The burning Holika reminds me of my childhood when we all sat around the bonfire listening to stories our grandmother colourfully narrated. The stories talked about the ritual of Holika and the victory of good over evil. The messages I imbibed from these legends left a deep impact on me. As I grew older, I realised the deep cultural significance these narratives held across regions and communities, an umbilical cord of sorts.
Soulveda explores some of these legends associated with the festival of colours:
The evil pyre
The legend of Holika Dahan narrates the story of demon king Hiranyakashipu. According to the Vaishnava tradition, he was blessed with immortality by Lord Brahma. As the demon king’s arrogance grew to match his power, he began challenging the faith of his subjects and ordered them to worship him instead of Lord Vishnu. However, his son Prahlad, an ardent devotee of Vishnu, never followed his father’s instruction. Enraged by his son’s non-conforming ways, Hiranyakashipu ordered to burn him alive.
The demon king asked his sister Holika to sit on a pyre with Prahlad on her lap. Holika was blessed with a magical cloak that prevented her from burning. However, Prahlad’s unflinching devotion to Vishnu rescued him and Holika perished. This legend symbolises the victory of good over evil, which is an integral part of the celebrations.
The tale of Shiva’s rage
According to a legend, when Shiva came to know of Sati’s immolation, he was enraged and he destroyed the world. He then renounced the world and went into deep meditation. In order to restore harmony in the world and bring Shiva back, Sati chose to be reborn as Parvati. When all her attempts to woo Shiva went in vain, she asked Kamdev for help. Kamdev, the god of love, shot cupids at Shiva. This angered Shiva who opened his third eye and reduced him to ashes. When Shiva realised his mistake, he blessed Kamdev with immortality. This is known to have happened on the day of Holi. Even today, sandalwood paste is offered to Kamdev to soothe his burns.
In the southern part of India, Holi is marked as a tribute to Kamdev for his ultimate sacrifice for love. In Tamil Nadu, Holi is known as Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-Dahanam.
The legends of Holi are not mere chapters from the Hindu mythology, but are, in fact, tales of love, sacrifice and victory over evil.
The story of the ogress
The story of ogress Dhundhi is less known. Blessed with indestructibility by Lord Shiva, Dhundhi started misusing her powers on little children whom she devoured. However, she forgot Shiva had also cursed her that prankster boys could pose danger to her. The legend has it that village boys chased Dhundhi away on this day of Phalgun with their laughter, shouts, abuses and pranks. The unruly behaviour of the boys during Holi is said to have its roots in this legend. It also signifies the victory of humility over arrogance.
The Raasleela of Radha-Krishna
The legends surrounding the Raasleela of Radha and Krishna during Holi add a romantic flavour to this colourful festival. And singing the praises of this divine love are the devotees in Mathura and Vrindavan. For these two cities, Holi has a connotation of love for their presiding deity Krishna.
It is said that Krishna once complained to his mother about his dark skin, comparing it to Radha’s milky-white skin. Humouredly, Krishna’s mother told him that he could change Radha’s complexion to a colour of his choice. Delighted by the proposition, Krishna smeared Radha’s face with different colours. Often known as Holi ki Raasleela in northern India, the festival of colours is Dol Purnima or Dol Jatra in West Bengal.
Holi’s popularity may vary, but its message of unity and diversity is smeared across cultures, much like its colours. The legends of Holi are not mere chapters from the Hindu mythology, but are, in fact, tales of love, sacrifice and victory over evil.