Holi (Hindi: होली) or Phagwah (Bhojpuri) is a popular, Hindu spring festival, observed in India, also called the Festival of Colours. In West Bengal, it is known as Dolyatra (Doljatra) or Boshonto Utshob ("spring festival").
On the first day, bonfires are lit at night to signify burning Holika.
On the second day, known as Dhulandi, people spend the day throwing coloured powder and water at each other. The spring season, during which the weather changes, is believed to cause viral fever and cold. Thus, the playful throwing of the coloured powders has a medicinal significance: the colours are traditionally made of Neem, Kumkum, Haldi, Bilva, and other medicinal herbs prescribed by Āyurvedic doctors. A special drink called thandai is prepared, sometimes containing bhang (Cannabis sativa). People invite each other to their houses for feasts and celebrations later in the evening.
Rangapanchami occurs a few days later on a Panchami (fifth day of the full moon), marking the end of festivities involving colours.
Although a Hindu celebration, other religions in India celebrate it as well. In fact, some of the best Holi celebrations are said to happen in Punjab, where Hindus and Sikhs celebrate together. This celebration in Punjab typically involves Dholi's and other musical instruments as kids and adults celebrate.
Holi takes place over two days in the later part of February or early March. As per the Hindu calendar, it falls on the Phalgun Purnima (or Pooranmashi, Full Moon). (In 2007, Holi was celebrated on 3 March, the burning of Holika was on 4 March and the Dhulendi on 5 March.)
In Vaishnava Theology, Hiranyakashipu is the king of demons, and he had been granted a boon by Brahma, which made it almost impossible for him to be killed. The boon was due to his long penance, after which he had demanded that he not be killed "during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or on sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra". Consequently, he grew arrogant, and attacked the Heavens and the Earth. He demanded that people stop worshipping gods and start praying to him.
Despite this, Hiranyakashipu's own son, Prahlad, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from Hiranyakashipu, Prahlad continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. He was poisoned but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and survived. All of Hiranyakashipu's attempts to kill his son failed. Finally, he ordered young Prahlad to sit on a pyre on the lap of his sister, Holika, who could not die by fire by virtue of a shawl which would prevent fire affecting the person wearing it. Prahlad readily accepted his father's orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as the shawl flew from Holika, who then was burnt to death, while Prahlad survived unharmed, after the shawl moved to cover him. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.
It is also said that later Lord Vishnu came in the form of a Narasimha (who is half-man and half-lion) and killed Hiranyakashipu at dusk (which was neither day nor night), on the steps of the porch of his house (which was neither inside the house nor outside) by restraining him on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth) and mauling him with his claws (which are neither astra nor shastra).
In Vrindavan and Mathura, where Lord Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days (until Rangpanchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna). Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the festival by playing pranks on the gopis here. Krishna is believed to be complained to his mother about the contrast between his dark colour and his consort Radha's fair colour. Krishna's mother decided to apply colour to Radha's face. The celebrations officially usher in spring, the celebrated season of love.
There is another story about the origin of holi. Kamadeva is a god of love. Kama's body was destroyed when he shot his weapon at Shiva in order to disrupt his penance and help Parvati to marry Shiva. Shiva then opened his third eye, the gaze of which was so powerful that Kama's body was reduced to ashes. For the sake of Kama's wife Rati (passion), Shiva restored him, but only as a mental image, representing the true emotional and mental state of love rather than physical lust. The Holi bonfire is believed to be celebrated in commemoration of this event.
Religions that observe Holi
Although Holi is mainly observed by Hindus, it is also observed by Sikhs. At Anandpur Sahib, where holi is called Hola Mohalla, Sikhs and Hindus observe Holi together at this sacred Sikh location. Holi is also observed together in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and other Sikh populated cities, where Hindus and Sikhs can come together and observe holi.
Rituals of Holi
In this festival main emphasis is laid on the burning of Holika or lighting of Holi. The origin of the traditional lighting of Holi is attributed by some to the burning of demonesses like Holika, Holaka and Putana who troubled little children or to the burning of Madan according to others.
An environmentally sensitive Holi
While traditionally Holi was a festival that celebrated the coming of spring, and therefore was deeply connected to natural cycles, these days its social significance has overtaken its roots in Nature. Several groups are now proposing a return to more natural ways of celebrating Holi.
The three main issues around Holi are related to the use of toxic chemical colours, burning of wood, and the wasteful use of water.
Toxic impacts of chemical colours
Originally, the colours that were used to celebrate Holi, came from the flowers of trees that blossomed during spring, such as the Indian Coral Tree and the Flame of the Forest, both of which have bright red flowers. These and several other blossoms provided the raw material from which the brilliant shades of Holi colours were made. Most of these trees also had medicinal properties and were beneficial to the skin. Over the years, with the disappearance of trees in urban areas, these natural colours came to be replaced by industrial dyes manufactured through chemical processes.
Around 2001, two environmental groups called Toxics link and Vatavaran, based in Delhi, did a study on the contents of these chemical colours and published its results in a fact sheet on Holi. This research revealed that Holi colours come in three forms; pastes, dry colours and water colours.
The pastes contain very toxic chemicals that can have severe health effects as follows:
Black contains lead oxide and can cause renal failure. Green contains copper sulphate and can cause eye allergy, puffiness and temporary blindness. Silver contains aluminium bromide which is carcinogenic. Blue contains prussian blue which can lead to contact dermatitis. Red contains mercury sulphate which is highly toxic and can cause skin cancer. The dry colours, commonly known as gulals, have two components – a colourant that is toxic and a base which could be either asbestos or silica, both of which cause health problems. Heavy metals contained in the colourants can cause asthma, skin diseases and adversely affect the eyes.
Wet colours, mostly use gentian violet as a colour concentrate which can cause skin discolouration and dermatitis.
These days, Holi colours are sold loosely, on the roads, by small traders who often do not know the source. Sometimes, the colours come in boxes that specifically mention For industrial use only.
Following the publication of these studies several environmental groups took up the cause to encourage people to return to a more natural way of celebrating Holi. Amongst these, Navdanya, Delhi published a book called Abir Gulal, which spoke of the biodiversity that was the source of natural colours. Groups such as Development Alternatives, Delhi and Kalpavriksh, Pune have developed educational tools to teach children simple ways of making their own natural Holi colours. The CLEAN India campaign has been teaching children how to make beautiful natural colours.
The Holi bonfire
The burning of fuel wood to create the bonfire for Holika dahan presents another serious environmental problem. According to a news article, studies done in the state of Gujarat reveal that each bonfire uses around 100 kg of wood, and considering that approximately 30,000 bonfires are lit in the state of Gujarat just for one season, this leads to a staggering amount of wood.
Groups such as Sadvichar Parivar are now advocating one symbolic community fire, rather than several smaller bonfires across the city as a way to reduce wood consumption. Others are also suggesting that these fires be lit using waste material rather than wood. In 2007 Holi DeshGujarat.Com telecasted live Holi Darshan online.
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