When the cold of winter gives way to the gentle warmth of spring, nature erupts in myriad colors. From the tender green of new leaves adorning the bare branches of trees to the blossoming new buds of all hues; from the bright chirping of birds to the fragrant breeze that sweeps the landscape—as the eyes drink in the marvelous beauty of nature, the heart bursts into a song of joy and the feet dance with loved ones near and dear.
Holi is a celebration of riturāj vasant, “the king of seasons”—spring! It is also referred to as vasant utsav, “the festival of spring,” and is observed with great exuberance throughout India. This two-day festival begins on the full moon night of the Hindu lunar month of Phalgun, which corresponds to February/March in the Gregorian calendar. In 2020 Holi is celebrated on March 9-10.
The night of the full moon in Phalgun is known as Holi Purnima. It is the night of Holika Dahan (literally, the burning of Holika), when the demoness Holika perished by fire. As told in the Puranas, this is a story of how a devotee’s unwavering devotion and faith draw the divine protection of the Lord, of the triumph of good over evil, the annihilation of impurity, and the exaltation of piety.
The arrogant and powerful demon king Hiranyakashyapu ordered all his subjects to worship him alone. His young son, Prahlad, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused to obey his father. Hiranyakashyapu was enraged at his son’s defiance and tried to kill him in many different ways. But each time Prahlad was saved by the grace of his beloved Lord Vishnu.
Finally, Hiranyakashyapu ordered a pyre to be built. His evil sister, Holika, had a magic cloak that would protect the wearer from being burned by fire. On the king’s command, Holika wrapped the cloak around herself and sat on top of the pyre, placing young Prahlad in her lap. The pyre was lit. Prahlad prayed fervently to Lord Vishnu.
As the flames rose higher and higher, the people who had been ordered to attend the burning watched in horror and fear. When the flames subsided, everyone was astonished to see that Prahlad was unscathed, but Holika had burned to death. A gust of wind had blown the cloak from around the demoness and wrapped it around Prahlad!
On the night of Holika Dahan, people build an alāv, a bonfire, in their neighborhoods after cleaning and purifying the designated area. They chant mantras and make offerings of coconut, flowers, turmeric, rice, and other grains. The bonfire symbolizes purification and the devouring of all evil forces.
Dhūli Vandanā, the day after Holika Dahan, is celebrated with colors that reflect the vivid hues of nature. Dhūli Vandanā is both a Sanskrit and a Hindi term. Dhūli means “dust” or “soil,” and vandanā means “worship.” Dhūli Vandanā is the worship of Mother Earth, who blesses us with a plentiful harvest. This is the day to celebrate her bounty.
The delightful tradition of “playing Holi” with colors was inspired by a story in the scripture called Shrimad Bhagavatam of how Lord Krishna played with his beloved devotee Radha and other gopis, applying gulāl—red and pink powder—to each other’s faces and showering it on each other.1 To this day, the most joyous and elaborate Holi events take place in Mathura, Lord Krishna’s birthplace, and Vrindavan, where he spent his childhood. Here Holi lasts for almost a week, as people gather on a different day at each of the major temples dedicated to Krishna and Radha. Thousands of people throng to these temples to play with colors, perform folk dances, and sing songs of the līlā, or play, of Lord Krishna. They consider being drenched in colors as receiving God’s blessing.
This spirit of playfulness abounds on Dhūli Vandanā. As the day dawns, people excitedly gather in their homes, in the streets, or in nearby fields to play Holi. It is traditional to wear new white clothes so that the colors stand out, transforming them into a kaleidoscope of multihued patterns. However, these days people play in whatever clothes they wish.
With chants of होली है! होली है! बुरा न मानो, होली है! “Holi is here! Holi is here! Don’t take offense as it is Holi!” they shower gulāl and spray colored water on one another. This chant reflects the spirit of the holiday. It is an unspoken rule that no one can be offended even if strangers play Holi with them—for this is the day for dancing and singing, for unbridled joy and laughter, for lightheartedness and light banter, when all animosity and grudges are shown the door. The air itself is vibrant with flamboyant colors—pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. After a while, every face becomes indistinguishable from the others, except for the glittering eyes and the beaming smiles that tell of the sheer joy and ebullience that envelop everyone and everything.
In many parts of the country the celebration of Dhūli Vandanā comes to a conclusion after playing with colors. People return to their homes, shower and change into new clothes, and sit down to enjoy a special feast with family and friends. But in northern India, the celebrations continue well into the night. After the feast at home, people go to visit family and friends, sharing sweets and snacks, dancing and singing and enjoying one another’s company immensely.
The story of Holi would not be complete without mentioning the hundreds of stories and songs about this festival depicted in Bollywood movies! Under the guise of playing Holi, countless heroes have found the perfect moment to express their love to their heroines, wooing them with song and dance. Numerous family feuds have been resolved on the day of Holi as former sworn enemies forgive and embrace each other, letting bygones be bygones, as the audience expels a collective sigh of relief. Stern fathers are persuaded on Holi to give their consent for their daughters to wed their soulmates, and so on and so forth. One might even ask: had the festival of Holi not existed, how on earth would the Bollywood writers and directors have resolved all these dramatic conflicts? Well, it’s a good thing we don’t need to wonder!
I am having so much fun writing this piece that I would love to go on and on singing the glory of Holi. However, wishing to be kind toward you, the reader, I will conclude by sharing with you the essence of this holiday through a poem I was inspired to write:
बाग़ों का रूप निखर रहा है
हवा में रंग बिखर रहा है
प्यार, सौहर्द, बन्धुत्व-भाव,
इनका आनन चमक रहा है।
बैर-भाव सब मिट जाते हैं
इनकी भीनी ख़ुशबू में
हृदय-दीप जल जाते हैं
इनकी पावन ज्योति में।
सिमटाते हो इन्हें क्यों कर
आख़िर बस इसी एक दिन में?
भीगने दो न क्यों तन-मन
हर दिन इनकी वर्षा में?
The beauty of the gardens increases,
Colors are swirling in the air.
Love, cordiality, and kinship—
their countenance shines.
In their sweet fragrance
all animosity disappears.
With their sacred flame
the lamp in every heart is ablaze.
Why reserve these sentiments
for this day only?
Why not let your body and soul
be drenched every day
in their sparkling rain?
Click here to see the Hindi phrases and poem in this introduction, along with their transliteration and meaning.