Ask anyone from India about Holi and the answer will be, ‘Colours. More colours. Wet colours. Dry colours.’ There will be the other elements that form the festival revealing slowly only later, after the enthusiastic orgasmic intonation of colours is over and done with.

So yes, there is more to Holi than just colours. There are legends connected to it where one goes right into the heart of Kamadev (Cupid), or choose to play games with Lord Krishna and Radha, or get emotionally attached to the story of Holika and Prahalad, or look at the link with Dhundi, the ogress. There are different ways of celebrating Holi… and with so many States in India, the formats followed can be entirely different. There are specific pujas that can be performed where, for instance, Badkoolas (handmade from cowdung) are made and strung on a rassi (coconut fibre string). The cuisine has its own Holi-link with recipes that include sugarcane juice and dishes that include the inimitable dahiwada, poori, dried moong dal etc. So wherever one is during Holi, one is bound to get a refreshingly charming version of the festival.

‘But there must be some common features that connect Holi and the celebrations?’

‘Yes, for sure. This festival is celebrated on the Poornima (Full moon) of the month of Falgun. Falgun is the eleventh month in the Hindu Calendar (Vikram Samvat) and announces spring. The first of Falgun coincides with the 13th of February of the Gregorian Calendar and this is when Holi is celebrated. So the dates for Holi will be different each year.’ But let me tell you that the modern day Indian simply follows the date for Holi that is marked on their Gregorian calendar or the date that is declared a holiday by the State government.

The other features of Holi that are similar everywhere, include:

  1. The underlying philosophy of the triumph of good over evil. And you thought it was Diwali where Rama vanquished Ravana to symbolise the victory of good over evil. Well, there is enough evil in the world to make many festivals happy.
  2. This is a community festival which attempts to dissolve boundaries wherever it can. ‘Colour my heart and mind with the colours of your goodness,’ people seem to say to each other as they spray them with gulal and abeer!

I showed this text to my wife and she immediately said, ‘But you’re making Holi seem so serious and complex.’

‘Isn’t all this correct?’ I asked. Specky looked at me and said, ‘Well, it is accurate but seems so unreal. Holi is more like a Bollywood party where colours, loud music, and unrestrained fun go in and out of the tradition of bhang and bawdy interactions!’

Well, I agreed with her and decided to take this aspect of Holi in another post. I really wanted to talk about a few legends in this post as they are so much a part of Holi and so few people know all the connected stories.

The katha of Bhakt Prahlad

Hiranyakashapu is the evil king in this katha or story. He has a boon of invincibility from the Gods that makes him arrogant and full of evil. His sister Holika also has a boon to remain unscarred by fire. However, Hiranyakashapu’s son Prahlad, who is a devotee of Lord Vishnu, appears to be getting more popular than him and the king decides to get rid of this competition. He asks Holika to sit in a massive fire, taking Prahlad with her. Prahlad invokes the Gods and asks for divine intervention… and Holika gets incinerated leaving prahlad safe! The story doesn’t end here and there is another interesting incident telling us how the king is ultimately killed.

But the reference to Holi is the incineration of Holika… or Holika Dahan… and this is why we have the bonfire on the eve of Holi. A few diehard fans of Holi still hurl cow dung into the fire and shout obscenities at it, as if they were hurling them at Holika.

The ogress Dhundhi and the customary abuses during Holi

This story is aimed at justifying ‘shouting inanities’, ‘hurling abuses’, ‘playing pranks’ during this festival. The story simply tells us how Dhundi, an ogress, is chased away by village youngsters in the Kingdom of Prthu when they shout inanities & hurl abuses that become the only weapon to pierce the armour of invincibility that Dhundi had been granted by the Gods. This chink in her armour was because of a curse by Lord Shiva.

The Kamadev myth

Some people believe that it was on this day that Kamadev or the God of love was burnt to death when Lord Shiva opened his third eye on him. This was all due to the machinations of lord Indra… and Kamadev was reborn as the son of Lord Krishna… but that’s another story. During Holi, people offer a mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste to pacify lord Shiva.

The story of Radha-Krishna

This is the charming story of baby Krishna asking his mother Yashoda, ‘Why am I so dark and Radha so fair?’ Yashoda has the ingenuity of a mother and asks her child to apply colour on Radha’s face and see it change. So Krishna does it with all the Gopis in Vrindavan and is happy. Thus Holi is a festival where the application of colours actually makes us all so similar! There are a lot of romantic tales woven around the love of Krishna and Radha… and we also find a lot of Bollywood songs based on this love and filmed with the background of Holi celebrations.

Yes, Holi has a lot of legends linked to it. The ones that I have talked about are the more interesting ones.




Article published in ‘The Huffington Post‘ dated 06 March 2015:

2015_03_06_HuffPost India_legends of holi

2015_03_06_HuffPost India_legends of holi




Arvind Passey
06 March 2015