Holi is one of the major Hindu festivals observed predominantly in the Indian subcontinent with pomp and grandeur. According to the Vikram Samvat Hindu Calendar, Holi is celebrated on the full moon day of the month of Phalgun. This boisterous Hindu festival befittingly equates Rituraj Basanta (King of Seasons) when there is a riot of colours in nature with blooming Palash, Simul and Krishnachura. Therefore, Basantosav, another name of Holi, is the eponym of “Basanta Ritu” in the Bengali almanac.

There are a number of mythological stories surrounding the festival of Holi.

According to Hindu scriptures, the name “Holi” derives from Holika, the sister of demon king Hiranyakashipu who was killed by Narsimha (semi-man-semi-lion), one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Though Lord Vishnu was the sworn enemy of Hiranyakashipu, his young son Prahalad was an ardent devotee of the former. Despite his sincere efforts to kill his own son, the demon king failed to get rid of him.

Then he invoked his ogress sister Holika and entrusted her with the onus of killing Prahalad. Holika was empowered by a strange boon — she could enter the fire unscathed. Holika entered a blazing pyre with Prahlad in her lap. But her sinister desire backfired because she was unaware of the fact that the boon would work only if she entered the blazing fire alone. So, the magical cloak that had so far protected Holika from the rage of fire flew away from her body and instead wrapped Prahlad leaving him unhurt. But Holika was burnt to death. As a mark of the great triumph of a true devotee of Lord Vishnu, the effigies of Holika are burnt in huge bonfires in many parts of Northern India. Therefore, “Holika Dahan” symbolises the victory of good over evil.

Another legend explains that it was the Ogress Putana who was sent by Kansa, the king of Mathura, to kill his maternal nephew Lord Krishna who was then a new born baby. But Krishna killed Putana. Therefore, the day is observed by burning the effigy of Putana symbolising the same theme of the triumph of good over evil. Another legend says that Holi originated when Lord Krishna was extremely jealous of Radha’s fair complexion in comparison with his dark one. He often whined and wondered why Radha was so fair. His doting mother Yashoda advised her son to smear Radha’s face with different colours.

In South India, Lord Shiva has a connection with the legend of Holi. After the self-immolation of goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva, renouncing his duties towards the universe, plunged into deep meditation. On the other hand, Parvati craved Shiva as her consort once again. Therefore, she summoned the Hindu god of love named Kama on Vasant Panchami.

Kamadeva, the god of love and passion, shot his arrows at Lord Shiva to break his meditation but he opened his third eye and burnt Kamadeva to ashes. Thus, Lord Shiva had conquered carnal desires. Then Rati, the wife of Kama, with the power of her meditative asceticism, pacified Lord Shiva who revived the god of love. The day of Kamadeva getting back his life is celebrated as the festival of Holi.

According to another legend, there was an Ogress named Dhundi. She troubled little children. But no one could suppress her as she was endowed with a boon bestowed upon her by Lord Shiva. The boon made her almost invincible. However, the boon also entailed that her defeat could be possible only by the crazy group of boys. Therefore, on the day of Holi, in some parts of the country boys hurl abuses and play pranks to chase away Dhundi.

Historically, Holi dates back to several centuries before the inception of the Gregorian calendar. In ancient Hindu literature and the Puranas, there are references to Holi. Besides, the celebration is mentioned in the book by the great poet Kalidas in the four century and the seventh century Sanskrit drama Ratnavali. The reference of Holi is engraved and painted in sculptures and murals of ancient Indian temples.

Needless to say, various legends and historical events associated with Holi mainly recognise the ultimate victory of good over evil. It is also the harvest time and Nature turns into a collage of colourful landscapes. The festival of colours plays the role of a mighty leveller to do away with discrimination and differences among people irrespective of their cast, creed, complexion, sex, age and social status.

Holi is also a symbol of freedom. In this regard, one may recollect how one thousand widows shunned the fetters of social stigma and played Holi with colours, gulal and flower petals at about the Meera Sahabhagini Ashram in Vrindavan a few years ago. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that Holi is the festival of bonhomie, brotherhood and above all humanity in the true sense of the term.

In the past the hues and colours used to smear one another were widely derived from herbal and organic origins. Green was obtained from mehendi and dried leaves of neem, gulmohar et al. Yellow, red and orange were extracted widely from turmeric, whereas, indigo plants were the basic sources of blue. Besides, a variety of fruits, flowers and vegetables including grapes, beetroot, tea, amla, hibiscus, palash, krishnachura et al were widely used to prepare colour dust and gulal of different hues. But in this modern synthetic age, herbal colours have been replaced by cheap and bright chemical colours prepared with toxic metal-based pigments including mercury sulphide, lead oxide, aluminum bromide, copper sulfate and so on. It is heartening to note, with the ever increasing sense of health-consciousness, the use of organic and herbal colours are gaining ground again.

Holi is celebrated in different ways in different parts of India. “Lath Mar Holi” is celebrated at Barsana, a town near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Women with sticks run after and beat men who protect themselves with shields. In Mathura, Vrindavan and other parts of the Braj region, Holi is celebrated almost in the same manner. The festival lasts more than two weeks there. Holi in Gujarat is called Dhuleti, which is celebrated with rangoli and colour dusts. In Bihar, Phagua or Phagu Purnima is the name of the festival of Holi.

Huge bonfire is lit with cow dung cakes, araad and redi creepers and even grains from the fresh harvest. Abeer or colour powders and water colours are applied to observe Holi. Besides, Holi is known as Dulandi Holi in Haryana, Rangpanchami in Maharashtra, Hola Moholla in Punjab, Kama Dahanam in Tamil Nadu and so on.

But the festival of colour is popular as Dol Yatra in Bengal and Odisha. In Odisha, the idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra are installed on the podium called Dolamandapa, whereas, the idols of Radha and Krishna are placed on a well decorated palanquin in West Bengal. In this regard Basanta Utsav in Shantiniketan deserves special mention.

Rabindranath Tagore introduced the occasion in his Vishva Bharati University. There, students celebrate the occasion by singing, dancing and throwing colour powders. Many tourists from our country and abroad turn up to become the part of the Basanta Utsav.

Bishnupur of Bankura district also has a rich tradition of celebrating Holi in the precinct of the famous Madanmohan Temple. The Malla kings of erstwhile Mallabhum (now Bishnupur) encouraged their subjects to observe Dol Yatra with the presentation of devoted songs hailing Lord Madanmohan and Sri Radha. Now this has turned into dirty political contention. Transcending the boundary of our country, Holi is celebrated in Nepal, Indonesia, Fiji, US, UK and even in Pakistan.

However, Holi is a vibrant festival containing multifarious aspects. It is the festival of bonhomie, forgiveness and equality. In the blaze of the bonfire called Holika Dahan, six rudimentary enemies including lust, anger, greed, jealousy, conceit and craving ingrained innately in our character are supposed to combust. The burnt ashes of Holika turn into colour powders of different hues of the rainbow. The festival may well be regarded as a sweet protest against apartheid that still prevails in different shapes and forms in the world.