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.