Holi, or Holli, also called the Festival of Colors, is a spring festival celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. It is primarily observed in India, Nepal, Srilanka, and countries with large Indic diaspora populations, such as Suriname, Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, UK, USA, Mauritius, and Fiji. In West Bengal of India it is known as Dolyatra (Doul Jatra) or Basanta-Utsav (“spring festival”).
The most celebrated Holi is that of the Braj region, in locations connected to the god Krishna: Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, and Barsana. These places have become tourist destinations during the festive season of Holi, which lasts here to up to sixteen days.
The main day, Holi, also known as Dhuli Vandana in Sanskrit,also Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing coloured powder and coloured water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi).
The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in South India.
Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna (February/March), (Phalgun Purnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March. In 2009, Holi (Dhulandi) was on March 11 and Holika Dahan was on March 10. In 2010, Holi is on March 1 and Holika Dahan was on February 28.
Rangapanchami occurs a few days later on a Panchami (fifth day of the full moon), marking the end of festivities involving colours.
Earliest textual references regarding celebration of Holi have been found the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Ratnavali . Holi has certainly perennial rituals attached to it, the first is smearing of coloured powder on each other, and throwing water, coloured and scented using pichkaris, shaped like giant syringes or squirt guns.
Though the festival really begins many days in advance, with ‘Holi Milan’ or Baithaks, musical soirees, where song related to the festival, and the epic love story of Radha Krishna are sung; specially type of folk songs, known as â€œHoriâ€ are sung as well. Some classical ones like Aaj biraj mein Holi re rasiya, have been present in the folklore for many generations.
Food preparations also begin many days in advance, with assemblage of gujia, papads, kanji and various kinds of snack items including malpuas, mathri, puran poli, dahi badas, which are served to Holi guests. The night of Holi, the baithak turn into event of churning bhang ( cannabis) to make intoxicating milk shakes and sweet laddoos mixed with bhang.
The main emphasis of the festival is on the burning of the holy fire or Holika. The origin of the traditional lighting of Holi is attributed by some to the burning of demonesses like Holika, Holaka and Putana who represent evil, or to the burning of Madan according to others.
Traditionaly a bonfire on the day of Holi, marks the symbolic anhilation of a demoness Holika the sister of demon, Hiranyakashipu, in Hindu belief, while trying to kill, a devotee, Bhakta Prahlad.
This is akin to other festivals where effigies are burned, like Ravana Dahan on Vijayadashami (Dusshera) day, also in many other religions across the world, signifying end of dark or demonic forces, though with Holika Dahan, the effigy has now been all but vanished or present in a symbolic form, except in few areas in the Braja region, where effigies are still seen on street corners and public squares, piled on top of an assemblage wood.
This set to fire after ritualistic worship, and people make pradakshina of the bonfire. The next day this victory is celebrated as the day of Dulhendi.
In some practices particularly in the UK, coconuts are thrown into the fire and then pulled out. The burnt husk of the coconut represents Holika who died in the pyre. The white inside represents Prahlad, who was still alive and unaffected by the pyre.