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holi_01Origins of Holi


Holi was originally a spring festival of fertility and harvest. Now it also marks some Hindu legends, which provide some of the ingredients for the celebrations.

Holi is an ancient festival which is referred to in the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnaval.

Witness the beauty of the great cupid festival which excites curiosity as the townsfolk are dancing at the touch of brownish water thrown from squirt-guns.

They are seized by pretty women while all along the roads the air is filled with singing and drum-beating.

Everything is coloured yellowish red and rendered dusty by the heaps of scented powder blown all over.

Ratnaval, 7th century drama

The Legend of Prahalad and Holika

This is the main Holi legend. Holika was a female demon, and the sister of Hiranyakashyap, the demon king. Hiranyakashyap considered himself ruler of the Universe, and higher than all the gods.

Prahalad was the king's son. His father hated him because Prahalad was a faithful devotee of the god Vishnu.

One day the king asked him "Who is the greatest, God or I?"

"God is," said the son, "you are only a king."

The king was furious and decided to murder his son.

But the king's attempts at murder didn't work too well. Prahalad survived being thrown over a cliff, being trampled by elephants, bitten by snakes, and attacked by soldiers.

So the king asked his sister, Holika, to kill the boy.

Holika seized Prahalad and sat in the middle of a fire with the boy on her lap.

Holika had been given a magic power by the gods that made her immune to fire, so she thought this was a pretty good plan, and Prahalad would burn to death while she remained cool.

But it's never wise to take gods' gifts for granted! Because Holika was using her gift to do something evil, her power vanished and she was burned to ashes. Prahalad stayed true to his God, Vishnu, and sat praying in the lap of his demon aunt. Vishnu protected him, and Prahalad survived.

Shortly afterwards, Vishnu killed King Hiranyakashyap and Prahad ruled as a wise king in his father's place.


The moral of the story is that good always wins over evil, and those who seek to torment the faithful will be destroyed.

To celebrate the story, large bonfires are burned during Holi. In many parts of India, a dummy of Holika is burned on the fire.


A colourful celebration

Holi is the Hindu festival that welcomes the Spring and celebrates the new life and energy of the season. Although Holi has religious roots, not much religious activity is involved in its celebration.

Holi is the most energetic Indian festival, filled with fun and good humour; even the strict rules of separation between castes are abandoned.

Holi is also called 'The Festival of Colours', and people celebrate the festival by smearing each other with paint, and throwing coloured powder and dye around in an atmosphere of great good humour.

Holi is seen by some as the Hindu festival that is nearest in spirit to St. Valentine's Day.

Holi in Brief

* A spring festival, usually celebrated in March

* Holi also celebrates Krishna, and the legend of Holika and Prahalad

* Holi is particularly celebrated in North India

* Although Holi has religious roots there are few religious things to do

* Distinctions of caste, class, age, and gender are suspended during Holi

* A very exuberant festival, with dancing, singing, and throwing of paint

* Holi features gender rivalry, with contests between men and women, and public flirting

* Bonfires are lit during Holi, and food offerings are roasted

* The festival is officially celebrated on the day after full moon during the month of Phalunga, which falls in February-March

During the evening of the full moon, bonfires are lit in the streets.

These bonfires not only purify the air of evil spirits, but mark the story of Holika and Prahalad.

The next day, people of all ages go into the streets for jollifications and paint-throwing.


You can get the feel of the modern festival by reading this report on Holi in Chandigarh:

It was a sunny day, offering a perfect setting for the revellers.

The festivities picked up around 10 a.m. with kids targeting passersby with their colour-filled 'gubaras' and 'pichkaris' from roof-tops and shouting 'Holi hai'.

"Soon the entire city was dominated by 'youth brigades' zipping around on their jeeps, cars and mo-bikes, with loads of colour packed on their vehicles.

Drenched in the 'Holi' spirit to the core, they spared none. Everyone coming in their way got a splash of colour either spewed by water-jets or from different shades of 'gulal'.

©Tribune India, 3 March 1999


Role reversal

Holi is a time when traditional roles and levels of status in Indian society are turned upside down.

In one part of India there is a tradition of men and women taking part in a mock battle, however one of the rules is that the men are not allowed to fight back.


Holi is a great leveller.

By the time everyone has been covered in paint and coloured water, it's pretty hard to see any of the normal clues as to who is what caste, or what class.

And because no-one is likely to take designer clothes out for a soaking, there's not much chance of seeing who is rich and who is poor.

Holi is a festival that's enjoyed by both high and low. Indian newspapers are likely to show pictures of ministers, even prime ministers, seriously splashed with paint.

The Messiest Festival

Holi is messy, there is no getting around that.

People throw powder paint (called "gulal") at each other (yes, even at complete strangers) and no-one seems to mind. The air is often bright with clouds of coloured powder.

Gold and Silver used to be popular colours with young women, but are currently unfashionable.


The more gadget-minded fill water pistols or long syringes (called pichkaris) with coloured water for distance squirting. Balloons and folded paper water bombs full of coloured water are another useful weapon of fun.


Holi colours used to be made from the flowers of the 'tesu' tree. These would be gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground up.

When this powder was mixed with water it produced an orange-red coloured fluid.


Gulal is powdered colour, and Indian streets are bright with stalls selling powders of different colours for days before the festival.


Abeer (small crystals of mica) is used to make sparkly colours.

Because of health fears, natural colours such as mehndi, haldi, besan and maida have become popular again.

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