Contributed by Kajol Desai
You’ve probably heard of a “colour festival” or been on a “colour run”, maybe even celebrated something similar in a club or at a rave, but have you ever wondered where these celebrations of colour originate? When you scrape back the packaged events you may have attended, looking instead for the culturally rich tradition that inspired them, you will see Holi.
More than just throwing, or running through colourful powders, Holi is an ancient celebration of the coming of the spring. It indulges in the colours of the world coming to light after a dark winter. Let me explain…
Although there are many stories from which the festival of Holi has been derived, I’m going to narrate one of the most prominent; that of a young boy named Prahlad, and a lady known as Holika. This is particularly important for an aspect of Holi which is typically overlooked in other cultures: the Holi Bonfire, which involves throwing huge coconuts and other combustible organic materials into huge fires.
Prahlad was the son of the King Hiranyakashipu. The King was not just any King, he had reign over the demon kingdom, known as the Asuras. Hiranyakashipu felt a deep hatred for the deity, Vishnu, as he had slain his brother and was supporting the King’s enemy, known as the Devas.
The Asuras and the Devas were at war. Hiranyakashipu wanted to be immortal so he could destroy Vishnu and the Devas, as well as anyone who had faith in them. For this reason, he took it upon himself to enter a deep devotion through meditation towards the deity of creation, Brahma, in order to impress and receive the boon of immortality.
The King, entranced in his pursuit of deep devotion, forgot about his Kingdom, leaving it open for attack by the Devas. One Deva, known as Indra (often described as the King of the Gods and the ruler of the skies), was going to take the King’s pregnant wife, Kayadhu, as a hostage. However, he was stopped by sage Narada.
The sage, saving Kayadhu, took her to an ashram (a holy hermitage or retreat), and began to narrate stories of the great deity Vishnu. Both she and her unborn baby had begun to develop a profound love for Vishnu. Meanwhile, the King had finally reached his state of deep devotion. Now being able to receive his boon, the King asked Brahma the following:
“I wish that I cannot be killed by any man, God or animal or any other creature created by you. Nobody should be able to kill me at day or night, in heavens or in earth, in the day or the night either inside the house or outside the house, or with any weapons.”
The King, with his newfound immortality, took back his kingdom and brought back his wife and son. As time went on, the King grew more arrogant. When he saw Prahlad’s devotion towards Vishnu, he was also enraged. He attempted to kill his son in many ways, but was unsuccessful due to Prahlad’s unconditional devotion and love towards Vishnu. As a last resort, the King called upon his sister, Holika, who was immune to fire.
Holika tried to kill Prahlad by stepping with him into a huge fire, but her immunity did not last long. Prahlad survived and Holika died. Holika died because of the fire that resided within her. This was the fire of sin and ego; an ego which led to the misuse of a power and strength which she had been granted.
Thus, from this story, Holi is celebrated across the world as a victory of good over evil. Both within ourselves and those around us. It reminds us, no matter how much power or what advantages we may have, we should keep our ego under control and attempt to be the best versions of ourselves to improve the world around us. Just as the spring brings colours to the Earth, we too to are able to do the same.
I hope this story and these messages have given you a little insight into the origins of such meaningful ancient cultural festivals, and have inspired you to delve deeper into the things you take for granted. Because, we can all, look a little deeper, learn a little more and celebrate–in true homage to traditions.
Happy Holi to one and all!
There’s also an upcoming celebration of the Holi Festival on Wednesday the 27th of March 2019. The event will be hosted by the NHSF (UK) University of Birmingham Hindu Society. It will take place between 13:30-15:30 on the Underground Lawn at The Guild. Please contact the UoB Hindu Society for Tickets.
You can also check the UoB Hindu Society’s Instagram page for more info, and updates!
Kajol Desai is currently undertaking a BSc in Sports and Exercise Science. She was president of the Hindu Society last year and is currently serving as part of the National Committee of NHSF (UK) the National Hindu Student Forum (NHSF).