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).
- Rama stepped in to save the young prince and burn Holika
- Holika was blessed on the understanding that it can never be used to bring harm to anyone.
- 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.