Holi, the festival of colors, is the second most important festival celebrated in India, the first one being Diwali, our festival of lights. Indians all over the world celebrate this joyous festival provided, (yes, there’s a catch) the weather is reasonably good. For although it’s a spring festival, the joy is dampened if the weather doesn’t permit a full-fledged water play. The water play I refer to ranges from taking shots at each other with a water-gun/ soakers (“pichkaris”)/ power-soakers, to launching water-filled balloons at the neighbors/ passer-bys (openly or sniper style). In fact, include literally shoving people into a large tub/ tank of colored water or even into the pool. The cleaner the person is before this is done, more the fun, of course.
Apart from the colored water, the celebration also involves putting dry color on people’s face and hair (nobody likes the hair part, but hey, who’s listening?). The motto of the day is “Bura Na Mano Holi Hai” which means – don’t mind, it’s Holi.
Holi celebrations are also associated with good-natured teasing amongst men and women. And yes, you guessed what I’m going to say next. The Indian film industry portrays this flirting in all its glory. I’m sure every single Indian has seen and enjoyed Amitabh Bachchan’s “Khai Gori Ka Lal, Balam Tarse, Rang Barse” in Sil Sila where he openly flirts with Rekha on Holi. Talking of which, the excuse in the Hindi movies for such flirtations and at times even obscene behavior is attributed to the effects of “Bhaang” (leaves and buds of the plant cannabis mixed with milk). The truth in real life is not too far away from what is shown in the movies. We have all witnessed jovial light-hearted teasing between an aunty and another uncle or for that matter between the guy next door and that girl on the top floor. Such teasing definitely takes on a new level on Holi. And talking of bhaang, practically the official drink of Holi in North India, you haven’t celebrated Holi if you haven’t tried bhaang at least once in your lifetime. I remember the first and the last time I had bhaang. My brother-in-law, who was a very fun spirited person, gave us “thandai” (pistachio milk) that turned out to be bhaang. It’s said that bhaang brings out your true emotions- you laugh non-stop if you’re happy and cry non-stop if gripped by a sad thought. Happy to say, I and my sister laughed non-stop that day. I remember the accompanying hallucinations too. As the mind plays trick on the senses, saw the bucket of water move back or rise up on its own accord. Never accepted a “milky” drink from anyone again on Holi.
Unfortunately, the streets are no place for women in most parts of India on Holi. There are bad elements out on the streets looking for cheap thrills as well. I’m sure most girls have a story to tell on the topic. The beautiful vibrant colors have a dirtier variations too. Hard-to-remove paints and mud are used along with the colors as well, making its removal an arduous task later.
As with other Hindu festivals, Holi is inextricably linked to mythical tales also. According to Kalyani Bhat, who has taught religious classes in the Dallas Fort Worth Hindu Temple for 8 years, Holi festival originated during the Narasimha avatar of Vishnu from the DashaAvtara (10 births of Vishnu). Kalyani has this story to tell about why Holi is celebrated- the demon, Hiranyakshipu, through penance, was blessed with a boon from Brahma that he would not die at the hands of a man, an animal or a weapon, on earth or in the sky. His son, Prahlad, was a devotee of Vishnu and so his father did everything in his power to stop his son from praying to Vishnu. When Prahlad refused to do so, he plotted to have his own son killed several times with no success. Finally he asked his sister, Holika, who had the power to come out unscathed from a fire, to hold Prahlad in her lap and sit on a fire. The whole kingdom prayed for his safety to Agni, the fire God. The result was that when Holika sat in the fire with Prahlad on her lap, he came out unscathed while she was burnt to ashes. People were overjoyed and the custom of lighting a bonfire on full moon night (mostly the day before Holi) originated as a mark of respect to Agni for taking care of Prahlad and protecting him. Later in the story, Narasimha avatar (the half man- half lion birth of Vishnu) kills Hiranyakshipu with his claws, at twilight in mid air. There are other legends related to Holi too, many of them are stories of Radha & Krishna playing with colors. Many Classical Indian dances are based on it as well. They all point to having lots of fun with colors and water.
Wish you all a very boisterous Holi.