Holi is the most colorful and popular festival of India. It is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Phalgun (February-March), when both man and nature cast off their winter gloom. This is the season when some of our most beautiful trees are in flower: the 'flame of the forest', mango, coral and silk cotton. Man too is moved by the spirit of spring, and celebrates this carnival of colors with gusto.
Holi is one of India's oldest festivals, and many legends have come to be associated with it. According to one version, the festival is named after Holika, the sister of a demon-king, Hiranyakashipu. The demon had defeated the gods and had ordered that he be worshipped as a god in his own right. However, his own son Prahlad, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused to do so. This enraged Hiranyakashipu. He asked his sister, Holika, who could not be burnt by fire, to sit on a burning pyre with the prince in her lap. Holika agreed, but by the grace of Lord Vishnu, Prahlad remained unscathed while Holika herself perished in the fire. To mark the death of Holika, people light huge bonfires on the eve of Holi. In Gujarat and Orissa effigies of Holika are also burnt.
On the day of the festival, gay crowds fill the streets, squirting coloured water and smearing each other's faces with coloured powder. Children of course enjoy the festival with gay abandon. They vie with each other in being original and use fast and sticky colours like coal-tar.
Holi still retains its charm in Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan where it is celebrated in a unique way. In Bengal the festival is called Dol Jatra or Dol Purnima. Early on Dol
Purnima day, the students of Santiniketan dress up in saffron clothes and wear fragrant garlands. Then they sing and dance before their teachers and guests, who are seated on a colour fully decorated dais. The show concludes with the smearing of dry abeer and gulal (colour powder) on one another's foreheads. Liquid colours are totally forbidden.
Holi as such is not celebrated in the South. In some places, however, it is observed as Kamadahan. It is believed that Lord Shiva reduced Kamadeva, the God of Love, to ashes by directing His third eye on him, because he had tried to distract the Lord from His tapasya (meditation). Later, when Rati, wife of Kamadeva, pleaded with the God to restore her husband, Lord Shiva relented and brought him back to life. This day is therefore held sacred to the God of Love.
In Maharashtra, Holi is called Shimaga or Rangapanchami. The fisherfolk celebrate it with singing, dancing and merrymaking.
At times this gay festival degenerates into noisy brawls and hooliganism, which is a great pity. When celebrated in the traditional manner and in the proper spirit, Holi is one of the gayest and friendliest festivals of India.