The meaning of the Festival of Holi
The sub-continent of Bharat is definitely one of the “Holi”est spots on earth. The culture of this land is based on the Sanatana Dharma which is the actual name of Hinduism. All the festivals of the land have some connection with the Hindu way of life. The Hindus follow the lunar calendar of twenty-eight days. The effect of the moon on the ocean is clearly visible. Oceanic tides are connected with the waxing and waning of the moon. Our bodies are made up of seventy-two percent of water. If the moon has such an amazing effect on a huge body of water like the ocean, think of how much effect it will have on us! Thus, we find that all Hindu festivals have some connection with the planets, especially the moon which has the maximum effect on us since it is closest to us. We are actually citizens of the universe and not just of the earth. Our bodies are made up of the five elements which go to make up the whole universe so everything that happens in the universe will have a reciprocal effect on us. This was totally accepted by the ancient Hindus and our way of life was closely connected with the functions of the planets. The Hindu year is divided into numerous festivals. Every month has its own festival. The difference between our ancient Hindu festivals and the modern counterparts is that our festivals always had a divine twist to them so that we might even say every day was a “holy” day in Bharat.
Many of our festivals fall on full moon or new moon days since at those times the moon’s rays have a direct effect on our bodies and minds. Holi is one of the oldest festivals in Bharat. It is a two-day festival and signifies the victory of good over evil. It marks the end of winter and celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season. It is also known as the festival of colours. The festival heralds the arrival of spring and the end of winter. It is an occasion to let go of past regrets and hatred – to forget and forgive and restore broken relationships. Holi starts on the evening of purnima (full moon day) in the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna. The festival is celebrated for two days, Holika Dahan or Chhoti Holi and Dhuleti, Dhulandi or Phagwah. The celebration starts on the night before Holi with Holika Dahan where religious rituals happen in front of a huge bonfire in which the demoness, Holika is burnt. This year 2023, Holika Dahan will be done on 7th March and Holi will be observed on Wednesday 8th March.
Holi is also known as “The festival of colours.” Children and adults play with many types of coloured powders typifying the different coloured flowers that suddenly spring into bloom in this season. On this day we celebrate the coming of spring after having gone through a harsh winter.
The historical name for Holi is Holika. We find detailed descriptions about it in our early religious works like Jaimini’s Purva Mimasa Sutras and the Kathaka Grihya Sutras. It is also mentioned in the Narada Purana and the Bhavishya Purana. A stone inscription with reference to this festival dating to 300 BC was found in the town of Ramgarh. King Varsha also mentions this festival in his famous work “Ratnavali” that was written in the 7th century. There are also references to this festival in the sculptures in some of our temples.
Hampi was the capital of the ancient dynasty of Vijayanagar and the temple has a motif of a prince and princess, with their attendants holding “pichkaris” or syringes with coloured water, all set to drench the royal couple. A great number of such paintings and murals are found in many of our temples that show how old this particular festival is.
Holi is known by many names in the different states of Bharat. It is believed that the Holi festival was first started in the Barsana region of Vrindavana as well as the villages of Mathura and Nandgaon. The local name in Barsana was Lathmar Holi because of the strange tradition in which the village women chased men with lathis (sticks)! In the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, it was known as “Khadi Holi.” People would wear traditional clothes and sing Khadi songs. In Punjab, it was known as Hola Mohalla or warrior Holi and was observed by the Nihang Sikhs who used to display their martial arts. People of Odisha and West Bengal referred to it as Dol Jatra and Basant Utsav. In Shantiniketan, on Dol Purnima idols of Radha and Krishna are taken out in procession. In Goa, it is known as Shigmo and the farmers celebrate with traditional dances on the streets. In Manipur their famous dance called Chongba, starts from the day of the full moon, combining Hindu and indigenous traditions. In the district of Konkan, Manjal Kuli is celebrated in the Konkan temple of Gauripuram. Bihar celebrates Holi as Phagwah while in Assam it is known as Phakuwah.
As with all Hindu festivals there are a number of typical sweets that are a must. The traditional items start with Gujiya, Dahi Vada, Moong Dal Kachauri, Malpua with the flavour of cardamom filled with sweet Khoya, Kesari and Malai Peda. Different types of simple-looking drinks are spiced up with bhang (marihuana)! Of these Bhang Tandai is most dangerous and can easily make us drunk. Dhuska is a Bihari dish with a crunchy and mildly sweet taste.
Most of our festivals tend to emphasize the precarious balance of good and evil both in our personal lives and in the world outside. Of course, they always end in the victory of good over evil. This faith in a superior power that will always come to aid the human being and a strong belief in the traditions that have come down to us through the ages, is what binds the people of Bharat from north to south despite the divergent and varied customs that exist in every state. Luckily for us these traditions have been kept alive till this very day. Hindus re-live these stories every year and bring to life the incidents that occurred thousands of years ago.
The literal meaning of the word “holi” is “burning” and this relates it to the most prominent of the legends associated with this festival. On the eve of Holi the monstrous figure of an ogress called Holika is burnt with great glee in all villages. Holika was the sister of a demon king called Hiranyakashipu. She had a boon that she could never be burnt by fire. The demon king had declared that he and he alone was the only God and nobody should worship any god except him in his kingdom, under pain of death. Unfortunately for him, his youngest son Prahlada was a great devotee of Vishnu. When the king found this out, he tried various methods to kill his son but somehow the child was saved by divine intervention. Vishnu was not one to forsake his devotee. At last, Hiranyakashipu had the brilliant idea of burning the boy by placing him on the lap of his sister Holika, who he believed to be impervious to fire because of a boon she had received. However, at the end of the burning session, Holika was burnt to cinders and Prahlada came out unscathed. This is one of the most famous legends connected with the festival of Holi.
The ceremony of Holika Dahan is observed on the full moon night in the month of Phalguna. The event is celebrated by the burning of Holika on huge wooden pyres all across the northern states in Bharat (and also in the western state of Gujarat). People start collecting wood for many days before the actual event and the pyre is built over time by kids and adults alike. On the night of Holika Dahan, huge crowds gather around the pyre and make offerings of barley and wheat (from the freshly harvested crops) and priests make offerings of coconuts into the fire. The pyre is then lit to chants of “Holi hai, Holi hai” (it is Holi, it is Holi!). Once the fire cools down, the Holi festival begins by people smearing the ashes from the fire on each other.
The spiritual significance of this event is that people participating in the Holika Dahan pledge to “burn away” their bad habits accumulated over the year and renew their faith in Lord Vishnu.
In some parts of Bengal and Orissa, Holi is connected with the birth of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great devotee of Lord Krishna.
Nowadays we find the western world has many types of days dedicated to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sweethearts etc. Hinduism always recognised the need for the human mind to fix itself on some point or other and therefore we always had specific days for all types of relationships. In one of the legends connected with Holi we find that it commemorates the great love between Radha and Krishna and hence it is one of the biggest festivals in Vrindavan. It is said that Krishna asked his mother why he was so dark and Radha so fair and his mother told him to get some colours and apply it on Radha’s face so that she would become any colour he chose. He proceeded to do so and all the other gopis followed suit and thus it turned to be a great festival. Strangely enough Holi comes soon after the modern Valentine’s Day.
Another legend is connected with the burning of Kama, the God of Desire by Lord Shiva when he tried to test him.
Still another legend connects it with the ogress Dundhi who used to molest children. The children used to shout and throw colours at her to drive her away.
As can be noticed all these legends except that of Radha/Krishna, display the triumph of good over evil and how devotion to God will always bring good results.
It is a day of particular freedom for kids who look forward to this day with great anticipation. Water balloons filled with coloured water are hurled at passers-by, pichkaris (water guns) filled with water are squirted in all directions and rowdy street gangs roam the neighborhood hurling all sorts of water at everyone. Adults of course prefer to observe a dry holi by greeting fellow guests with gulaal (coloured powders of various hues).
Actually, all Hindu festivals though based on legends, always had a utilitarian and scientific side to them. Traditionally the colours were made out of neem, kumkum, haldi, bilva and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors. Coloured stones were also ground into powder. Biologists say that natural colours can enter the body through our skin and have the effect of strengthening the ions, thus contributing to both health and beauty. The burning of Holika is also supposed to kill bacteria in the air.
Thus, we see that the legends connected with Holi are as colourful as Holi itself and range in shades of love and devotion to the darkness created by demons and ogres. What is more remarkable is that even after six hundred years of foreign rule and sixty-five years of the rule of a government that tried its best to stamp out Hinduism under the pretext of “secularism,” millions of Hindus still have faith in these legends and festivals and relive them year after year. This is the faith that has kept the culture of Bharat intact for thousands of years. This is the miracle of the Sanatana Dharma – the Ancient Law of Righteousness that has survived the onslaughts of repeated attacks by foreign powers that were determined to wipe out this culture and replace it with their own superficial beliefs based on totally false premises.
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