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Festival of Colours, Water, Sticks & Swords–Holi

From Akitu to Sham el-Nessim and from May Day to Easter, entire world celebrates spring. Scientifically, this season is one of the most important seasons because the axis of Earth is increased relative to Sun, which causes the length of daylight to increase and the days become warmer. The snow begins to melt and water streams start flowing throughout the lands. The light warmth provides perfect weather for plants to nourish and this period gains its own agricultural importance. With this, primarily agricultural countries mark this season’s beginning as the most important event of their calendar. Most cultures celebrate it as their New Year and with time, many folklores, legends and mythical stories got associated with it.

People living in Indian Subcontinent have their own versions of Spring Festival. Some call it Phagwah, some say Dolajatra, some Basantotsav, some Shigmo, and majority of population celebrate it as “Holi”. For the followers of Hindu religion, the auspicious festival of Holi is celebrated on the day, when “Holika”, sister of “Hiranyakashyap” died. According to Hindu mythology, king Hiranyakashyap was Lord Vishnu’s gatekeeper but due to a curse, he was reborn as an Asura (demon) in Moolsthan (present day Multan). He declared himself as god and ordered his subjects to worship only him. However, his own son “Prahlad” becomes devoted to Lord Vishnu and disobeys his father’s commandments. Angry from this act, Hiranyakashyap orders his sister “Holika” to take Prahlad in her lap and sit on a bonfire. Holika had a cloak, which would prevent her from fire. However, as the bonfire started, the air blew off the cloak and covered Prahlad. As a result, Holika was burnt alive and Prahlad was saved. Since then, the night when Holika died is celebrated as Holika Dehan (Burning of Holika) and the next day is celebrated as “Holi”, the festival of colours. Another symbolic myth connects this festival with the death of demon Pootna, who came to poison infant Lord Krishna.

But in Barsana (near Mathura), the tales goes like this: Lord Krishna visited his beloved Radha’s village and playfully teased her friends. At this, the women of Barsana chased him away with sticks. Since then, groups from Krishna’s village (Nandgaon) visit Barsana during Holi and get chased away, and sometimes beaten with sticks by the people of Barsana. It is popular by name“Lath-Maar Holi” (Literally: Stick hitting holi).

Another interesting form of Holi is celebrated in hill areas of Kumaun in India. Here, instead of colours and water, people sit across and sing the songs of Holi. It therefore got its name “Baithaki Holi” (Sitting Holi). Soon, another form of Kumaoni Holi was developed, called “Khadhi Holi” (Standing Holi), where these songs were sung standing. Some parts also celebrate “Mahila Holi” (Women’s Holi), where only ladies participate and sing songs. Even Goan version called “Shigmo” concentrates more on Singing and Dancing.

In Punjab, a totally different form of celebrating Holi is observed. During the times of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth spiritual master of Sikhs, the people of Punjab was struggling with the Mughal Armies for their survival. While they were celebrating all festivals, the important festival, which also marks the New Year was to be given some special importance. Hence, the war cry (Halla) gave the name ‘Holla Mohalla’, where mohalla means ‘to gather/assemble’. Guru Gobind Singh jee used this occasion of Holi to do mock war drills at the fort of Holgarh. This became a gazetted festival during the British Raj and is celebrated till date at the city of Anandpur, where Sikhs, who practice the Sikh form of Martial Arts, called ‘Gatka’ gather every year and exhibit their talent and skills with weapons and horses.

We find many Mughal paintings where the emperor or the members of royal family are enjoying Holi. We find references of the term “Eid-e-Gulabi” and “Aab-e-Paashi”. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last mughal emperor, who is also the founder of Luv-Kush Ramlila Committee, the oldest continously performing Ramlila Committee in world, allowed his Hindu ministers to smear his forehead with gulaal. This was perhaps the only occasion, when someone was able to touch the emperor, other than on his hands or feet. Jahangir in Tuzk-e-Jahangiri talks about Mehfil-e-Holi that he used to organize. Muhammad Shah Rangeela is shown running around the palace, with his wives trying to drench him with pichkaaris.

Though celebration of Holi by Muslims of India started centuries before this. In the works of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya and Hazrat Amir Khusrow, we see the fondness for the “pink festival”. Special musical events were organized in the courtyards of nobles on holis. They earned a nick-name ‘Kufr-Kachehri’ (Mock court). From Quli Qutub Shah of Hyderabad to Mir Taqi Mir while in court of Awadh’s Nawab have written praises and descriptions of Holi.

While majority of Indians celebrate Holi with colours and water many others have their own way of celebrating. Some simply sing, some dance, and some take out their weapons to demonstrate war drills and martial talent. All this happens to mark the beginning of the Spring season. This diversity in Indian culture makes it so special and unique. The celebration of this spring festival is not limited to Hindu or Sikh community in India. The followers of Islam also got drenched in the colours of Holi at one time in the subcontinent. Famous sufi mystic Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah looked at this festival as a connecting factor between him and his holy god. He wrote:

“Hori khelungi keh bismillah!
Naam nabi ki ratn chadhi
Boond padi allah allah
Rang rangeeli ohi khilave
Jis seekhi ho fana fi allah
Alastu bi rabbikum Pritam bole
Sab sakhiyon ne ghoonghat khole
Qalu Bala yun hi kar bole
La ilaha illallah
Hori khelungi keh bismillah!”

– Bulleh Shah


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One thought on “Festival of Colours, Water, Sticks & Swords–Holi

  1. Wonderfully well written

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