The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘M’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 65-year-old Punjabi woman, born and raised in Gujarat.
I: Many people have heard about Holi, but don’t know the story behind it. Could you share this story?
M: So, Holi, an ancient Hindu festival, actually means burning, and is derived from the name Holika. Holika was believed to be a person, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashyap, who wanted to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of Lord Vishnu (the preserver, protection). So, he did intense penance and appeased Lord Brahma (the creator of the universe, knowledge), who finally gave him a boon that made him (virtually) indestructible. What happened afterwards is predictable, because… he became arrogant, he started thinking he was god, and told everyone to worship him as if he was. His wife was scared, but Brahma’s son (Narasimha, who later does kill Hiranyakashyap) told her to confine herself and worship Lord Vishnu, who would keep her safe. Then, her son was born, Prahlad, and he was very devoted to Vishnu… and—and no matter how hard he tried, Hiranyakashyap couldn’t kill him—he refused to worship Hiranyakashyap as god—even though he thought he was near all-powerful because of his gift, right? So, he went mad with rage and then decided to take his sister’s help to burn his son alive in a fire—this sister being Holika. She also had a boon that made her immune to fire, so she could hold him within the fire, but he prayed to Vishnu, who called—who summoned wind that blew the shawl from Holika onto him—oh, the shawl was what made her immune to fire, it was only if she wore that. This is why Holika was burned alive, and Prahlad survived. Hiranyakashyap was obviously angry, thinking of more tricks to kill his son, but that’s another story. Basically, the day Holika burned started being celebrated as ‘Holika Dahan’, the victory of good over evil, light over darkness.
I: Thank you! And when it comes to the celebration itself, the festival, what is generally carried out, other than the colours?
M: People gather around—in a circle, around a pyre-looking thing, essentially signifying Holika, and they burn this as almost a cleansing ritual. You take all the flammable things you have, old things, trash, wood, anything that you want to get rid of, for a new beginning. After this is burned, people take these ashes, along with, I believe, some sandalwood and leaves, and put them on their head to promote health. On the next day, there’s the festival of colours—that’s what Holi is usually thought of… associated with, more widely. The play with colours is thought to enhance health, body and mind, and you also clean your houses to allow positive energy to flow into the home environment and get rid of bad things, like insects. It also has a big significance because… people come together, you see, it strengthens their bond when they play during this festival. This can turn enemies into friends, removes any differences between people, you give gifts to your family and friends, and you put colour on… nearly everyone you see around you. We also have this drink called Bhaang, which the adults usually drink during this celebration, it is a derivative of grass (Cannabis)… It’s celebrated before the summer and after the winter, so people are feeling lazy and tired, so at this time, Holi brings a lot of activities and happiness, new starts. People feel much better. It also brings in the spring!
I: Is the story of Holika the only origin of Holi? Because I’ve noticed that the Holika Dahan festival is more prominent in the North, not as much so in Mumbai.
M: There are many stories, relating to Holi being celebrated within Hindu stories. There’s one about Radha and Krishna and their love, their divine love… another one from the South has to do with Shiva saving the world… I’m not as familiar with those, if I’m being fully honest, but it is celebrated and thought of very differently in different states, but it’s always a festival of colours and happiness, of fun.
There is a lot that comes with Holi, the favourite festival of many, but it is known largely for its more familiar portion of the festival of colours. However, the story behind it is not as familiar to people, and neither is the ceremonial burning of Holika, at least outside of North India. Most Indian festivals celebrate the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and Holi is no exception. Another such festival would be Diwali, the festival of lights, in celebration of Lord Rama’s defeat of Raavana. This story specifically, the one of Hiranyakashyap, Prahlad, and Holika, has a lot of mythological significance due to its divine characters (Hinduism is polytheistic): Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Vishnu, its preserver, two out of the Trimurti of principal Hindu deities (the third is Shiva, the destroyer, also part of the continuation of this seemingly never-ending epic story). This continued emphasis on the victory of good over evil says a lot about the values that ancient conceptions of Hinduism and its traditions are built upon: the belief that good will always win, and light will always prosper, even after the darkest times. Simultaneously, the way these celebrations are conducted, the traditions and rituals within them have a lot to do with colours and light, but primarily with a coming-together of the community, where people find joy and love in each other, no matter what, and have fun. The coming of spring is also a widely celebrated thing across the world, and this celebration usually falls sometime in March, around the time the Springtime comes in, in the states that do experience it!