Holi, India’s festival of magical freedoms

June 14th, 2009 - 9:56 am ICT by IANS  

By Paloma Ganguly
Flowers dot unexpected nooks and crannies, the air is heady with the scent of spring, and nature is busy dabbing colour on Indian earth. That’s the
stage for Holi, a unique festival when a streak of joyous madness grips a sea of humanity.On this day, millions of Indians embrace the free spirit, turning social norms on their head as they wildly smear each other with colour, sing
songs, dance on the streets, beat drums and make merry. Men and women mingle freely, intoxicants are enthusiastically served, the bashful suddenly find a voice, the unexpected is but expected and the impure becomes pure.

From Hindu cowherd god Krishna to Mughal emperor Akbar to Bollywood film stars, Indians have famously played Holi down the ages. It falls on an auspicious full moon day, known as ‘poornima’, in the Indian month of Phalgun, usually in end February or early March, to herald the onset of
spring.

Colour is its central theme, as much metaphorically as literally. One could say it is India’s answer to the carnival, but actually it hardly has a parallel in the world. Just imagine a perfect stranger walking up to you and streaking your face with coloured powder or may be even overturning a bucketful of water on you to happy shouts of “Holi Hai!”

Losing inhibitions is what this festival is all about. Men and women spill into the streets, armed with red, yellow, green and orange ‘gulal’
(coloured powder), water, paint, cow dung and even mud! They playfully smear each other with all this, as if magically revisiting their childhood.

The rich, the poor, the Hindu, the Muslim, the festival of colours blurs boundaries. The super wealthy could throw a mega party on Holi, but the
slum dweller manages to have just as much fun.

And so it was this year too, when the global slowdown seemed to have had little impact in dampening enthusiasm.

While in India’s fast-paced cities, Holi is observed for a day, in the interiors such as Braj Bhoomi, considered the land of Lord Krishna, in the state of Uttar Pradesh - celebrations go on for over a month in temples dedicated to the god, with priests putting colour on the idols and
devotional songs being sung.

The cowherd god’s romance and mischief making with companion Radha and other gopis (maids) on Holi is part of folklore.

Lathmar Holi played in Barsana town of Uttar Pradesh is another reflection of how social mores take a backseat. Women, dressed in traditional attire, have public sanction to rain blows with wooden sticks on men who try to put colour on them! It is all considered fair play.

The festival has different avatars in different parts of India.

In the northern state of Punjab, there is a show of acrobatics and martial arts. Holla Mohalla, as the event is called, is celebrated by a warrior
sect of Sikhs called Nihangs in a town called Anandpur Saheb. Expertise in archery, horse-riding and other sports is on display but what really draws people from all over India and the world is the daredevilry with weapons called ‘gatka’.

In eastern India, particularly West Bengal, the festival is known as ‘Dol Poornima’ when people take out processions, singing and dancing on
the streets. This tradition has its origins in the Vaishnav cult representing the followers of Krishna. In some places, decorated idols of Krishna and Radha are put on a swing and people take turns to rock it.

In the western state of Gujarat, it is elebrated as a major Hindu festival but also  marks the agricultural season of the Rabi, or the winter, crop.

While the festival is all about revelry, many elderly make it a point to tell their grandchildren about the myths and legends behind it, underlining the evergreen message of the victory of good over evil. The most popular
is that of demon king Hiranyakashipu, who wanted his subjects to worship him, and his son Prahlad, who was a devotee of god Vishnu.

Legend has it that the king’s sister Holika was granted a boon that fire could not harm her. Thus Hiranyakashipu made her sit on a pyre with
Prahlad so that the boy would be reduced to ashes. But the opposite happened as Prahlad prayed to god Vishnu and survived and Holika perished. To this day, on the eve of Holi people light a bonfire to symbolically revisit that
tale.

It is common for people in north India to take generous helpings of an intoxicant alled ‘bhang’, which is extracted from cannabis. It is served
mixed with ‘thandai’ - a cooling milk-based drink spiced with almond, cardamom and rose petals. Some make it at home while others buy it from makeshift shops.

Sweets called ‘gujiyas’ (fried dough balls stuffed with almonds, cardamom and raisins), and snacks called ‘papdi’ (wheat crackers spiced with
tamarind and yoghurt) and ‘kanji vada’ (lentil dumplings dipped in a sweet-sour-spicy drink) are also associated with the festival. Earlier women would role these out in their kitchens, but today the delicacies are easily available at shops.

In ancient times, people are said to have extracted colours from plants such as sandalwood, hibiscus, gulmohur, turmeric and flame of the forest. Today, chemically made red, yellow, green, purple and orange powder are sold in
tiny packets in hundreds of shops that spring up in neighbourhoods at this time.

Lately though there has been a return to organic colours, especially in cities, as artificial colour sometimes proves harmful to the skin. In
residential neighbourhoods, people walk around looking like blobs of colour!

For children, water pistols are an added attraction. Few grown-ups seem to mind as spurts of water or puffs of coloured powder thrown by tiny hands catch them unawares on a street corner.

The day spells romance for lovers, mischief for children, camaraderie for friends and happy memories for the old. After all, a lot can, and does, happen over Holi.

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