Holi is a festival of colours. It is generally celebrated for two days, but in some parts of the country, it is celebrated for about ten days. Besides colour powder and water, dust and cow-dung are also sprayed and applied on faces. Of the two days, the first is the celebration of Holika Dahan (or the burning of Holika). It is celebrated in the memory of Prahlad. He was the son of King Hiranyakashyap. He did not stop worshipping God even after many tortures. His father wanted Prahlad to worship him (his father) and consider him God, which Prahlad would never agree. So he wanted to kill Prahlad. He tried many methods, but could not succeed. Holika, the king’s sister, had an incombustible shawl. She wrapped herself in the shawl and took Prahlad in her lap and entered the fire. Just then the wind started to blow hard, and in no time, the shawl was wrapped round Prahlad and Holika was burnt alive, while Prahlad emerged harmless.
Holika Dahan is arranged at crossings throughout the north in the memory of this incident. People parch green wheat in this fire and distribute among their friends and relatives as the mark of the coming harvest season. On the next day is celebrated the coming alive of Prahlad with colours. The people are so happy that for hours together they play with colours in the streets. This occasion is called Dulhendi. It is rather gleeful to see the children and young boys and girls who visit their friends in drenched clothes to embrace them and have their share of sweets and snacks. It is an occasion of love and affection when all animosities are forgotten and all embrace one another. Colours are sprinkled on the devotees in the temples too but the revelries are not restricted in temples alone. The fun and frolic suppresses the distinction of age and devotion. It is a festival of the common people and symbolises love, affection and unity.
Holi is celebrated in the whole of India, but it is something special in the rural north. People anxiously wait for fun as soon as the harvest season is at their doorstep. Wheat and gram are the main crops. The fun and frolic continues for a few days during the season. The harvest brings joy to the farmer’s heart. He gushes it out in the form of a riot of colours and songs. The ‘Braj’ area of Uttar Pradesh is the centre of revelries. It has a great importance for the tribals too. They sing and dance for the whole night together.
Ekadashi (11th day) of the month of Falgun, known as Rangdashi, is the harbinger of Braj revelries. Even foreigners come to enjoy the fun of Lathmar Holi (Holi played by beating with sticks) at Nandgaon. Keep a distance from the revelers lest you should be in the melee. It is a frightful, yet pleasant competition between men and women. The men are ready with their pichkaris (or pipe pumps) and the women with their lathis (batons and long sticks). Men try to drench the clothes of women with coloured water while women beat them with their lathis. Men have shields on their heads to save themselves. There is no ill will, no feeling of revenge. Some people may suffer minor wounds, but they are the wounds of affection.
The loud cry of ‘Holi hai’ rends the air. People with coloured water and gulal (coloured powder) move round the markets and village lanes leaving none. Everybody is their target. No one can dare oppose. It is Holi. If your face is not painted and clothes not drenched with bright coloured water this day, when will they be? It is the only day of the year when all restrictions are withdrawn and revelers are let loose on whosoever comes their way. Colours apart, the faces may be painted with oily paints and even charcoal. One may call it just indecent, unsophisticated, unruly, uncultured, but who cares!
The revelries come to an end by the afternoon, after which people take a bath and then they set out to meet their friends and relatives with dry colour powder to wish them the festival.