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Holi, the carnival of colours

Holi, the carnival of colours
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Holi, the festival of colours, is a spring season fiesta celebrated with fun and gaiety across the country. The festival is primarily celebrated across the country apart from its being observed in Nepal and other regions of the world with significant populations of people of Indian origin. The festival has, in recent times, spread in parts of Europe and North Americas as a spring celebration of love, frolic and colours.

Holi celebrations start with Holika dahan (bonfire) on the night before Holi where people gather, sing and dance. The next morning is the day of carnival of colours, where everyone plays, chases and colours each other with dry powder and coloured water. Children play Holi with coloured pichkaris and water-filled balloons. The frolic and fight with colours occurs in open streets, open parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes, first play with colours on each other, laugh and chit-chat, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks.

Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, on the Phalguna Purnima (full moon). The festival date varies every year, as per the Hindi calendar, and comes in March. The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair ruptured relationships.

The word ‘Holi’ originates from ‘Holika’, the evil sister of demon king Hiranyakashipu. King Hiranyakashipu had earned a boon that made him virtually indestructible. The special powers blinded him, he grew arrogant, felt he was God, and demanded that everyone worship only him.

Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, however, disagreed. He was and remained devoted to Vishnu. This infuriated Hiranyakashipu. He subjected Prahlada to cruel punishments, none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika – Prahlada’s evil aunt – tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. Holika was wearing a cloak (shawl) that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada was not.

As the fire roared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada. Holika burned, Prahlada survived. Vishnu appeared and killed Hiranyakashipu. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, of fire that burned Holika. The day after Holika bonfire is celebrated as Holi. In Braj region of India, where Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days (until Rangpanchmi) in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna. The festivities officially usher in spring, with Holi celebrated as festival of love.

There is a symbolic myth behind commemorating Krishna as well. Baby Krishna transitioned into his characteristic dark blue skin colour because a she demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his youth, Krishna despairs whether fair skinned Radha and other Gopikas (girls) will like him because of his skin colour. His mother, tired of the desperation, asks him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. The playful colouring of the face of Radha has henceforth been commemorated as Holi. Holi festival has other cultural significance. It is the festive day to end and rid oneself of past errors, end conflicts by meeting others, a day to forget and forgive. People pay or forgive debts, as well as deal anew with those in their lives. Holi also marks the start of spring and for many the start of New Year. Like Holika dahan, Kama dahanam is celebrated in some parts of the country. The festival of colours is these parts is called Rangapanchami, and occurs on fifth day after Panchami (full moon).
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