Originally known as ‘Holika’, the festival of colours – Holi is an ancient festival of India whose meaning is believed to have changed over the years. It is said that celebration of Holi has long been in tradition, even the birth of Christ and many historians also believe that all Aryans, specifically in the Eastern part of India, celebrated the festival. While earlier it was known to be a special rite that married Hindu women in India performed for the happiness and well-being of their families, by worshipping the full moon (Raka), the festival also finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of old temples like the one at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar. The painting there shows a joyous scene of Holi depicting a prince and his princess standing with maids around waiting with syringes or pichkaris to smear coloured water on the royal couple.
However, the literal meaning of the word ‘Holi’ is ‘burning’ and the mythology of the celebration of Holi comes from the story of Prahlad and his evil father, demon king Hiranyakashipu. The demon king wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him as he considered himself invincible after obtaining a boon that gave him five special powers: he could not be killed by either a human being or an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons) and neither on land nor in water or air. His hunger for power and obvious arrogance after the attainment of the boon made him consider himself equivalent to God but to his great disappointment, his son Prahlad chose to worship Vishnu.
This did not go down well with his father who tried to inflict severe punishments on Prahlad, none of which had any effect on the boy’s devotion and belief. Finally, Hiaranyakashyap commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap as she was blessed with a cloak that was immune to fire. With the intent to wear the cloak which will save her from the fire while Prahlad would burn and eventually die, she sat on the burning pyre with Prahlad but as the fire raged, the cloak flew from Holika and wrapped itself around Prahlad. Hence, Holika paid a price for her sinister desires by burning to death while Prahlad was saved for his extreme devotion and later Vishnu, taking the form of Narasimha (half human and half lion), at the time of dusk (neither night nor day), took Hiranyakashipu at the doorstep (which is neither inside nor outside), placed him on his lap (neither on ground nor in the air) and killed the demon king with his lion claws (no weapon).
The Holika bonfire that is traditionally burned each year on the night before Holi, is symbolic of the triumph of good over evil and the victory of Prahlad over Hiranyakashipu.
Another legend associated with the celebration of Holi is related to Krishna but is more of an urban legend than any text prescribed in the Puranas. Krishna who was dark-skinned due to drinking the poisoned breast milk of the she-demon Putana, was apparently despaired that he was dark in colour, unlike his beloved Radha and other gopis who were fair. He questioned his mother about his skin-colour who then told him in a jest to approach Radha and colour her face with any colour. Krishna did the same and this playful colouring of Radha and other gopis faces gradually gained popularity with the people and became a tradition that is commemorated as Holi.