From Akitu to Sham el-Nessim and from May Day to Easter, the entire world celebrates spring. From the point of view of Science, this season is purportedly one of the most important seasons as the axis of Earth is increased relative to Sun, which causes the lengthing periods of daylight and the days themselves get warmer. Snow begins to melt and water streams start flowing throughout the lands. The light and warmth provide a perfect environment for plants to flourish and this period gains its own agricultural importance. With this, the pridominantly agrarian countries and regions of the world mark this season’s beginning as the most important event of their calendars. Most cultures celebrate it as their New Year, and with time, it has come about that many folklores, legends and mythical stories got associated with it.
People living in Indian Subcontinent have their own myriad versions of this Spring Festival. Some call it ‘Phagwah’, some ‘Dolajatra’, some ‘Basantotsav’, some ‘Shigmo’, and a majority of the population in the northern parts of the subcontinent celebrate it as “Holi.” For the followers of the Hindu way of life, the auspicious festival of Holi is celebrated on the day when “Holika,” sister of “Hiranyakashipu,” died. According to Hindu mythology, King Hiranyakashipu was Lord Vishnu’s gatekeeper, but due to a curse he was reborn as an Asura (a Demon), in Moolsthan (said to be present day Multan). He declared himself as a god, and ordered his subjects to worship only him. However, his own son “Prahlad” becomes devoted to Lord Vishnu and disobeys his father’s commandments. Angry from this act, Hiranyakashyap orders his sister “Holika” to take Prahlad in her lap and sit on a bonfire. Holika had a cloak, which would prevent her from fire. However, as the bonfire started, the air blew off the cloak and covered Prahlad. As a result, Holika was burnt alive and Prahlad was saved. Since then, the night when Holika died is celebrated as Holika Dehan (Burning of Holika) and the next day is celebrated as “Holi”, the festival of colours.
Another symbolic myth connects this festival with the death of demon Pootna, who came to poison infant Lord Krishna. But in Barsana (near Mathura), the tales goes like this: Lord Krishna visited his beloved Radha’s village and playfully teased her friends. At this, the women of Barsana chased him away with sticks. Since then, groups from Krishna’s village (Nandgaon) visit Barsana during Holi and get chased away, and sometimes beaten with sticks by the people of Barsana. It is popular by the name of “Lath-Maar Holi” (Literally: Stick-Hitting-Holi). Another interesting form of Holi is celebrated in the hill regions of Kumaun Garhwal. Here, instead of colours and water, people sit across and sing the songs of Holi. It therefore got its name “Baithaki Holi” (Sitting-Holi). Soon, another form of Kumaoni Holi evolved, called “Khadhi Holi” (Standing-Holi), where these songs were sung standing. Some parts also celebrate “Mahila Holi” (Women’s Holi), where only ladies participate and sing songs. Even a Goan version called “Shigmo” exists, which concentrates more on Singing and Dancing.
In Punjab, a very different form of celebrating Holi is observed. During the times of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth spiritual master of Sikhs, the punjabis were struggling with the Mughal Armies for their survival. While they were celebrating all festivals, the important festival, which also marks the New Year, was to be given some special importance. Hence, the war cry (Halla) gave the name ‘Holla Mohalla’, where mohalla means ‘to gather/assemble’. Guru Gobind Singh jee used this occasion of Holi to do mock war drills at the fort of Holgarh. This became a gazetted festival during the British Raj and is celebrated till date at the city of Anandpur, where Sikhs who practice the Sikh form of Martial Arts called ‘Gatka,’ gather every year and exhibit their talent and skills with weapons and horses.
While a majority of Indians celebrate Holi with colours and water, and some say it with flowers and even laddoos, many others have their own way of celebrating. Some simply sing, some dance, and some take out their weapons to demonstrate war drills and martial talent. All this happens to mark the beginning of the Spring season. This diversity in Indian culture makes it so special and unique.