March 11, 2013
Holika Dahan or the lighting of bonfire takes place on the eve of Holi. The day is also popularly called 'Chhoti Holi' or the 'Small Holi'.The bigger event - play with the colour takes place on the next 'big' day.
Holika Dahan is an extremely popular tradition and is celebrated with fervour all across the country and is symbolic of triumph of good over evil. There are numerous legends associated with this ancient tradition and it is difficult to pin-point as to when actually the tradition started.
A Brief History
Holikotsav finds a mention in the Vedas and Puranas. It is stated that during the Vedic period the sacred fire of Holi was burnt amidst the chanting of specific mantras which were intended for the destruction of the demonic forces. It is also said that on this very day Vaishwadev oblation commenced in which offerings of wheat, gram and oat were made to the sacrificial fire. Read more about History of Holi
Some scholars believe that Holikotsav is named after fried cereals or parched grains called 'Holka' in Sanskrit. These parched grains were used to perform hawana (a fire ritual).The vibhuti (sacred ashes) obtained from this ritual was smeared on the forehead of those who participated in the ritual to keep away evil. This vibhuti is called Bhumi Hari. Till date there is a tradition of offering wheat and oat into the Holika fire.
According to Narad Purana, this day is celebrated in the memory of Prahlad's victory and the defeat of his aunt 'Holika'. The legend has it that there once existed a mighty demon king by the name of Hiranyakashyap who wished that everybody in his kingdom should worship him. His son, Prahlad became a follower of Lord Naarayana. Hiranyakashyap instructed his sister, Holika to sit in the burning fire with Prahlad in lap. She was blessed with a boon, as a result of which no fire could burn her. But the opposite happened, Prahlad survived and Holika was charred to death. Thus 'holi' is celebrated to commemorate the victory of virtue over evil.
It is because of this event, Holika (a bonfire) is burnt every year on Holi. The burning of the effigy of Holika is called Holika Dahan.
Another legend mentioned in the 'Bhavishya Purana' is also considered to be related to the festival of Holi. The legend goes back to the kingdom of Raghu, where lived an ogress called Dhundhi who used to trouble children but was finally chased away by them on the day of Holi. This is said to be the reason why the tradition of Holika Dahan is so popular amongst children and why they are allowed to play pranks on the day.
There is also a specific way in which Holika Dahan takes place. A log of wood is kept in a prominent public place on the Vasant Panchami day, almost 40 days before the Holi Festival. People go on throwing twigs, dried leaves, branches of trees left through the winter besides any other combustible material they can spare, on to that log which gradually grows into a sizable heap. On the day of Holika Dahan an effigy of Holika with child Prahlad in her lap is kept on the logs. Usually, Holika's effigy is made of combustible materials, whereas, Prahlad's effigy is made of non-combustible one. On the night of Phalguna Purnima, it is set alight amidst the chanting of Rakshoghna Mantras of the Rig Veda (4.4.1-15; 10.87.1-25 and so on) to ward off all evil spirits.
Next morning the ashes from the bonfire are collected as prasad and smeared on the limbs of the body. If spared by the fire coconuts are also collected and eaten.
Metaphorically though, the fire is meant to signify the destruction of evil - the burning of the 'Holika' - a mythological character and the triumph of good as symbolised by Prahlad. However, the heat from the fire also depicts that winter is behind and the hot summer days are ahead.
Next day after Holika Dahan is called Dhuleti, when play with colours actually takes place.
It may be noted that in some places like Bihar and UP Holika Dahan is also known as 'Samvatsar Dahan'. The concept of Samvatsar New Year varies in different provinces of our country. In some provinces the month commences from 'Krishna Paksha' while in others it commences from 'Shukla Paksha'. For Krishna Paksha, the year ends on 'Purnima' of the month of Phalgun and thus the new year begins the next day - Chaitra, first day of the Krishna Paksha.
Holi is an ancient festival of India and was originally known as 'Holika'. The festivals finds a detailed description in early religious works such as Jaimini's Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras. Historians also believe that Holi was celebrated by all Aryans but more so in the Eastern part of India.
It is said that Holi existed several centuries before Christ. However, the meaning of the festival is believed to have changed over the years. Earlier it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was worshiped.
Calculating the Day of Holi
There are two ways of reckoning a lunar month- 'purnimanta' and 'amanta'. In the former, the first day starts after the full moon; and in the latter, after the new moon. Though the amanta reckoning is more common now, the purnimanta was very much in vogue in the earlier days.
According to this purnimanta reckoning, Phalguna purnima was the last day of the year and the new year heralding the Vasanta-ritu (with spring starting from next day). Thus the full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, announcing the commencement of the spring season. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival - Vasanta-Mahotsava and Kama-Mahotsava.
Reference in Ancient Texts and Inscriptions
Besides having a detailed description in the Vedas and Puranas such as Narad Purana and Bhavishya Purana, the festival of Holi finds a mention in Jaimini Mimansa. A stone incription belonging to 300 BC found at Ramgarh in the province of Vindhya has mention of Holikotsav on it. King Harsha, too has mentioned about holikotsav in his work Ratnavali that was written during the 7th century.
The famous Muslim tourist - Ulbaruni too has mentioned about holikotsav in his historical memories. Other Muslim writers of that period have mentioned, that holikotsav were not only celebrated by the Hindus but also by the Muslims.
Reference in Ancient Paintings and Murals
The festival of Holi also finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of old temples. A 16th century panel sculpted in a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, shows a joyous scene of Holi. The painting depicts a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids waiting with syringes or pichkaris to drench the Royal couple in coloured water.
A 16th century Ahmednagar painting is on the theme of Vasanta Ragini - spring song or music. It shows a royal couple sitting on a grand swing, while maidens are playing music and spraying colors with pichkaris.
There are a lot of other paintings and murals in the temples of medieval India which provide a pictoral description of Holi. For instance, a Mewar painting (circa 1755) shows the Maharana with his courtiers. While the ruler is bestowing gifts on some people, a merry dance is on, and in the center is a tank filled with colored water. Also, a Bundi miniature shows a king seated on a tusker and from a balcony above some damsels are showering gulal (colored powders) on him.
Legends and Mythology
In some parts of India, specially in Bengal and Orissa, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1533). However, the literal meaning of the word 'Holi' is 'burning'. There are various legends to explain the meaning of this word, most prominent of all is the legend associated with demon king Hiranyakashyap.
Hiranyakashyap wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana. Hiaranyakashyap commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result she paid a price for her sinister desires, while Prahlad was saved by the grace of the god for his extreme devotion. The festival, therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion.
Legend of Lord Krishna is also associated with play with colors as the Lord started the tradition of play with colours by applying colour on his beloved Radha and other gopis. Gradually, the play gained popularity with the people and became a tradition.
There are also a few other legends associated with the festival - like the legend of Shiva and Kaamadeva and those of Ogress Dhundhi and Pootana. All depict triumph of good over evil - lending a philosophy to the festival.
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