Of all the socio-cultural celebrations, Holi or Dole, as the Bengalis call it, stands unique with its mood-changing, colourful and cathartic agenda of songs and sweets for making and repairing relation with grand equalising factors. It celebrates spring, the king of seasons, adds internal and external colours in life and reinforces mythical lessons on victory of good over evil and spiritual lesson of cosmic play between Spirit and Nature.Despite prehistoric origin its robust continuity in full swing till date down different ages bears ample evidence of its immense appeal, importance and significance.
The unique colourful celebration of Holi on the full moon day of spring season usually falling on the last week of February or early March has been prevalent in our subcontinent from pre-Christian era as an agricultural celebration of harvest in the beginning. Later on it got some religious colour in it. Yet it remains the least religious and predominantly secular spring festival. Precise form and purpose of this festival is shrouded in mystery, but a number of mythological legends have been added to its unknown origin. Still it remains a fascinating socio-cultural celebration in India and abroad as well nowadays.
Behind the apparent exchange of dry and liquid colours on one another and liberal distribution of sweets, deserts and delicacies amid loud vocal and instrumental music the festival has a lot of socio-cultural bearing on our community life. It is a celebration of sharing love, cementing relation, making new ones and repairing the impaired ones with forget and forgive attitude. It also affords an opportunity to renew our concern for traditional ethics and values while ritually interacting with superiors, seniors, juniors, peers, outsiders and others irrespective of their being rich or poor, man or woman forgetting class consciousness.
The colourful festival part having nothing religious has reached from India and Nepal to South Asian countries, parts of Europe, Latin America and United States of America predominantly for sharing love, frolic and fun with colours and sweets. It attracted the European traders right from their arrival in India. Even in India it is celebrated with noticeable difference in style and duration in various states. Historically, we find account of this celebration in Puranas, Dashakumar Charita and works of Kalidas etc. Famous tourist Al Beruni elaborated this festival in his travel accounts. We find plenty of inscriptions, murals and paintings on this festival belonging to various periods of history dating from the ancient 300 BC to medieval era.
In Bengal it has traditionally been celebrated one day ahead as Dole Purnima. This purnima is also associated with the birth anniversary of Sri Chaitanya, the prominent Bengali mystic of the medieval Bhakti-cult who over-flooded Bengal with devotional name of God beyond rituals and caste barriers. Significantly, he sourced wonderful melodious Padavali lyrics by various composers which considerably enriched Bengali language, literature and culture right from the medieval era.
Rabindranath Tagore in his own characteristic manner added enough sophistication to this colourful feast of sight, sweets and symphony. He transformed the traditional ritual into a secular spring festival or Basanta Utsab for all and in the same way it is celebrated in Shantiniketan which is worth seeing. He composed a number of songs for this occasion in which colour has been perceived as the amazing mood-changing diversity of nature. He invoked the same for assimilation in heart and head to be translated into his thoughts, feelings and action.
Holi is immensely colourful and musical with traditional folk songs sung with beating of drums and other instruments. Tagore songs for this occasion are highly sophisticated and inspiring indeed. The occasion has sourced composition of many lyrics and musical tunes. The occasion has also been presented in various Bollywood films for its wide popular appeal.
The tradition of Holi is that even the enemies turn friends on Holi and forget any feeling of hardship that might have been present. Besides, on this day people do not differentiate between the rich and poor and everybody celebrates the festival together with a spirit of bonhomie and brotherhood. In the evening people visit friends and relatives and exchange gifts, sweets and greetings. This helps in revitalising relationships and strengthening emotional bonds between people.
The timing of the festival is quite significant. When winter days are over and the advent of hot summer is imminent it is the most convenient time to celebrate such a function. During this time we feel lethargic and tend to suffer from viral fever, cold, chicken pox and allergy. The traditional herbal colours have a lot of preventive medicinal elements in them. The colours made from neem, turmeric, sandalwood, mehendi, beetroot, amla, hibiscus etc have useful medicinal properties very much needed during this season. The preventive medicinal value of the festival is an important aspect.
As has already been told the origin of Holi is shrouded in mystery and a number of legends have been associated with it in different regions. The legend of Holika is quite popular in North India where it is assumed that the festival is named after Holika, the cruel sister of demon king Hiranyakashipu. The king was dead against his devoted son Prahlad, who had unwavering faith in God. The king tried to kill him in all possible ways but every time omnipotent God saved his devotee. At last the wicked sister of the king Holika tried to kill him by burning him alive in bonfire. But Prahlad was miraculously saved remaining untouched by fire while Holika was burnt alive illustrating the protecting power of the Almighty. The celebration starts with Holika bonfire to commemorate the victory of good over evil and omnipotence of God as protector.
As per another legend Sri Krishna became dark complexioned after the poisonous breast feeding by Putana who was sent by Kansa to kill him during childhood. Since Radha, his consort was fair-skinned Sri Krishna was apprehensive that she might not like him. Ironically, people are always allured by attractive creation of God and tend to remain oblivious of God till the hammer of suffering moves them from the inertia of dull living with worldly pleasures and pursuits. Sri Krishna’s mother advised him to throw colours on her face as equalising device. Sri Krishna did the same and thus the celebration started. Obviously application of multiple colours on face and body represents human equality and harmony for which the celebration stands.
Spiritually, Sri Krishna symbolises Spirit while Radha symbolises Nature. The Spirit takes no other hue and is immutable while Nature is diverse, colourful and mutable. Sri Krishna and Radha represent cosmic play of Spirit and Nature dancing together and swinging in enjoyment in creation. In Bengal this has been prevalent as the theme of the occasion celebrated as Dole Purnima.
Holi is essentially a holistic socio-cultural celebration involving everybody in society with spirit of friendship and harmony irrespective of caste, creed and status in society. It celebrates ultimate victory of good over evil and reminds us of the eternal play of love between Creator and creation or Spirit and Nature in colourful creation. It is an occasion for celebration from various angles. Happy Holi.
The writer is a columnist