Happy Holi!

Holi is a joyous festival celebrated all over India. The most obvious part of the celebration is that everyone throws colored powder (gulal) or shoots colored water on each other. It can actually get pretty wild, especially in certain parts of India, though some people are content to gently smear the colors on each other by hand. Since some people use indelible colors, many people go around with color-stained clothes and faces for weeks afterwards as the colors slowly fade.

This boy was really enjoying playing Holi, and his face was a masterpiece.

In the weeks before Holi, you see shops filled with gulal, the colored powder that people throw at each other.

During Holi, you will see huge bonfires all over that are topped with effigies of Holika. These are set alight in the evening after the throwing of colors. Generally, the evening concludes with a special feast, as food is an important feature in virtually all Indian celebrations.

Hiranyakashipu was a great king of the rakshasas (demons) who, after long years of tapas (severe austerieties), had been granted a boon by Brahma that made it almost impossible for him to be killed. He couldn’t be killed “during day or night; neither inside nor outside; neither on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal”. Not surprisingly, he became extremely arrogant and sought to control all the worlds. Moreover, he demanded that people worship him as if he was God.

Despite this, Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. As Hiranyakashipu was unable to win his devotion, he ordered him killed, but Vishnu protected his devotee every time. He was poisoned, but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. When that didn’t work, elephants were sent to trample him; when they failed to harm him, he was confined with poisonous snakes, also to no avail. Finally, Hiranyakashipu ordered young Prahlada to sit on a pyre on the lap of his sister, Holika, who had a boon that would prevent fire from burning her. Prahlada readily accepted his father’s orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika burnt to death, while Prahlada survived unharmed. So it is the burning of Holika that is celebrated as Holi.

Following the death of Holika, Lord Vishnu came in the form of a Narasimha (who is half-man and half-lion) and killed Hiranyakashipu at dusk (which was neither day nor night), on the steps of the porch of his house (which was neither inside the house nor outside) by restraining him on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth) and mauling him with his claws (which are neither astra nor shastra).

Holi also celebrates the legend of Radha and Krishna which describes the extreme delight that Krishna took in applying colour on Radha and other gopis.

Radha and Krishna celebrating Holi, c1788 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

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