The festival of Holi (pronounced “Holy”), also called the festival of colors, celebrates the coming of spring in the northern regions of India. As the stark branches and barren fields of winter months give way to budding leaves and blossoming flowers, people try to match the riot of colors unleashed by nature.
The present form of the festival – symbolizing friendship and forgiveness as ill will is washed away by colored waters – is an adaptation of its earlier intent to celebrate good harvests and fertility of the land. The roots of Holi, however, go beyond this agrarian tradition and are set in the legends of Hindu mythology.
According to one legend, a demon king by the name of Hiranyakshyap was driven to extreme anger and frustration when his infant son, Prahalada, refused to acknowledge his father as mightier than the gods.
When admonitions and threats failed to deter Prahalada from worshipping Vishnu, the sustainer of all life, his father decided to have his son slain. Though the modern reader might react with horror and incredulity at this decision, it is not too farfetched compared to current times, when tyrants and dictators have silenced any opposition or threat by the eliminating the source of threat, even if it means killing their own kin.
Among other devices, Hiranyakashayp solicited the services of his sister, Holika, who was immune to fire. When Holika sat on a pyre with the young Prahalada in her lap, the boy came out unscathed, while the evil aunt was consumed by flames.
Even today people light a bonfire on the eve of Holi to commemorate this victory of good over evil.
Another legend is associated with Krishna, the dark colored flute-playing shepherd god who is considered an incarnation of Vishnu. According to this story, the demoness Putna tried to kill the infant Krishna by suckling him with her poisoned milk. Krishna suckled so hard that he drew the very life out of the demoness.
The frolics of an older Krishna with the Gopis, or milkmaids, manifests itself in the buoyant and frivolous mood the festival sanctions. This Bacchanalian aspect of the festival is characterized by downing sweet milk laced with bhang, an aphrodisiac and intoxicant, and feasting on gujiya, crescent-shaped pastries made of milk, flour, dry fruits and nuts. The senses are indulged further by art forms including folk dances such as Raas and folk songs.
Due to its dominantly secular appeal, the festival of Holi has helped bring together people of different religions and regions in a spirit of abandon and gaiety as troubles are temporarily immersed in a flood of color, music and dance.
In keeping with the spirit of Holi, the GW Indian Students Association has collaborated with George Mason University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland to present a spectacle of Indian dance and music at Lisner Auditorium Feb. 26.
Students are invited to partake of the celebrations and make Holi a truly colorful experience. For more information, students can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.-The writer is a graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs.