients of celebration are Abeer and Gulal, in all possible colours. Next comes squirting of coloured water using pichkaris. Coloured water is prepared using Tesu flowers, which are first gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground up, and later mixed with water to produce orange-yellow coloured water. Another traditional Holi item now rarely seen is a where a red powder enclosed in globes of Lakh, which break instantly and covering the party with the powder.
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