India’s religious diversity permeates every part of the country. From the tiniest of villages to the biggest of metropolitan cities, you will find people of various religions living together in close proliferation. So it comes as little surprise that this country boasts of a staggeringly large number of religious festivals. And yet, one of the most important festivals of this country is hardly a religious one. Holi, or the festival of colours, is nothing short of a massive cultural celebration that transcends age, religion, caste, creed, language and societal norms. It is quite simply an amazing celebration of happiness.
Holi finds its origins in an old Indian fable. Prahlad was a young and pious prince and a devotee of the god Vishnu. His father, the daitya king Hiranyakashapu took his son’s devotion to be an insult to his own supremacy and tried to get Prahlad to worship him instead of the god Vishnu. When he failed, he tried to have his son killed in various ways and yet Prahlad would always survive. Finally, the evil king’s sister Holika, took Prahlad in her lap and sat on a burning pyre. Apparently, Holika had been granted a boon by the gods because of which fire could not harm her. But Prahlad’s devotion once again saved him as the fire burnt Holika alive and left Prahlad unscathed. And thus the festival of Holi was born.
Celebrations usually kick off with the Holi bonfire, signalling the triumph of good over evil. What follows is a chaotic yet beautiful celebration of colours. People take to the streets and fling colour pigments on each other while others prefer dousing their friends and neighbours with water. Smearing colour on the cheeks of strangers and friends alike and wishing them a ‘Happy Holi’ is a common greeting. Celebrating Holi is in fact referred to as ‘playing Holi’ and one only needs to witness this festival in full swing to realise just how joyous and playful it really is.
Beautiful as the colours and showers of water may be, what’s truly beautiful about this festival is the way it spreads a true feeling of goodwill and fresh beginnings. It’s hard to hold a grudge with someone when that person approaches you with fistfuls of colour and douses you with water. It is a day for foes to bury the hatchet, it is a day for friends and family to celebrate together, it is a day for perfect strangers to become fast friends. And all of this is achieved without words but quite simply through expressions of acceptance and friendship.
Things often take an ugly turn during the festivities and the chaotic nature of the festival itself leads to many problems. The artificial dyes used in the colours these days, is a cause for concern, as is the wastage of water. But these things in no way diminish the true essence of Holi. At its core, Holi is a spring festival and it truly inspires people to seek fresh beginnings, re-kindle dwindling friendships and mend broken hearts. But more importantly, people of all ages, genders, religions and strata of society come together and celebrate Holi. For a country with so much of diversity, Holi seems to be just the balm needed to calm tempers flared by communal disharmony.
With more and more countries trying to solve issues of racial disharmony, ethnic profiling and intolerance towards immigrants, this festival of colours seems to hold an important and timely message for the entire world.