21st March 2019
The Spring festival of Holi, a religious Hindu celebration originating in India, is becoming a popular event around the world, thanks in part to the Indian diaspora. Not that anyone needs an excuse for an occasion that lets you embrace the very thing you were forbidden from doing in primary school - covering everyone in coloured paint - so it’s no surprise it swiftly caught on elsewhere.
Celebrated across the Indian Subcontinent in different ways, it never fails to be refreshingly inclusive, bringing the community together no matter what caste, religion or sex.
But what would an Indian festival be if there wasn’t a moral-laden legend behind it?
Holi festival has several.
In Vaishnava theology, the King of Demons, Hiranyakashipu was blessed with immortality according to five powers:
1) He could be killed by neither animal nor man
2) Neither indoors nor outdoors
3) Neither in the daytime nor at night-time
4) He could not be killed by projectile weapons or handheld weapons
5) Nor on land, water or air
As you can imagine, this made Hiranyakashipu feel rather arrogant and, imagining himself as God-like with these powers, insisted he be worshipped as such.
But his son, Prahlada, remained devoted only to Lord Vishnu and despite his father’s punishments, remained stoically loyal to his God. Hiranyakashipu was infuriated and so his evil sister, Holika, enticed her nephew to sit with her upon a pyre, while she wore a shawl that would make her impervious to fire.
As the flames began to rise, the shawl flew from Holika and enshrouded Prahlada, protecting him from the fire while his aunt Holika burned to death.
Displeased, the god Vishnu appeared in the form of Narasimha, half human and half lion, with the intent to kill Hiranyakashipu. To bypass his five powers, Narasimha met him on a doorstep - neither indoors or outdoors, at dusk - neither daytime nor night-time, placed Hiranyakashipu on his lap – neither land, water nor air, and slaughtered him with his lion claws which were, of course, neither projectile nor handheld weapons.
So, there you have it, your standard triumph of good over evil tale (also a stark reminder as to why it might be a good idea to at least skim over the small print) and that’s exactly what Holi celebrates. Pilgrims will pray before a bonfire and ask that their personal evils be destroyed, just like Holika herself.
But what about the coloured paint?
Holi is also known as the Festival of Colour, or the Festival of Love, and this pertains to the love between Krishna and Radha, according to legend. Blue-skinned Krishna, a result of being poisoned as a baby by a demon, grew up with dark-blue skin and feeling self-conscious, he thought Radha, with her fair skin, would never love him because of this.
Krishna’s mother proposed that he should approach Radha and offer her the opportunity to colour his face with any colour she wished, which is exactly what he did. Playfully, she accepted and from there, their love blossomed, as did the tradition of throwing coloured powder/water.
It’s good to keep in mind that throughout India, there will be slight differences in how the festival is celebrated, so if you plan on visiting, check out what would suit you best:
For the Best Turn Out
Mathura and Vrindavan – The celebrations here are very famous and popular with tourists and pilgrims alike. Unsurprisingly as Mathura was the birthplace of Lord Krishna and he spent his childhood in Vrindavan.
For a Unique Holi Experience
Barsana, Uttar Pradesh – Tradition sees the men travel from Krishna’s village, Nandgaon, to tease the women from Barsana, at which point the women can playfully hit and chase the men away with sticks.
For some Culture with your Colour
Shantiniketan, West Bengal – At the Vishva Bharati University, students dress up in yellow and put on a show consisting of traditional dances and cultural displays before the ceremonial throwing of colour.
For a Sikh Celebration
Anandpur Sahib, Punjab - With demonstrations of martial arts skills, mock fighting, dare-devil horse-riding and weapon displays, the Sikh’s add a touch of grandiose masculinity to their Holi celebrations. Catch some music or poetry competitions to let the adrenaline wear off.
For off-the-beaten-track Holi
Chanoud, Rajasthan – In a rather rural location in Rajasthan is the village of Chanoud, surrounded by the Thar desert and boasting a 300-year-old palace, it’s famous for having one of the most lively and friendly Holi celebrations in the area.