Holi is a Hindu festival, also known as the festival of colours, and is celebrated all over India. It is divided into two parts, Holika Dahan and Holi. Scheduled according to the lunar calendar, it is celebrated at the end of the winter, on the last full moon day in the lunar month of Phalguna, which falls in February and March.
This year, Holika Dahan falls on the 8th March and Holi on the 9th.
There are many aspects to the origins of Holi and many different reasons to celebrate it, today
Originally, it was a festival to celebrate the coming of the light and fertility of Spring, after the cold and dark Winter.
For religious believers, it commemorates events in the religious myths or stories of Hinduism. Long ago lived a race of giant demons, the Daityas. Their king, Hiranyakashyap, prayed long and hard to the great god Brahma, and was rewarded with a boon that protected him from death. He could not be killed by man or animal, god or demon, or by any weapon made under the sun. Safe from all enemies and heady with power, he began conquering the world, declaring himself king of the underworld, the earth and finally, of heaven. He defeated Indra, king of the gods, and the others fled, and took on the appearance of ordinary men and women. As ruler of the world, Hiranyakashyap ruled that no one could worship any being but himself. But his own son, Prahlad, disobeyed, singing the praises of Lord Vishnu. In fury, Hiranyakashyap ordered his attendants to kill his son. But their swords failed to hurt him. Hiranyakashyap called upon the snakes of the underworld and the great white elephants of the sky but none could harm Prahlad, who claimed the protection of his god, Vishnu. Finally, Hiranyakashyap enlisted his sister Holika, who had also received a special boon – no fire could harm her. A great fire was built, and Holika was ordered to carry Prahlad into the fire, which would surely kill him. To the king’s surprise, once the fire had died down, he saw that his sister Holika was dead, but Prahlad survived. When Prahlad again thanked Vishnu for saving him, Hiranyakashyap roared in anger, slapping a stone pillar, asking, if Vishnu was everywhere, where was he, was he in the stone itself? The pillar broke and from it emerged a creature, half-man and half-lion – Vishnu in the form of Narsimha. He rushed at Hiranyakashyap and killed him with his claws, neither man nor animal, and using no weapon made under the sun. Order was restored to the world, the gods took their rightful places once again and Prahlad became the king of the Daityas; a just and kind ruler. At the end of his life, instead of dying to be born again like other mortals, Vishnu took Prahlad into himself. Holi is a celebration of this victory of good over evil.
These days, what many love about Holi is the custom to put aside rigid social structures, allowing those of different ages, sexes, castes, professional status and wealth to behave as equals and celebrate together. Formality is forgotten, and there is an atmosphere of fun, exhilaration, celebration, love.
Traditionally, Holika Dahan is celebrated with a bout of spring cleaning in the home, big communal bonfires out in the street and lots of neighbourhood socialising. Then, Holi itself is a frenzied day of throwing and smearing gulal (coloured powder) over everyone else. People prepare for the onslaught by dressing in their oldest clothes – white is a good choice as it allows the colours to show well. Youngsters enjoy catching their elders with the dyes; workers can colour-bomb their managers with impunity.
My understanding is that the significance of throwing of coloured powders is two fold: the powders were once made from medicinal herbs and spices prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners to protect against illness and the bright colours also represent the colours of Spring.
At the end of the day, one goes home and bathes away the coloured dyes, dresses in new clothes, and sits down with family for a traditional meal. You can find many of our favourite family recipes at my mum’s site, Mamta’s Kitchen.
There are many traditional foods and drinks served during Holi, but one you might not expect is the ingestion of bhang (cannabis), most commonly in a drink sometimes referred to as bhang lassi but actually called bhang ki thandai. The buds and leaves of the cannabis are ground into a paste with ghee and spices such as fennel, cardamom and saffron and mixed with almonds, milk and sugar to make a drink. The paste is also used to make a green bhang halva and other cannabis-laden sweets.