Holi announces the onset of spring in India. After the long and harsh winter, new leaves come to trees and flowers bloom and nature turns into a riot of colors. The celebration of this festival reflects the joie-de-vivre associated with the season. Holi also announces the beginning of the agricultural season in India.
On the day before the celebration people take part in a public bonfire known as Holika dahan. It signifies burning the evil to purify one’s soul.
Children collect waste wood, fruits and vegetables from the neighborhood and light the bonfire in the night. People gather around it to offer prayers by circling around it. Proceeds from the seasonal harvest are offered to the fire as well.
Holi is normally observed on the full moon day of Phalguna. The date may vary between February and March of the Gregorian calendar.
In morning, the first gulal is offered to the Gods and pujas are performed. The celebration then breaks in and people get out on the streets with gulal, water colors, syringes and water filled balloons. Revelers throw colors at each other and shout greetings. They also sing and dance with the beats of dholak.
In many places, processions are held and people sing and dance all the way and throw colors at the onlookers. Neighborhoods turn into grand party places. Holi is a national holiday and all the public and private offices as well as the banks remain closed on the day.
The popular Hindu beliefs associate the celebration of Holi with Lord Krishna. He is believed to have played Holi with the people of Braj and Nandagaon.
Krishna used to visit the village of Barsana to play Holi with Radha. The custom is still followed and boys from Nandagaon visit Barsana to play Holi with the womenfolk there.
The ritual of lighting a bonfire before the celebration of Holi was derived from the tale of Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada.
According to the Purana, Holika was the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu. She had the boon that she could never be engulfed by fire. So she volunteered to sit in the fire with Prahlada on her lap when Hiranyakashipu tried to kill his son by burning him on pyre.
But Prahlada who was a devotee of Lord Vishnu escaped from the fire unharmed and Holika was burnt to death because of her dishonest intentions.
Since then the ritual represents burning the evil qualities within and purifying one’s souls and renewing one’s beliefs on God.
The root of the modern day celebration can be found in ancient Bengal. It was a festival introduced by the Vaishnavas to promote unity in the Hindu society divided by castes.
In many places, devotees line up before the temples of Radha-Krishna to offer oblation and abir (colored powder or gulal) to the God.
Children celebrate this festival in their own way. Their preparation starts many days before Holi. They buy colors, balloons and syringes as a preparation for celebration.
Since all the schools and colleges remain closed on Holi they get a full day to have fun and make merry. They would put gulal on the feet of elderly and seek their blessings.
Adults have fun of their own. They play with colors and enjoy ‘bhang ka sarbat’, an intoxicating drink. Ladies prepare a wide range of savory and sweet dishes. Evenings are reserved for visiting families and friends and enjoying meals together.