INDIAN FESTIVALS : Holi: The Festival of Colours
By Om Lata Bahadur
Holi is associated with Lord Krishna, who in his childhood days ran around with his band of cowherds and maidens of the village, completely captivating everyone.

Holi is associated with Lord Krishna, who in his childhood days ran around with his band of cowherds and maidens of the village, completely captivating everyone. He loved festivity, and the hamlets of Brindavan, Gokul and Barsana were full of fun and frolic. Lord Krishna played Holi with so much gusto that even today the songs sung during Holi are full of the pranks that he played on the Gopis and the Gopis played on him, especially those on his childhood sweetheart Radhika, who lived in Barsana. She remained his heartthrob and none of his eight wives could ever take her place.

Krishna played Holi with a pichkari (a brass syringe which squirts water in a spray or even in a straight line). Therefore, it is the done thing during Holi to buy pichkaris for the children of the house. A variety of pichkaris are available nowadays, in plastic, aluminium, and of course brass. Just before Holi, a special shopping spree must be arranged for the kids. Gulal made up of numerous colours such as pink, magenta, red, yellow and green along with abeer (small crystals or paper-like chips of mica) is bought. Abeer and gulal are an essential part of all Holi folk songs. Abeer adds a good deal of shine and richness to the dry colours of gulal, but seems to have been banned recently due to its being a solid material which can hurt the eyes (and also due to spurious, adulterated material being sold). Of course, one must not forget the tesu (flower of the Palash tree otherwise known as the ‘flame of the forest’). The flowers are dried and sold in the market. On being mixed in water, they leave a beautiful saffron-reddish colour. They can be boiled to make rich decoction, which is then mixed with cold water in different tubs and buckets, strategically placed in the courtyard, verandah or even on the rooftops. This water is supposedly good for health. The dry colour or gulal should be chosen with great care, since, nowadays, there is a lot of spurious stuff mixed up with it, which can be very injurious to the skin, lungs and eyes. Buying from recognised dealers is strongly recommended. The gulals look beautiful, heaped up in cone shapes, in gunny bags all around the shops. There are also soluble colours available for colouring water in different hues.

The festival of Holi begins on Duwadashi, three days earlier to Puno - on the 12th day of the waxing moon of Phagun. The children may have started festivities even earlier, with everyone shouting at them not to get wet and fall sick! They are seen running amok on roads and rooftops with syringes filled with water. Every prank is taken in one’s stride and tolerated (to a certain extent, of course). Nothing which can injure or hurt, or throwing colour or balloons on people going to their places of work, is to be allowed, but laxity and smiles are well writ on the faces of even those who usually wear forbidding expressions.

Holi is a festival when new clothes are made for a married daughter and her children. There is a special sari made for the daughter known as dandia which is a must for a married girl. The sons-in-law need not be given any clothes for Holi and the children also forfeit the right to get clothes from their nansal (mother’s house) once they get married, but a dandia is a must for the daughter.

'Rang Pashi’, falling three days earlier to the full moon, heralds Holi into the household when all members of the family get together in the evening. The gathering can be in one single house, or the families can go around to each other’s homes to perform the formal sprinkling of colour. In olden times the household purohit (priest) was invited to start the function, but now since there are very few purohits, the eldest male member takes the thaali, already decorated with gulals and tesu water in a small lota. The men, women and children all assemble together in the sitting room. All women wear their dandias - the men take out their handkerchiefs and put them on their laps. Beginning with the eldest male member, each male member goes round and sprinkles some gulal and coloured water onto each individual. The women take that on the pallu of their dandias but, if they want to safeguard their dandias, they can also take it on their handkerchief. Children put colour on the elders and enjoy the liberty of the occasion. Some naughty elders will even colour the face of a new bride, but it is a subdued celebration. A dinner can be arranged on this day by any member of the family, otherwise only the special eatables like gujia, papri and kanji-ke-bare are served along with some meat dish like kofta (meat balls) or kaleji (liver) which can easily be picked up with one’s fingers. Hard drinks can be served if the people are not teetotallers. In households where hard drinks are not served, bara water is substituted. The festival becomes infectious and the atmosphere of Holi invades the house from this day onwards.

Then comes the day of Puno, when Holi is ‘burnt’ in the evening. Usually, it is a community celebration and bonfires are lit on crossroads. People do pujan and bring green sheafs of gram known as ‘boot’, to be roasted black with shells on; wheat sheafs are also roasted likewise. They are then taken out of shells and eaten right there. One gets quite black in the face and the hands, but it is very enjoyable nonetheless, and the stuff is quite tasty.

Bonfires date back to the days of Hiranyakashyap, when he ordered his son Prahlad (the great bhakt of Lord Narayan) to be burnt alive,because Hiranya-kashyap was an Asur and hated Lord Narayan. He asked his sister Holika, to wear the set of clothes she possessed which could not catch fire. She was told to hold Prahlad on her lap tightly, so that he could not escape while in flames. Holika was a very good soul; she quietly transferred the clothes onto Prahlad and got burnt herself, thus saving Prahlad to grow up and be the greatest bhakt of Lord Vishnu. To celebrate this great event the bonfire is still lit.

The next day is the real day of Holi. This day is called Parva. From the morning onwards, people gather and play Holi. They visit each other’s houses, carrying colour and water, drenching each other as they visit different places. Some get on to two-wheelers, cars and trucks and visit people living far away; others choose to play with their neighbours. Some just go driving around in town in coloured clothes singing at the top of their voices.

While people are indulging in the fun and frolic, foodstuffs like papri, kanji-ke-bare, gujia, preparations of meat, boiled sliced eggs, tea, coffee and, of course, hard drinks are freely served to known groups. There is much dancing and singing, the old and young join in the merry-making. Lunchtime heralds the closing of the festival and everyone is tired and sleepy. A good scrub and shampoo are now needed to wash off the colour as much as possible and it is time to see oneself in the mirror, clean again.

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