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Hues of Holi

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India’s cultural diversity punctuates the calendar with a variety of festivals. Some of them are celebrated for the welcome break they provide without realizing its significance, and some celebrated with zest and vigour.

Come March, and the colours on the faces will reappear as they welcome the festival of colours: Holi.

This free-for-all carnival of colours has mixed reactions, as this festival provides a license for a little indulgence that may make some uncomfortable.

Like most festivals Holi too has some legends that lend colour to it.

There is a symbolic myth behind Holi and it is celebrated as a festival of love. The Hindu deity Krishna, as a baby, developed his characteristic dark blue hue because the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his youth, the blue hued Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha and other girls would like him. Tired of his repeated questions, his mother asks him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. Ever since, the playful colouring of Radha’s face has been commemorated as Holi.

According to another legend, King Hiranyakashipu, the King of Multan had earned a boon that made him virtually indestructible. He grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone worship only him. Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, however, disagreed and remained devoted to Lord Vishnu. The infuriated Hiranyakashipu thus subjected Prahlada to cruel punishments, none of which affected the boy or his resolve. Finally, Holika, Prahlada’s evil aunt, wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. As the tongues of fire soared upwards, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada. Holika burned, and Prahlada survived. Hiranyakashipu was furious.  Unable to control his anger, he swung his mace which smashed a pillar. There was a tumultuous sound, and Lord Vishnu appeared as Lord Narasimha and killed Hiranyakashipu. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.

The Holi festival, Phalgun, has further cultural significance, 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. People believed it was a time to enjoy spring’s abundant colours as they bid farewell to winter.

It is also a festive day to cleanse oneself: to end and rid oneself of past errors, to end conflicts by meeting others, a day to forget and forgive. People reset and renew ruptured relationships, end conflicts and rid themselves of the accumulated emotional impurities from the past.

Holi also marks the start of spring, and for many the start of the New Year.

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True Colours

Celebrating the ‘Festival of Colours’ and a few introspections

Celebrations begin with lighting of a bonfire on the eve of Holi. Legends and stories associated with Holi make the festival exuberant and vivid.

Holi, the festival of colours is unique in a way. You cannot stay aloof from this festival. Even if you don’t want to participate, you can’t pass it. You have to dodge it. It provides others the right to invade your private space, take liberties and most of it is done in good spirit. Are you an active or a reluctant participant, or are you a dodger? This says a lot about your true colours.

The Legend

Hiranyakashyap was a demon king who had won over the kingdom of earth. He was so egoistic that he commanded everybody in his kingdom to worship only him. But to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana and refused to worship his father.

Hiranyakashyap tried several ways to kill his son Prahlad but each time Lord Vishnu saved him. Finally, he asked his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. For, Hiranyakashyap knew that Holika had a boon, whereby, she could enter the fire unscathed.

Treacherously, Holika coaxed young Prahlad to sit in her lap and she herself took her seat in a blazing fire. Legend has it that Holika had to pay for her sinister act with her life. Holika was not aware that the boon worked only when she entered the fire alone. Prahlad, who kept chanting the name of Lord Naarayana all this while, came out unharmed, as the Lord blessed him for his deep devotion.

Thus, Holi derives its name from Holika and is celebrated as a festival of victory of good over evil.

There is also a tradition of people rendering their gratitude to Agni, the god of fire by offering gram and stalks from the harvest with all humility. Further, it is customary on the last day of Holi for  people take a little of the bonfire to their homes. It is believed that the fire would purify their homes and their bodies will be free from disease.

The Other Legend

Young Krishna is known to be very playful and mischievous. As a child, Krishna was extremely jealous of Radha’s fair complexion since he was very dark. One day, Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about this injustice of nature. To pacify the crying young Krishna, the doting mother asked him to go and colour Radha’s face with whichever colour he wanted.  In a mischievous mood, naughty Krishna heeded the advice of mother Yashoda and applied colour on Radha’s face; making her one like himself. Well! Did he?

Can you change someone’s true colours just by painting their face differently?

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