Spring is here and to celebrate the vibrancy and joyful hues all around, people in India play Holi, the festival of colours. Also known as Basant Utsav, is the literally the celebration of onset of spring after a long cold winter. The Hindu festival – widely celebrated in India and Nepal – has become a global phenomenon now. Observed on the full moon day (purnima) in the month of Falgun, according to the Hindu lunar calendar, the festival lasts for two days.
The first day of the festivity is known as ‘Holika Dahan’ or Chhoti Holi and the second as Rangwali Holi, Dhuleti, Dhulandi or Dhulivandan, where people play with bright colours. Apart from celebrating the onset of spring, a good winter harvest, the festival is also regarded as the victory of good over evil. It all goes back to the mythological background associated with Holika Dahan.
Victory of good over evil
According to mythological texts, Holi is celebrated as a festival of colours in the honour of Lord Vishnu and his follower Prahlad. The son of demon King Hiranyakashyap, Prahlad was an ardent devotee of Vishnu. His father had special boon which gave him five special powers – he couldn’t be killed by a human being or by any animal, neither by any weapon of any form. His boons also ensured that the king could not be killed in outdoors or indoor, neither at day nor at night. And he was invincible on land, water or air. All these super powers made Hiranyakashyap arrogant and he started considering himself as invincible, demanding that everyone should worship only him. However, his own son defied his orders and kept worshiping Vishnu. In order to teach him a lesson, the king ordered many cruel punishments for the young boy but his devotion was not deterred.
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Finally, Holika, Hiranyakashyap’s sister tricked little Prahlad into sitting on a pyre with her. Holika had a special cloak that could protect her from a fire. She wore the magical cloak into the pyre while Prahlad had no such protection. As the fire roared, the special robe flew from Holika and encased Prahlad, who survived while Holika burned. Thus, it is believed that burning the Holika (a bonfire) on the eve of Holi puts an end to all evil forces around us.
Apart from Lord Vishnu’s legend, there is the legend of Lord Krishna too associated with the festival. In the Braj region of India, where Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated until Rang Panchmi to commemorate the divine love of Radha-Krishna. It is said that as a baby, Krishna developed his characteristic dark blue skin colour after Putana (a demon) poisoned him with her breast milk. In his youth, a flamboyant Krishna despaired whether girls would like him because of his skin colour. His mother asked him to approach Radha and her friends and colour their face in any colour he wanted. He followed his mother’s advice and smeared colours on Radha, who later became a couple. Ever since then the playful colouring of Radha’s face has been symbolic in Holi and celebrated as a festival of love. In many parts of the country, people worship Radha-Krishna on the first day of Holi.
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How to perform the puja
There is no special puja that is performed on the second day of the festival. However, on the eve of the festival people light bonfires also known as Holika Dahan. People start gathering woods, twigs, branches, dried leaves from important crossroads of the city. Holi Pooja or Holika takes place on an auspicious time in the evening a day before the Holi festival at a prominent public place on the Basant Panchami day. The bonfire is set and effigies of Holika and Prahlad is placed on the huge heap of woods. Special care is taken and the effigy of Holika is made of combustible material while that of Prahlad’s is made of non-combustible material.
The bonfire is set alight and the people chant Rakshoghna Mantras of the Rig Veda to cast away the evil spirits. The ashes left over are collected the following morning on the day of Holi and are smeared on the limbs as Holi Prasad, as they are considered holy. In fact, it is regarded as an act of purification.
For the puja, women make garlands with beads of cow dung, and use Roli, rice which is not broken (also called Akshat in Sanskrit). Incense sticks and dhoop, flowers, raw cotton thread, turmeric pieces, unbroken lentil of moong, batasha, gulal powder (colour) and coconut is also used in the puja. Also, fully grown grains from freshly harvested crops like wheat and gram can be included in the puja items.
The place where the bonfire is set is washed with cow dung and the holy water of Ganga (Ganga jal). A wooden pole is kept in the centre and surrounded with cow dung garlands and cow dung toys known as gulari, bharbholiye or badkula. The effigy of Holika is usually made of cow dung. Holika pile is decorated with shields, swords, sun, moon, stars all made of cow dung.
Accompanied with a small water pot and puja thali people must sit down facing either East or North direction. People chant mantras and offer the offerings in the fire and seek blessings from Lord Visnu. Three, five or seven rounds of raw yarn are tied around the Holika while circumambulating it. After that water from the pit is poured in front of Holika pile. After the puja, people exchange hugs and young ones touch feet of elders. The roasted grains are distributed as Holika Prasad.
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