An Extravaganza Called Holi!

holi.jpgHoli – The vibrant multi coloured fusion of millions of colours and shades that delights one and all. It is a feel-good festival. The streets are coloured with reds and yellows and greens and magentas and god only knows what not! Your neighbour ceases to be a Mr. Verma or Mr. Kulkarni. He is just another face rendered unrecognisable by the plethora of colours that he adorns. As you move forward to hug him, all you see is a set of white teeth smiling back at you. There are rangolis on the step of every second house. During holi, the only colour that is not allowed is white!

The legend of holi is just as colourful as the festival. Everyone has heard the demise of Holika in the fire. Nevertheless, I believe, it would be a crime not to recount this delicious myth, especially on the occasion of holi. Also, it would be best to recount it the way our elders would recount to us!

King Hiranyakashyap was a proud and egoistic man. And why not? After all, he had achieved the impossible. He had finally caught that ever-elusive feather that, propelled by the gentle zephyr, flies out of your reach just as you think you have it. After years of tapasya, he had earned a boon so fantastic that it would make your mouth water just to hear about it. He had achieved immortality! The boon made him impossible to be killed by man or animal, during day or night, in air or on the ground or inside or outside of any dwelling.

But he also harboured a deep grudge. He hated Vishnu. He hated him to the extent of madness. And how could he not, Vishnu had slaughtered his brother in battle. But tragedy of all tragedies, the son born to him grew to be the most devoted and ardent follower of Vishnu. Vishnu flowed in his veins. He was the ever-present truth in his life.

How dare he! How dare he worship Vishnu? After all Hiranyakashyap aspired to replace him. “I am the only king”, he thundered to his son. All Prahlad could do was to look helplessly with bewilderment and pity in his eyes. All attempts to explain to him the eternal truths fell on deaf ears. No matter what, the King could not forget his need for revenge. To him, his son was a disappointment and his constant refusal to worship him was an irritant. He had to be gotten rid off. The king tried to throw Prahlad from cliffs and have him run over by horses but the boy, with Vishnu’s blessings, would always return unharmed. The king’s fury knew no bounds. Something had to be done.

And then Holika, his sister, came to him. She whispered evil words into her brother’s ears, and his eyes gleamed and a wicked smile registered on his face. He called Prahlad over to him and taunted him. He challenged him to sit in a fire on Holika’s lap. “If Vishnu cares about you, he will save you”. Prahlad agreed. His faith was placed in Vishnu. Wasn’t it impossible for Holika to survive the licking flames? Unknown to everyone but the king, she had acquired a divyavastra, a fabric that could not be burned.

So the arrangements were made. Prahlad climbed the pyre as it was lit and sat on the lap of his aunt who was clad in the blessed fabric. The king smacked his lips with ecstacy. The thorn in his flesh was about to be pulled and seeing his son die in the flames would be the perfect balm for his wounds. But wait. The screams emanating from the fire were not masculine and certainly not his son’s. It was Holika! Cursed by Vishnu, she burnt to her death. The king went mad. He was frothing and foaming with rage and started walking towards his son. There was murder in his eyes. Suddenly, the earth shook. The pillar next to him exploded with unbelievable force and from it, an unearthly creature emerged. It was half man and half lion. The Narsingh dragged Hiranyakashyap to the arch of the doorway and ate through his flesh. The king was dead. Under the archway, which was neither inside or outside any dwelling, in the twilight he died on Narsingh’s lap neither on ground or in the air. His boon was ineffective in saving him. Good had triumphed over evil. And to this day, we celebrate holi to pay a tribute to this great triumph.

A most pleasurable tale isn’t it? A gleaming gem set right in the middle of Indian mythology!

Over time, holi has become the most popular festival celebrated in India, rivalling even diwali. It is a rare occasion when the cross, the black dot on the forehead and the saffron tilak are hidden from view under the colours. Boundaries based on caste and ethnicity are dissolved just for a day as we splash colour and water over everyone we meet, with a smile on our face and good intent in our hearts. Perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a day when we play holi all day long and its spirit stays with us the entire year!

Rishabh Agnihotri

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