This is pre-eminently the spring festival of Bharat. The trees are smiling with their sprout of tender leaves and blooming flowers. With the harvest having been completed and the winter also just ended, it is pre-eminently a festival of mirth and merriment. Gulal (colored powder) is sprinkled on each other by elders and children, men and women, rich and poor alike. All superficial social barriers are pulled down by the all-round gaiety and laughter.

The day itself is associated with many interesting and enlightening Puraanic legends. It is the day of Kaamadahana, the burning of god Kaama - Cupid. The virgin daughter of the king of Himaalayas, Paarvati, was in deep penance to acquire the hand of Lord Shiva as her spouse. But Shiva himself was lost in a deep trance entirely oblivious of the outside world. Kaamadeva came to the rescue of Paarvati and shot his amorous arrows of love at Shiva. Shiva, disturbed from his trance, opened his terrible Third Eye. The flames of Shiva's wrath, leaping from his fore-head eye, burnt Kaama to ashes and there after, Kaama became spirit without a form. Shiva then looked towards Paarvati and fructified her penance by marrying her. It is this burning of lustful infatuation by penance that is signified in this festival.

Holi is also associated with the story of Holika, the sister of demon Hiranyakashipu. The demon-father, having failed in various other ways to make his son Prahlaada denounce Lord Naaraayana, finally asked his sister Holika to take Prahlaada in her lap and enter a blazing fire. Holika, who had a boon to remain unscathed by fire, did her brother's bidding. But lo, Holika's boon ended by this act of supreme sin against the Lord's devotee and was herself burnt to ashes and Prahlaada came out unharmed.

One more legend pertains to another Holika, also known as Pootana, who came as a charming woman to kill the infant Sri Krishna by feeding him with her poisoned breast. Sri Krishna, however, sucked by blood and she lay dead in all her hideous form.

Such stories have effectively charged the popular mind with the faith that ultimately the forces of divinity shall triumph over the demonic forces. Symbolically, a bonfire of Kaamadeva or Holika is made in every town or village, attended by unbounded fun and frolic. Games depicting the pranks of infant Krishna are also played by boys singing and dancing around the fire.

As in the case of all our festivals, this too has its plentiful share of spiritual significance. Fire is the symbol of yajna in which all our bodily desires and propensities are offered in the pure and blazing flame of spiritual enlightenment lit within our hearts.

Holi  Festival


Aum Isha Vasyam Idam Sarvam, Yat Kincha Jagatyam Jagat

Ten Tyaktena Bhunjitha, Ma Gridhah Kasyasvid Dhanam.

All this, whatsoever moves in this moving world is pervaded by God. Through such renunciation you may enjoy. Do not covet anybody's wealth for whose indeed is wealth?

---- The first mantra of the Isa Upanishad


Hiranyakashypu was the king of the asuras. Hiranyakashypu's brother had been slain by Vishnu for terrorising gods and goddesses. So Hiranyakashypu wanted to destroy Vishnu and keep other Gods in heaven subdued. He told his soldiers to crush all those who worship Vishnu, but the Gods protected the Devotees of Vishnu.

Hiranyakashypu thought to himself "I will have to match my powers to Vishnu's to rule over the three worlds".

So he began to perform severe penances and tapasya. While he was so occupied the Gods ransacked his city and destroyed his palace. Hiranyakashiapu's Queen, who was expecting a child was sent by the gods to Sage Narada's hermitage. She lived in the Ashram of the great sage and learned about religion and the glory of Vishnu from him. The child within her, Prahlad, too, absorbed all this knowledge. 

Narada taught the Queen that Vishnu is the soul of all created things and is present everywhere. Meanwhile, Hiranyakashypu's austerities pleased Brahma and said: "Arise Hiranyakashypu. Any boon that you ask of me shall be yours". Hiranyakashypu said I wish that my death be not caused by man or beast, with a weapon or without a weapon, during day or night, indoors or outdoors, on earth or in the sky. Grant me the undisputed lordship over the material world.

Hiranyakashypu brought his wife back to his city where Prahlad was born. Hiranyakashypu, with his new powers renewed his hostilities against Vishnu and his followers. He declared "There is non stronger than I. I am the lord of the three worlds. I shall be worshipped as such".

Prahlad in the meanwhile was growing up and was Hiranyakashypu's delight. He asked Prahlad: "Son, tell me what do you think is the best thing in life"?

Prahlad replied: "To renounce the world and seek refuge in Vishnu".

Hiranyakashypu laughed. Then he called his Son's teacher to him, saying: "Guard him closely. I think that the followers of Vishnu are secretly influencing him. Don't let him out of your sight! After my months, his teacher said: "Prahlad, I think you are now ready to meet your father." His father asked him: "You have been with your Guru a long time! What have you learnt? Prahlad said: "I have leant that the most worthwhile occupation for anyone is the worship of Lord Vishnu". Hirnaykashypu was very angry: "O cursed child! Who taught you such perverse things?" Prahlad remained calm and said: "Vishnu. He reveals himself to all who are devoted to him."

Hiranyakashypu shouted angrily: "This boy must not live! Take him away and kill him! Kill this vilest enemy disguised as my son. Poison him or attack him when he sleeps but kill him!" The soldiers started attacking Prahlad when Prahlad was meditating on Lord Vishnu, but their weapons could not touch Prahlad. Most deadly snakes were let loose on Prahlad, but their fangs turned impotent. Mighty elephants could not trample him. Something kept them back. He was pushed off a cliff but Prahlad was unharmed. Holika, the wicked aunt of Prahlad Holika who had a boon to brave fire without hurt, sat with Prahlad in fire but Prahlad was unharmed. In desperation Hiranyakashypu had him fed with deadly poison but it turned into nectar in Prahlad's mouth.

Prahlad was sent to his teacher to try again. This time the teacher tried to get Prahlad interested in means for acquiring wealth and physical pleasures. But Prahlad thought to himself: "How can the pursuit of physical pleasures and wealth bring happiness? It will only lead to envy and anger?" The teacher eventually gave up, when Prahlad told his father that Vishnu is the soul of all created beings and is present everywhere. Hiranyakashypu roared: Where is Vishnu? If he is everywhere why is he not in this Pillar? If he is not there then I shall cut off your head with my sword. Let Vishnu, your Lord protect you." As Hiranyakashypu was striking the Pillar? With his sword, Lord Vishnu, in the form of Nara-simha(nara=man,simha=lion) emerged from the Pillar. His look was neither beast nor man. Narsinha caught Hiranyakashypu and it was the twilight hour, carried him to the threshold of the court- room which was neither indoors nor outdoors and while holding him on his lap, killed him. Prahlad was installed on the throne and he ruled wisely and well for many years.

The religious significance of the festival of Holi is to mark the burning of self-conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, hatred, in fact all the undesirable demoniac tendencies, propensities, thoughts and behaviours.The victory of righteous forces over demoniacal forces.

Holi or Holika
By Swami Harshananda
Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore

Holi or Holika, also called holikotsava, is an extremely popular festival observed throughout the country (India). It is especially marked by unmixed gaiety and frolics and is common to all sections of the people.

This festival is very ancient. Known originally as ‘Holika’ it has been mentioned in very early religious works such as Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-sutras and Kathaka-grhya-sutras. It must have therefore existed several centuries before Christ. It was at first actually a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was the deity worshipped by them.

There are two ways of reckoning a lunar month: purnimanta and amanta. In the former, the first day starts after the full moon; and in the latter, after the new moon. Though the latter reckoning is more common now, the former was very much in vogue in the earlier days. According to this purnimanta reckoning, Phalguna purnima was the last day of the year and the new year heralding the Vasanta-rtu (with spring starting from next day). Thus the full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, announcing the commencement of the spring season. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival: Vasanta-Mahotsava and Kama-Mahotsava.

According to the stories in the Puranas and various local legends, this day is important for three reasons.

  1. It was on this day that Lord Siva opened his third eye and reduced Kamadeva (the god of love, Cupid or Eros) to ashes. 

  2. It was on this day that Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakasyapu, who tried to kill the child devotee Prahlad by taking him on her lap and sitting on a pyre of wood which was set ablaze. Holika was burnt to ashes while Prahlad remained unscathed! 

  3. It was again on this day that an ogress called Dhundhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Prthu (or Raghu) was made to run away for life, by the shouts and pranks of the mischievous boys. Though she had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, this – noise, shouts, abuses and pranks of boys – was a chink in her armour due to a curse of Lord Siva. The day itself came to be called ‘Adada’ or ‘Holika’ since then. 

There are practically no religious observances for this day like fasting or worship. Generally a log of wood will be kept in a prominent public place on the Vasantapanchami day (Magha Sukla Panchami), almost 40 days before the Holi Festival. An image of Holika with child Prahlada in her lap is also kept on the log. Holika’s image is made of combustible materials whereas Prahlada’s image is made of non-combustible ones. People go on throwing twigs of trees and any combustible material they can spare, on to that log which gradually grows into a sizable heap. On the night of Phalguna Purnima, it is set alight in a simple ceremony with the Raksoghna Mantras of the Rgveda (4.4.1-15; 10.87.1-25 and so on) being sometimes chanted to ward off all evil spirits. (Coconuts and coins are thrown into this bonfire).The next morning the ashes from the bonfire are collected as prasad (consecrated material) and smeared on the limbs of the body. Singed coconuts, if any are also collected and eaten.

In some houses the image of Kamadeva is kept in the yard and a simple worship is offered. A mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste is partaken as the prasad

The day- Phalgun krsna pratipad – is observed as a day of revelry especially by throwing on one another gulal or coloured water or perfumed coloured powder. Throwing of mud or earth dust was prevalent in the earlier days also, but among the low culture groups.

Instead of the gay and frenzied celebrations that are witnessed elsewhere in the country, Bengal observes this festival in a quiet and dignified manner as Dolapurnima or Dolayatra (the festival of the swing). The festival, said to have been initiated by the king Indradyumna in Vrndavana, is spread over 3 or 5 days, starting from the sukla Chaturdasi of Phalguna. A celebration in honour of Agni and worship of Govinda (Krsna) in image on a swing are the important features. The fire kindled on the first day is to be preserved till the last day. The swing is to be rocked 21 times at the end of the festival.

The day is also celebrated as the birthday of Sri Krsna Chaitanya (A.D. 1486-1533), mostly in Bengal, as also in Puri (Orissa), Mathura and Vrndavan (in Uttar Pradesh).


Dates : Holi is celebrated on the day after the full moon in early March every year.

Legend : Originally a festival to celebrate good harvests and fertility of the land, Holi has several traditional links with legends. According to one popular legend, the word Holi is derived from the demoness, Holika. She was the sister of Hiranyakashyap, a demon king, who having defeated the Gods proclaimed his own supremacy over the Universe. Enraged by his son, Prahlad's ardent devotion to Vishnu, Hiranyakashyap decided to punish him. He took the help of his sister, Holika, who was immune to damage from fire. Holika carried Prahlad into the fire but a divine intervention destroyed her and saved Prahlad. Thus Holi is celebrated to mark the burning of the evil Holika. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, and is commemorated by burning huge bonfires on the eve of Holi as its symbolic representation. 

In many parts of India however, Kama - the God of love, is the presiding deity. According to an ancient legend, Shiva was deep in meditation, oblivious to Parvati, the daughter of the Himalayas who sought his love. Kama (the Indian version of Cupid) shot an arrow towards Shiva, thus disturbing his meditation. Shiva was enraged and destroyed Kama, reducing him to a heap of ashes. Kama was later resurrected by the intercession of Parvati.

Yet another legend holds that Holi is the same as the female demon Putana, who tried to kill the child Krishna by making him suckle her poisoned breasts. Krishna however, sucked very hard and drained the life out of Putana. Popular legend adds that the body disappeared and the cowherds of Mathura burnt her with an effigy. Since then, Mathura has been the main centre for Holi.

Practice: Holi announces the arrival of spring and the passing of winter. Young and old alike are drenched with colors. On Holi, people are suddenly caught unawares with colors being poured from the terraces and roofs of houses, bursting balloons, or long pistons squirting colored water. People in small groups are seen singing, dancing and throwing colors on each other. They also eat food laced with bhang, an aphrodisiac that leaves one feeling light and happy.

Holi is celebrated throughout India but it is more predominant in North India. Preparations for the festival begin a week ahead. Houses are given a fresh coat of color, beautiful floral designs are drawn at the entrance, and powdered colors and spraying pistons are bought. 

In earlier days the colors were extracted from a flower that blossoms only during this festival. And the pistons were made of bamboo sticks. But over the years colors are made artificially and pistons made of different materials are available in various designs. 

Usually people burn the Holika tree on the eve of Holi. A bonfire is lit in the evenings, with an effigy of Holika. Brahmins circle the fire seven times, reciting religious verses. Folklore and dances are performed around the fire to welcome the new season. On the morning of Holi, people have fun with colored water. Men, women and children all participate in this merry making. In the evening, youngsters play with dry colors and seek elders' blessings.

Feasts are prepared for Holi, be it Dahi Wada or a preparation of raw jackfruit or the traditional Malpua (a dessert made of maida, milk, sugar and dry fruits). Holi is as important a festival as Dusserah and Diwali. It is also distinguished in certain regions like Bengal where it is marked by performances of Dolothsava in which the image of Lord Vishnu is swayed in decorated swings and colored powder is offered to the God.

In South India, Holi is not celebrated with as much fervour as in North India. But the spirit of communal harmony is very high. People indulge inmerry-making, and playing with colored waters is a common sight. Peasants visit homes singing folklore and asking for small tips. 

This animated festival is also associated with the immortal love of Krishna and Radha, and hence, Holi is spread over 16 days in Vrindavan as well as Mathura - the two cities with which Lord Krishna shared a deep affiliation. Apart from the usual fun with coloured powder and water, Holi is marked by vibrant processions, which are accompanied by folk songs, dances and a general sense of abandoned vitality

The color, noise and entertainment that accompanies the celebration of Holi bears witness to a feeling of oneness and sense of brother-hood. No other festival brings home the lesson of spiritual and social harmony as well as the festival of Holi!