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The Legends and Rituals of Holi

The Legends and Rituals of Holi

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  8 March 2020 11:30 AM GMT

Religion, bonfires and an abundance of colored chalk — India’s Holi Festival could just be one of the world’s most beautiful celebrations. Holi is an ancient Hindu festival, originating from the Indian subcontinent. It is celebrated predominantly in India, but has also spread to other areas of Asia and parts of the Western world through the diaspora from the Indian subcontinent. Holi is popularly known as the Indian "festival of spring", the "festival of colours", or the "festival of love". The festival signifies the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships. The festival also celebrates the beginning of a good spring harvest season. It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the Purnima (Full Moon day) falling in the Vikram Samvat Calendar,in the Hindu calendar month of Phalguna, which falls around middle of March in the Gregorian calendar. The first evening is known as Holika Dahan (burning of demon holika) or Chhoti Holi and the following day as Holi, Rangwali Holi, Dhuleti, Dhulandi,or Phagwah. Holi is of particular significance in the Braj region, which includes locations traditionally associated with the Lord Krishna: Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandgaon, Uttar Pradesh, and Barsana, which become touristic during the season of Holi.

Outside India and Nepal, Holi is observed by the minority Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well in countries with large Indian subcontinent diaspora populations such as Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Mauritius, and Fiji. The Holi rituals and customs outside South Asia also vary with local adaptations.

Holi is based on a legend about King Hiranyakaship. 'Hiranyakashyap had a son, Prahlad. Prahlad was the greatest devotee of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap wanted to kill his son, so he called his sister, Holika. She had a magic robe. This robe had the power to save the wearer from burning in fire. Hiranya Kashyap ordered his sister to sit on a burning fire along with Prahlad. He thought that his sister would not be harmed by the fire because of the magic robe and Prahlad would be burnt to death. But the result was the opposite to what the evil demon king planned.

Thus Prahlad came out of the burning fire safely and Holika was burnt to death. The other day is celebrated with joyful colours to mark the victory of virtue and goodness over evil. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all festival of colours, where people smear each other with colours and drench each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also used to play and colour each other. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children, and elders. The frolic and fight with colours occurs in the open streets, open parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and other musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes to throw coloured powders on each other, laugh and gossip, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks. Some customary drinks include bhang (made from cannabis), which is intoxicating. In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up and visit friends and family In North and Western India, Holi frolic and celebrations begin the morning after the Holika bonfire. There is no tradition of holding puja (prayer), and the day is for partying and pure enjoyment. Children and young people form groups armed with dry colours, coloured solution and water guns (pichkaris), water balloons filled with coloured water, and other creative means to colour their targets.

Traditionally, washable natural plant-derived colours such as turmeric, neem, dhak, and kumkum were used, but water-based commercial pigments are increasingly used. All colours are used. Everyone in open areas such as streets and parks is game, but inside homes or at doorways only dry powder is used to smear each other's face. People throw colours and get their targets completely coloured up. It is like a water fight, but with coloured water. People take delight in spraying coloured water on each other. By late morning, everyone looks like a canvas of colours. This is why Holi is given the name "Festival of Colours". Holi, also called Phakuwa/Doul (ফাকুৱা/দৌল) in Assamese, is celebrated all over Assam. Locally called Doul Jatra, associated with Satras of Barpeta, Holi is celebrated over two days. On the first day, the burning of clay huts are seen in Barpeta and lower Assam which signifies the legends of Holika. On the second day of it, Holi is celebrated with colour powders. The Holi songs in chorus devoted to Lord Krishna are also sung in the regions of Barpeta.In Punjab, the eight days preceding Holi are known as luhatak. Sekhon (2000) states that people start throwing colours many days before Holi. In Maharashtra, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as Shimga, festivities that last five to seven days. A week before the festival, youngsters go around the community, collecting firewood and money. On the day of Shimga, the firewood is heaped into a huge pile in each neighborhood. In the evening, the fire is lit. Every household brings a meal and dessert, in the honour of the fire god. Puran Poli is the main delicacy and children shout "Holi re Holi puranachi poli". Shimga celebrates the elimination of all evil. The colour celebrations here take place on the day of Rang Panchami, five days after Shimga. During this festival, people are supposed to forget and forgive any rivalries and start new healthy relations with all. Punjab, Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka or Jammu & Kashmir, everyone celebrates Holi in their own unique ways but end up throwing colors on each other.

Holi is preceded by Holika Dahan the night before when a fire is lit. Historically, the Lubana community of Punjab celebrated holi "with great pomp and show. The Lubanas buried a pice and betel nut. They heaped up cow-dung cakes over the spot and made a large fire. When the fire had burnt out, they proceeded to hunt for the pice and betel-nut. Whosoever found these, was considered very lucky."Elsewhere in Punjab, Holi was also associated with making fools of others. Bose writing in Cultural Anthropology: And Other Essays in 1929 noted that "the custom of playing Holi-fools is prevalent in Punjab".

Holi lowers the strictness of social norms in Indians; gaps between age, gender and status are thrown aside. Together, men and women, the rich and the poor, enjoy each other’s company in a truly hedonistic day. With the gods turning a blind eye you see a libertas in Indians that is rare. They really open themselves up and it’s good to see a different side to them.

There are negative sides to this festival if we look at the impact of Holi on environment, health and psychology. An alleged environmental issue related to the celebration of Holi is the traditional Holika bonfire, which is believed to contribute to deforestation. Activists estimate Holika causes 30,000 bonfires every year, with each one burning approximately 100 kilograms (220.46 lbs) of wood. This represents less than 0.0001% of 350 million tons of wood India consumes every year, as one of the traditional fuels for cooking and other uses.

In June 2015, hundreds of concert-goers in Bali District, Taiwan were severely injured in the Formosa Fun Coast explosion, including fifteen who died later in hospital,after three tons of corn starch powder mixed with food colouring was sprayed onto the crowd at a high velocity, causing a massive explosion.

The method of powder application at the concert created "an extremely dense dust cloud over the stage and its immediate vicinity". People near the stage were standing ankle deep in coloured corn starch powder and the powder was suspended into the air using air blowers as well as compressed gas canisters. Initial investigations into the explosion showed the ignition of the suspended corn starch powder was likely caused by a cigarette or spark. An Asia One report states that such an explosion can occur, under certain conditions, not just with corn starch but with powder form of any agricultural product such as "powdered milk, soya flour, cornflour, rice dust, spice powders, sugar, tapioca, cocoa powder, coconut shell dust, coffee dust, garlic powder, grass dust, malted hops, lemon peel dust, oat flour, peanut skins, tea and tobacco", and that "the crucial element is not the composition of the powder itself, but whether it's deployed under high pressure with a flame nearby.

The coloured powder used during Holi can sometimes lead to ailments in the body or allergy so it is important to use eco friendly natural products that are safe and healthy for our body and mind. It is also necessary to oil the bodyand hair before playing with colors so that our skin and hair don’t get damaged or lead to infections. Putting balms on one’s lips, wearing old clothes, oiling the body is inevitable before going all in to to enjoy the joyous occasion because safety is integral to well being of everybody.

However, the true spirit of the festival shall stay alive forever in the hearts of people who come to sing, dance and groove along the madness of colours. While protecting the nature and not causing disharmony in the society is important, Holi unites us to each other beyond the problems and discord and makes it a festival of joy, love and care. The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring and the end of winter, and an opportunity to meet others. People are brought together to play and laugh, forget and forgive, to repair ruptured relationships.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy Holi creating memories for a lifetime, leaving behind the bad times and remembering the best for the years to come.

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