Across the globe, spring is the time of color, revelry and new beginnings. In snow-ridden countries, there are festivals that celebrate the onset of spring, that's their little patch of sunshine for just a few months. Like everything else about the culture of India, Holi too has a history of a few thousand years.
In its literal sense, the word Holi signifies the act of burning. The night before the colors is celebrated. There is a public and family bonfire that is supposed to use all our base desires and evils in each of us, as its fuel.
A story goes that a few thousand years ago, there lived a demon king in India, Hiranyakashyap. His younger brother had been killed by LordVishnu and he wanted revenge. He played havoc with the three worlds, the earth, heaven and the netherworld. This king had a pious son Prahlad, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. Much to his father's chagrin, the young boy continued in his devotion, and the father planned to kill his son. He asked his sister Holika (another demon), for help. She had been granted a boon of immortality and immunity from fire, so they planned for her to sit on a pyre with Prahlad on her lap, hoping he would be burnt to ashes. But Prahlad's powers of devotion actually reduced Holika to ashes.
Around the time of the year when winters in Northern India recede and the warmth of the day increases, a young boy would play with the girls and other milk maidens of his village, drenching their clothes with colored water, breaking their pots so they could do little to save themselves. This young boy was Lord Krishna, who lived in the North Western province of Braj, in India, about 4500 years ago. He was known to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and made no bones about his power. At the same time, it did not make him grave or vain. Krishna is the quintessential young man. Right from childhood, he was known to steal butter and yogurt from their community kitchens, and the women of the village were indulgent enough to let him.
Krishna's pranks grew with age and it was the turn of the village girls to be lured. In the traditional society, where girls and boys were kept totally apart, Holi was one day when every young heart danced with joy. The festival thus, was not about spirituality, but about life. Some say it was the wise way of Krishna who believed in living life well, was no ascetic himself, to ensure a peaceful community life, a harmonious relationship between opposite genders, and reduce stress from daily life.
And today, thousands of years later, his descendents celebrate the festival in the same manner. Over the years, colors have changed. They used to be vegetable dyes, now there are all the varieties of pigments available.
The Holi festival has spread to all parts of India, even to areas that in Krishna's days, had Dravidian cultures and where the inhabitants were Mongol races. Nowadays, it is also celebrated overseas where a large number of Indians live. Over the last 4500 years, Holi has become one of India's main festivals. However, in Braj, where Krishna started it, the festivity has a life of its own.
Traditionally on the auspicious occasion of Holi, in the town of Barsana, women cover their heads and hide their faces and beat their men folk with long wooden sticks. This activity starts a week before the actual festival and the best part is, men cannot retaliate! Men have to resort to padded clothes and also manage to escape, for if they get caught by the females of the town, they are led away, thrashed, made to dress in feminine clothes and dance.
A few days before Holi, men from Nandgaon visit Barsana (both are towns in Uttar Pradesh), where women hurl sticks at them. While some men can guard themselves and escape from the beating, others are captured. It is said that Lord Krishna visited Radha's village on this day and teased her, after which women of Barsana chased him away. In the form of Lath mar Holi, this tradition continues even today.
The next day of Holi, there are clouds of color, as men take their own in catching the women and coloring them at will. Traditional dyes are used, especially those made from the flame of forest flower, called `palaash' or, `tesu'. It is only on the following day that the rest of the country celebrates Holi, in a much milder and meek manner. Everyone just splashes colored water over everyone else, eats and drinks, and celebrates the day.