Holi, Legend and use of Natural Colors

Holi is a Hindu spring festival celebrated in the Indian subcontinent, also known as the “festival of colours”. It 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 broken relationships. It is also celebrated as a thanksgiving for a good harvest. It lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of the Purnima (Full Moon day) falling in the Vikram Samvat7 Hindu Calendar month of Phalguna, which falls somewhere between the end of February and the middle of March in the Gregorian calendar. .

Legend

There is a symbolic legend to explain why Holi is celebrated as a festival of colours in the honour of Hindu god Vishnu and his follower Prahlada. King Hiranyakashipu, according to a legend found in chapter 7 of Bhagavata Purana, was the king of demonic Asuras, and had earned a boon that gave him five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons), and neither on land nor in water or air. Hiranyakashipu grew arrogant, thought 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 that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada was not. As the fire roared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada, who survived while Holika burned. Vishnu, the god who appears as an avatar to restore Dharma in Hindu beliefs, took the form of Narasimha – half human and half lion, at dusk (when it was neither day nor night), took Hiranyakashyapu at a doorstep (which was neither indoors nor outdoors), placed him on his lap (which was neither land, water nor air), and then eviscerated and killed the king with his lion claws (which were neither a handheld weapon nor a launched weapon).

The Holika bonfire and Holi signifies the celebration of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.

Holi celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all festival of colours, where people smear each other with colours and drench each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also used to play and colour each other. Anyone and everyone is fair game, friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. The frolic and fight with colours occurs in the open streets, open parks, outside temples and buildings. Groups carry drums and other musical instruments, go from place to place, sing and dance. People visit family, friends and foes to throw coloured powders on each other, laugh and gossip, then share Holi delicacies, food and drinks. Some customary drinks include bhang (marijuana), which is intoxicating. In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up and visit friends and family.

History and rituals

The Holi festival is an ancient Hindu festival with its cultural rituals. It is mentioned in the Puranas, Dasakumara Charita, and by the poet Kālidāsa during the 4th century reign of Chandragupta II. The celebration of Holi is also mentioned in the 7th-century Sanskrit drama Ratnavali. The festival of Holi caught the fascination of European traders and British colonial staff by the 17th century.

The festival has many purposes; most prominently, it celebrates the beginning of Spring. In 17th century literature, it was identified as a festival that celebrated agriculture, commemorated good spring harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring’s abundant colours and saying farewell to winter. To many Hindus, Holi festivities mark the beginning of the new year as well as an occasion to reset and renew ruptured relationships, end conflicts and rid themselves of accumulated emotional impurities from the past.

The spring season, during which the weather changes, is believed to cause viral fever and cold. The playful throwing of natural coloured powders, called gulal has a medicinal significance: the colours are traditionally made of Neem, Kumkum, Haldi, Bilva, and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedicdoctors.

Orange and red

The flowers of palash or tesu tree, also called the flame of the forest, are typical source of bright red and deep orange colours. Powdered fragrant red sandal wood, dried hibiscus flowers, madder tree, radish and pomegranate are alternate sources and shades of red. Mixing lime with turmeric powder creates an alternate source of orange powder, as does boiling saffron (kesar) in water.

Green

Mehendi and dried leaves of gulmohur tree offer a source of green colour. In some areas, the leaves of spring crops and herbs have been used as source of green pigment.

Yellow

Haldi (turmeric) powder is the typical source of yellow colour. Sometimes this is mixed with chickpeas, gram or other flour to get the right shade. Bael fruit, amaltas, species of chrysanthemums, and species of marigold are alternate sources of yellow.

Blue

Indigo plant, Indian berries, species of grapes, blue hibiscus and jacaranda flowers are traditional sources of blue colour for Holi.

Magenta and purple

Beetroot is the traditional source of magenta and purple colour. Often these are directly boiled in water to prepare coloured water.

Brown

Dried tea leaves offer a source of brown coloured water. Certain clays are alternate source of brown.

Black

Species of grapes, fruits of amla (gooseberry) and vegetable carbon (charcoal) offer gray to black colours.

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