The most boisterous of Hindu festivals, Holi waves goodbye to winter and welcomes in spring in a rainbow of colours. Celebrations lasts for a week in which the entire country gets drenched in the coloured water.
The festival is quite rightly known as the Festival of Colours for the raucous events on Holi’s final day, when children and adults take to the streets throwing colourful gulal (powder) over each other. Dyed water is shot from syringes, thrown from buckets and poured into balloons which are then tossed at people.
Holi in Mythology
In many parts of north India, the festival of Holi is initiated by the ritual of Holika dahan. A pyre is set off symbolising the end of evil and the emergence of good.
Legend has it that there was a mighty demon king named Hirnakashyipu, who had won all the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell and had thus, become very proud. He assumed that he could defeat even Lord Vishnu with his valor. He went to the extent that he had enforced a law that everybody would worship him instead of gods and deities. However, his little son Prahlad refused to accept his commands and continued to worship Lord Vishnu with complete devotion. Infuriated by this defiance of his son, he ordered his soldiers to throw him down a hill. Praying fervently and having full faith in Lord Vishnu, Prahlad did not retract from his word. True to his faith, Lord Vishnu rescued him at the last moment.
Flustered by this news, Hirnakashyipu invoked the help of his sister Holika, who had a boon that she could walk through the fire unharmed to do away with his son. The wicked aunt agreed to the evil desires of her brother and entered the fire with her nephew Prahlad. However, the brother and sister had forgotten that Holika could only enter the fire alone or she would perish. Thus, blessed by Lord Vishnu, the child Prahlad remained unharmed but Holika got burnt and died instantly. Holi is thus celebrated to commemorate the death of the evil aunt, after whom the festival is named, and the new life granted to Prahlad for his devotion and faith. To this day, cow dung is hurled into the fire and obscenities are shouted at the Holi fire at some places to insult Holika.
Holi in Nepal
Nepal is the only Hindu country in the world and thus it celebrates this festival with great pomp. Though play of colours takes place on the last day, a ceremonial pole called, ‘chir’ is installed on the first day. Chir is a bamboo pole fringed with strips of clothes representing good luck charms. As the pole is put up in the street at Basantapur, the festivities and worship commences for the week. At the end of the festivities chir is taken to a bonfire.
There is a popular legend behind the installation of chir. The story is again about the mischievous nature of Krishna who just loved to play pranks with the milkmaids or gopis. Playful as he was, it is said that once he seduced all the local girls with his dashing good looks. He then danced with them all and when they fully engrossed in him, then he thought they were ripe for a tease. He doused them in coloured water and stole all their clothes while they were bathing in the water of river Yamuna. Naughty Krishna then hung their clothes on a tree to bug them. Chir symbolizes that very tree.
The night before the final day, huge bonfires are lit at major crossroads in towns and cities and effigies of the demon Holika are burned to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.