Tag Archives: indian culture

Holika Dahan: The day before Holi

Main Piece:

The night before Holi, bonfires are lit in a ceremony known as Holika Dahan. The legend goes:

            The was once a young prince (he was a kid), the son of a tyrant king, who prayed to Rama (a deity in the Hinduism religion). The king thought himself to be a God and was furious that his son was worshipping another. The king told the young prince that unless he stopped worshipping Rama, he would punish him. The king’s sister, Holika, was blessed from birth as to never be harmed by fire. So, the king devised a punishment for his son for refusing to stop worshipping Rama. He would make the young prince burn in a fire.

As the king started a bonfire, he tauntingly asked his son, “Where is the god you worship? You will burn and no one will save you.” He started a bonfire and had his sister sit with the young prince in the fire to prevent him from escaping the flames. Then, something happened, the young prince wasn’t burning, the aunt was burning. (This is where the story diverges based on region).

  1. Rama stepped in to save the young prince and burn Holika
  2. Holika was blessed on the understanding that it can never be used to bring harm to anyone.
  3. Holika wore a shawl that would protect her from the fire. When she was sat down in the fire with the young prince on her lap, she prayed to Rama/Vishnu (gods are just reincarnations so technically same person but with different names and looks). Vishnu blew a gust of wind to knock the shawl off of Holika and on to the young prince, saving the kid and burning Holika.

Every year, the day before Holi, Indians light bonfires to celebrate Holika Dahan.


This is a summary of what my roommate, B, told me when I asked her about Indian traditions and festivals. She said her told her the story when she was kid and her family was in India during Holi. She saw the bonfires and asked them why they do it, so they told her that story. The ending they told her about was a combination of the one where Rama saves the prince and where the aunt dies because her blessing was not to be used to cause harm. From what she remembers, the story is supposed to be the age-old classic of good winning over evil with a bit of religion thrown in. 


B said this was a legend about the day before Holi. This was collected from a message exchange with B since we were both busy with assignments and couldn’t coordinate a time that worked for both of us. I asked her questions and she answered them and then I summarized what she told me to make it into a coherent story.


I don’t know much about Indian traditions and I didn’t know about a tradition of the day before Holi. It was interesting to hear about a tradition that I didn’t know about. She said the message is good winning over evil, which is a broad concept and I think many different cultures have some kind of story with this basis. In fact, even the story of Cinderella or the Korean variation, Kong-Ji and Pat-Ji (refer to here) is about the good defeating evil.

Lakdi Ki Kathi

Text: RB: Okay, so it goes like this. It’s in Hindi by the way. Okay, so it goes,

“lakadi ki kaathi kaathi pe ghoda

ghode ki dum pe jo maara hathauda

dauda dauda dauda ghoda dum utha ke dauda”

AT: What does that translate to?

RB: So what it means is that there’s a cart made of sticks, yeah, the cart is made of sticks. The cart is attached to a horse and someone hits the horse’s behind. And the horse runs. And he just runs with a lot of might. Like very fast, that’s it.

AT: Okay, is that supposed to have a special meaning or something? Who taught it to you?

RB: (laughing) I don’t know. I don’t think so, I think it’s a children’s rhyme literally just because everything rhymes.

Context: RB is an Indian-American who lived in India during her pre-school years. She practices Jainism, one of the lesser-known religions of India. She frequently visits returns to India to visit relatives and continues to practice her faith and India’s festivals with other Indian-Americans in Texas. She learned the children’s rhyme above from her parents, and it frequently gets stuck in her head. This interaction took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break.

Interpretation: This children’s rhyme, according to RB, has little in terms of a moral lesson. Other than teaching cause and effect, the rhyme doesn’t seem to go beyond the surface level of singing about a horse riding around and around and around. However, RB bright up the fact that everything happens to rhyme perfectly in this song, suggesting that the song may be the way that it is simply because of its rhyming characteristics. This is not unlike some rhymes in english whose structure and word choice are what makes it beneficial to children, not it’s storyline. For example, “Sally sells seashells by the sea shore” isn’t meant to teach people about the dedication of small businesses. Rather, it exists to help children navigate the difficult world of language, achieving a level of mastery with the help of a friendly rhyme.

Most folklore specifically associated with children has to do with teaching some sort of lesson. In this way, the rhyming function is used to help engage children in confusing syntax and diction to help them better understand their language, still teaching them something, just not a message of morality derived from a tale.


TextRB: Navratri is an Indian Festival, it’s like celebrated in India. It happens every November, and I think you know, it’s like whenever I wear those really fancy dresses and I’m like, “I’m gonna go dance.” I feel like you know that. But anyways it’s basically just a celebration of dancing and fasting, like a celebration of life. And it’s really good cause what you do is you go to this big dance hall or whatever, and there’s this music, it’s called Garba music. And you can search it up, it’s like very traditional music. And you just dance all night to it. And it’s like a celebration of life. Traditionally, it celebrates three goddesses in Hinduism. It’s like Durga, Lakshmi, and one other goddess. But, it just marks the start of a new season basically. The most famous thing about it is the dance style. So, Garba is a very famous dance style, it’s like folk dancing. But anyone can learn how to do it because it’s just repetitive steps in a circle over and over again. But that’s my favorite dance ever.

AT: Who taught it to you?

RB: My parents. My parents and my grandparents taught it to me. And sometimes they conform the dance style into competitions. People have like competitions with this style now, or people just do it for fun at like any event. It’s just a very big community thing in India. Especially if you’re, like, my type of Indian. Like, I’m Gujarati, which is like from the state Gujarat in India. And it’s originally from Gujarat. So if you see someone else from Gujarat you’re like, “Hey, Navratri, Garba…” It’s our thing. Oh, and my grandmother sewed my dress.

Context: RB is an Indian-American who lived in India during her pre-school years. She practices Jainism, one of the lesser-known religions of India. She frequently returns to India to visit relatives and continues to practice her faith and India’s festivals with other Indian-Americans in Texas. This interaction took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break.

Interpretation: Navratri is typically a nine day-long festival typically celebrated in honor of the divine feminine in India. Navratri is celebrated differently depending on where you are/are from in India, practices surrounding the festival existing in multiplicity and variation. RB mentioned that it was a time of fasting, while others who participate in Navratri see it as a time of feasting. While the pattern varies somewhat by region, generally the first third of the festival focuses on aspects of the goddess Durga, the second third on the goddess Lakshmi, and the final third on the goddess Sarasvati. RB mentioned the first two of these goddesses while failing to remember the third.

RB chose to share this festival with me due to the mere fact that it is her favorite. She holds it special because of the fact that it is specific to the region in India from which her family is from, and the fact that Garba dancing is a point of pride and community that her family and the people from Gujarat share.

For another interpretation of this festival, please see p. 2416-2419 of Stany Pinto’s “Communalisation of Tribals in South Gujarat” (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 39)

Astrological Indian Wedding Ceremony

Context/Background: The Informant is an Indian-American who has witnessed wedding customs tailored to suit an astrological calendar in order to promote success and prosperity of Indian Marriages.


“When you get married and you’re supposed to check like… the person’s astrological sign or something- or when they were born and then you like compare the two. And that timing will like… determine when it’s okay for the literal marriage ceremony to take place. So the wedding can go on for the entire day, but the time the wedding ceremony takes place happens at on specific dates and times. Obviously, some people just ignore it… but like… in the summertime, I was in India and my cousin fully like… he fully got married. Like had a wedding in the middle of the night. So that happened. If you look it up online, I’m sure you’ll find something. And there’s like a special calendar that you can buy from the temple that’ll like tell you! Like, Oh! This is your day, and this is their day, like it’s cool to get married on this day. And like, yeah my grandma has one in her kitchen and she like… refers back to it sometimes, and it’s like ‘When is it okay?'”

Introduction: The Informant was introduced to this custom through her family; more specifically, her grandmother.

Analysis/Interpretation: I find this ritual interesting because I’d never seen marriages that strayed from a daytime setting. The notion that the actual ceremony should occur at a specific time is actually really sentimental and I’d find much meaning in designating a particular time to get married. I feel as though many astrological encounters have been accentuated more recently in popular culture, but to find them more engrained seriously in cultures’ traditions opens up another insight on it. This leads me to wonder how other cultures may have additional differing wedding customs which I’d like to explore in more depth.

Raksha Bandhan – India

My informant is half Indian and Caucasian. She considers herself not “very Indian” but explained to me one Indian festival that her family used to celebrate every year:

“So in India we have a holiday called Raksha bandhan where it’s basically just celebrating the brother and sister bond. Or basically any male or female bond—it can be cousins too in a family. What basically happens is the sister or girl cousin ties like a little bracelet—a little hand-made bracelet—on the brother or the male cousin. That’s like a little show of love. And then in return the brother or the male cousin gives a gift or money to the sister or girl cousin. So we always loved celebrating it because my cousin gets like a little crappy bracelet but me and my sister get cash in return. It’s a great holiday.”


Hahah that’s amazing. When you guys do this, is there a certain date that you do it to celebrate or is it just whenever?


“There is a certain day. I’m not really sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s sometime in August”


Do you guys celebrate every year?


“We usually do it every year.”


And do you guys still do it?


“Uhm we still do it. But I don’t have any brothers so we always do it with my cousins. But honestly this year we didn’t do it cause I think they’re tired of getting ripped off hahah. And there’s more girls in our family than guys, so it’s kind of sad cause they’re giving so much money away to all the girls in the family. The guys literally just… it’s not even a….it’s thread. Like what you would use thread—that’s how thin the bracelet is. We just tie it on them. But it was really cute cause my guy cousins, I have one that is older than us but two that are 7 and 10. They were just… you can just tell on their face that they were so confused like ‘What? This is a rip off’.”


After some research, I found that Raksha Bandhan is a festival that celebrates the bond between a brother or sister or any brother-sister type of relationship. According to the Hindu calendar, the festival is recognized on the full moon in the month of Shravan, which is August. The bracelet—called Rakhi— that is tied onto the boy’s wrist symbolizes the girl’s sisterly love for them. The boy is supposed to offer them gifts in return along with a vow promising them protection. This festival seems to stem from the idea that women are spiritually superior and require physical protection whereas men are physically superior and need spiritual protection.

Treasured Daughters – India

“A general idea shared by Indians is that daughters are the most important in the family. Like they bring prosperity and wealth for families, so they are sacred. So for me as a daughter, I’m not supposed to touch anyone’s feet. Another thing for daughters is blessing new things like when we bought a new house, my parents are super Indian and did prayers. But I was the first one to walk into the house because I bring good luck.”


I was surprised to learn that daughters of Indian households are so valued.  Although my informant said her family practices and observes a lot of traditional Indian customs, she could not find an explanation for why Indian daughters are so treasured. They are treated like goddesses because they are considered as the Goddess Lakshmi—goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity. Despite this elevated status, sons are still preferred over daughters. When daughters get married, they get passed along to a new household; however, when sons get married, they don’t leave and remain in the same household.

Sons are probably valued more because they have the title of breadwinner, while daughters are meant to marry and be sent off. These are all clearly religious and socio-economic factors that influence the attitudes toward sons and daughters. To my informant’s family, the belief that having her walk into a new house first will bring good luck is rooted in religious belief. However, to others it may seem like a simple superstition. This made me realize how subjective the process of defining superstitions are, and that religion and superstition can be tied closely hand-in-hand; however, no matter how similar the two ideas may seem, they are still fundamentally two different types of beliefs.

Crash Course in Indian Culture (Holi/Colors/Bindi/Henna)

Continued from the prior interview. Collected from 20 year old female. Indian, raised Hindu. Here she talks about the festival of Holi, as well as the importance of color and how that is demonstrated at weddings and in traditional garb.

Informant: In the spring we celebrate Holi, h-o-l-i. That is when everyone throws colors at eachother . That is for a couple of reasons. This one is hard because I don’t know the whole story about it, I just know the general gist. There is a demonness, like a bad guy who is a woman. And her name is holika, h-o-l-i-k-a. That’s where the name comes from. And I am pretty sure she was evil and somehow either she just died in a fire or someone killed her using fire, but because she finally died, we all celebrate holi as we all are hapypy becuasse spring came out of that. So holi is also the celebration of the start of spring. That is why you throw colors and stuff because spring… colors… happy. So when you celebrate holi, everyone has a bunch of colored powder and a bunch of water and you just kind of throw them at eachother and you say happy holi. It is also a happy time. I don’t think… maybe it is just we never celebrated them… but we don’t have any depressing holidays. You know how like Jewish people have Yom Kippur and stuff like that. We don’t really have that because there is no like, in Hinduism there’s not really like in Christianity and Judiaism where hthey have sins and atonement and all that crap. Hinduism, which is really why I like it, it is not about doing bad things and making up for them, it is more just about positive ways to live your life. So that is why they are all around central tennents like karma… doing good things comes around. That is a huge thing for Hinduism. There are a lot of other stories. There are books. The ramayan is all about rama, but there are a lot of gods in Hinduism. There is another book that is about a lot of them. It is called the mahabaharta. That is the story of ginesh, who is our elephant god. There are a lot of stories in it, but one of the stories that is the most important is talking about ginesh and how he is with his parents and basically the reason why in Hinduism your parents are so important is because someone told ginesh “circle around your world twice.” And what he did was walk around his parents twice because your parents are supposed to be your world. There are just a lot of loyalty stories like that. There is another story, that is called the gita, I think that is g-i-t-a. bhavagad gita. People chant that.

Me: what do you mean they chant it?

Informant: there are a lot of verses to it and sometimes when you pray, some people have whole chapters memorized and they will say them. But that is a very long story. That story is about a normal human guy named arjun. He is in a war. It is a war between 2 families. He is on one side and all of his brothers are on the other side. And he doesn’t know whether he should or shouldn’t fight against his family. He doesn’t know what to do. So he is visited by a god named krishna, who is one of the gods that is always depicted as blue. And the god coaches him and talks him through what he should do. And that is basically the whole gita. It is another story about loyalty and karma. Those are the main things of Hinduism which is again why I like it. It is really not an intrusive religion. It is very spiritual, like these are some good things that you should keep with you as you live your life. It is a pretty chill religion.

Me: Where did you learn all of this?

Informant: Sunday School. When I started to go to Sunday school in kindergarden, it was held out of a temple because it was very few people. But then it expanded and all of these indian people came out of no where. Then there was like hundreds of kids so we started having it at an actual elementary school because we needed to have classrooms. It totally expanded… because you know indian people run the world. It got crazy. We had a website, they published a text book for us. We got sweatpants and sweatshirts. It went crazy.  There are a lot of kids who already know everything because their parents teach it to them, obviously my parents know it too. My grandparents reallyyyyy know this stucf because older generations know it more. My parents wanted me to go to Sunday school because they wanted me to make some indian friends. It wasn’t really about learning hindi. My Sunday school we had language class and we had culture class. The culture class was where we learned all of this religious stuff. Or culture stuff. We talked about the differences between americans and Indians and all that kind of stuff. And hindi class, like language class, is specifically where you just learn hinidi or gidrathi. Hinidi is the language my mom’s side of the family speaks and gidrathi is the langage my dad’s side of the family speaks. They’re from 2 different parts of india. We just learned hindi because I think hindi is the national language of india so my parents were just like, ehh. My mom is very fluent in hindi, she is a hindi teacher so they were like, just learn hindi. So that is what we learned. That is all hindu stuff. As far as indian cultural stuff goes… but then again at the same time, if we are going to talk about weddings as being an indian thing. At the same time, there are a lot of different religions within India. They all have different wedding. Muslim weddings are way different than hindu weddings. And so I guess this is still hindu, but the whole idea is like, everything is still really loud and fun and colorful. Brides wear red, you know that. They always wear a sari. We put… in English it is henna… in hindi it is mehndi. I wish I knew the significance of it. I honestly think it is just a really beautiful art form. I am sure there is a story or a reason why we put it on, but I think it is just another way to make you look really beautiful. It goes on your hands, your feet, sometimes up your arm to your elbow at least. So the bride gets the most intricate mendhi, and everyone else in the bridal party gets both of their hands done. They make weddings really colorful because it is such a happy event. White is actually a sad color. So at funerals, when we have them, everyone wears white. No one wears black. Black is never worn to anything. And also, we don’t really have funerals. People don’t really get buried. We have cremations. Hindus believe in reincarnation. So if you are burned than your ashes go up and you can come back as something nice if you did good things in your life.

Me: Do you know why white is sad? Because that is the opposite of American culture

Nayna: I think it is because how people see white as pure and clean, that is our thing. So white is pure and cleansing so you wear that just to celebrate because when you creamate someone that is their purest form. You are burning them. I think that is why white is a nice color like that. Because black is just like never touched. We never wear black to anything. I don’t think white is really a sad color actually, it is really just a very full circle, ending color. Everything else, happy events, everything is always colorful. Weddings are always super colorful. Colors are hugely symbolic in the hindu culture. Holi is huge. You make these things called remgolis and they are basically big pieces of art and they are all different shapes and you color them in with the colored powder. Color is huge. Like indian women wear bindis on their foreheads when they wear their indian clothes. But also when religious ceremonies happen, you put a tikka on your head, but you use red powder and make a dash. That’s religious. Bindis are more for fun, to be pretty. More art and decoration for your body. There is a lot of hindu things. Boys, when they turn 11, 12, 13 or 16, some teenage year, they have something called a thread ceremony and only boys have it. It is like a right of passage, becoming an adult thing. It is a lot of prayers. You get threads tied around you as a bracelet and you keep it on for a while. We actually use a lot of thread in Hinduism. I think temples have what they think is holy thread. It is really just normal red thread. A little prettier. There is some red, some gold. We do a lot with thread. Another thing we do is, it is called rakshabandan. It is a brother sister day. Sisters tie a rakhi, it is like a bracelet, on their brother. It can just be a piece of red yarn or a thread. My sister and I like to make it fun, so we make a bracelet for our brother. So basically that is supposed to be protection for him. For all bad things that could come his way. So raksha means protection. Bandan means to tie. So literally tieing protection on your brother. And then your brother gives you like a present or something on that day. You feed him something sweet. You tie your rhaki, and he gives you a present. So it is like sisters protect brothers, brothers protect sisters, something like that. Oh by the way, I think I was supposed to tell you that like the bindi. The significance is that it is supposed to be like a third eye. So it is supposed to ward off evil. It is supposed to look over you. Red is really important. It used to be in the olden days that married women would put the same red power that you put here [touching space between eyes], they used to put it in their parts. In the part of their hairs. That is supposed to signify that you are married.

Me: Do you know why the part of their hair?

Informant: I guess it just so that you do not have to wear it on your forehead. It is very old. People do not walk around with that anymore. It used to be. Married women also tend to wear a red bindi. And widowed women wear a black bindi. My gradmother, when her husband passed ago, way before I was born, she always wears a black bindi on her forehead. Sorry… I keep talking!

Analysis: The informant does a lot of subtle analyzing of what she is saying as she goes.  She clearly takes a lot of traditions and myths with a grain of salt.  Rather than actually believe xyz, she believes in the moral behind it.  She already understands that reason why there are a lot of traditions and stories which makes my analysis much less needed.