Holi Festival: Unity in Diversity

By Soumya Singh

The Holi festival of Colours really is one of a kind.

A Hindu festival, it falls on the last full moon day of the Hindu month of Phalgun: around late February or March.

Holi has an interesting mythological tale behind its origin. The story revolves around a self-obsessed demon king Hiranyakashyipu, his wicked sister Holika, and Prahlad, the king’s son, and an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu.

The tale goes that Hiranyakashyipu earned a boon that made him virtually indestructible and consequently he became arrogant, assuming himself to be God, and demanded that everyone worship only him. However his son Prahlad was a noble soul, who disagreed with him and remained devoted to the Lord. This infuriated Hiranyakashyipu, who proceeded to give out cruel punishments to Prahlad. He attempted to kill him on several occasions, however his efforts were futile as the boy’s resolve to remain righteous and stay devoted to the Almighty only grew stronger. Ultimately Prahlad’s evil aunt Holika, who had been bestowed with a fire-proof cloak, sat on a pyre, draped in the cloak, with Prahlad in her lap, with the intention of killing him. But the unthinkable happened: the cloak flew from her and covered Prahlad instead. This lead to Holika’s death, while the boy emerged unscathed. In a fit of rage, the king tried to kill him, but Lord Vishnu himself appeared and killed Hiranyakashyipu.

The festivities begin on the full moon night before the day of Holi – derived from the name Holika – when people traditionally burn a bonfire to commemorate the victory of good over evil, and to symbolise the dawn of a new era. This ceremony is called the Holika Dahan. It is said that when Holika was killed people rubbed the ash on their forehead the next day – a practice still observed by some. This later transformed into the application of coloured powder which many people nowadays associate with the Holi festival.

Holi is significant for many other reasons, too: for some Hindus, it signifies a new year and Spring, becoming a celebration of good harvests and fertile soil; most importantly, however, it is an occasion to renew ruptured relationships and absolve oneself of all the wrongdoings and emotional impurities of the past.

The fun and frolics really get going the next day, Holika Dahan, when people apply coloured powder to one another. Unlike other Hindu festivals like Diwali, Dussehra or Janmashtami, it is not related to any particular Hindu deity, and no religious ceremony is performed. The day is solely for party and celebration. An aura of dynamism grips the air as the beats of the dhols mingle with the tune of favourite Holi songs and Bollywood numbers, interrupted by the ecstatic cries of children spraying one another with water using pichkaris and water guns.

Traditional delicacies like the malpua, mathri and the gujiya have always been a favourite. A few days before the festival, all the women of the family gather together to begin food preparation. The Thandai – an intoxicating drink containing Bhaang, a cannabis preparation – is the most iconic treat of the fiesta.

Within India itself, Holi is celebrated in different ways in different states: the Rang Panchmi in Uttar Pradesh, the Lath-Maar Holi in Barsana and Vrindavan, Ukkuli in the Konkan region, Manjal Kuli in Kerala, Shimga in Maharashtra, Shigmo in Goa, Dola in Odisha, Dol Jatra or Dol Purnima in West Bengal, Kumaoni Holi in Uttarakhand and many other different forms throughout India.

But what makes Holi really unique, aside from having a very special significance and style of celebration, is the fact that in spite of it being a Hindu festival, it is celebrated by people of all religions with the same enthusiasm – perfectly symbolising India’s Unity in Diversity.

Holi is a festival that appeals to people all over the world. Over the years it has transcended geographical barriers and is now celebrated with pomp and show in countries like the USA, the UK, South Africa, Malaysia, Fiji and several others that house a significantly large Indian population. With passing years, the celebrations have altered according to the local traditions and environment of different places. The upcoming celebrations at our own University are a testimony to how far the festival has spread!

The Holi celebrations in Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Fiji, more popularly known as Phagwah, are just as extravagant as those in India. Holi in the United States is a social event, the most popular celebrations being the NYC Holi in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and at Radha Krishna Temple in Utah. A variety of Holi inspired events are held particularly in the US and Europe: the Colour Run, Festival of Colours Tour and Holi One to name a few.

Lately, in spite of all the fun and frolic, people have started taking into account the environmental impacts of Holi. Synthetic colours that have certain adverse impacts on human skin and the environment have been replaced by eco-friendly herbal colours. People are moving towards a ‘dry Holi’, as it helps prevent water shortage in areas where there is a shortage. Also, events that trivialise the spiritual significance of the festival for commercial gains are being checked, to ensure that it stays true to its roots, and the spirit of love and unity in diversity that it so wonderfully embodies.

Illustration: Olivia Howcroft

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