Tue, 08 Mar 2005

'Holi': A colorful, boisterou Indian festival

Joyeeta Dutta Ray, Contributor, Jakarta

Visit India in March and chances are you will be greeted by a riot of color.

The colors of flowers, but also of streets crowded with people and vehicles.

Around the time of the full moon, the colors of India become brighter still. After all, it is time for the country's most vibrant festival, Holi.

Holi day is an explosion of color from all sides. A stranger may appear from nowhere to embrace you, leaving you red-faced. As you stroll through the streets, a tender child may acknowledge your presence with a well-aimed water balloon.

The wisest thing at such a time is to do as the Indians do -- discover the joys of dressing down and letting go.

Holi is a day of merriness without inhibitions. Bachelors may look forward to it as a chance to stroke a young woman's cheek, watch her blush, and escape unscathed. Such are the perks of applying colored powder, commonly called gulal.

This is also the time to resolve differences. Three embraces are all it takes.

Origins of 'Holi'

Despite all the water used in the festival, Holi is more related to fire. The word literally means burning. Holi is an ancient festival of the Aryans, mentioned in 4,500-year-old Sanskrit texts.

At that time, Holi was named Vasantotsav or the celebration of spring. These days, the day has other associations that differ from region to region.

In the north, it is believed that the arrogant king, Hiranyakashipu, installed himself as a god-like figure.

When his pious son, Prahlad, worshiped Lord Vishnu, the king saw it as an act of defiance and attempted to slay Prahlad -- but failed every time, due to divine intervention.

The king's sister, Holika -- said to be immune to burning -- seated the boy on her lap in a fire. However, Prahlad emerged unscathed while his aunt burned to death.

She sought Prahlad's forgiveness prior to her demise, who honored her by naming a day after her. (Moral of the story: It does not pay to be wicked.)

The day before Holi, effigies of Holika, and with it all things negative, are burned. Wood and old rubbish left over from the dark, dreary days of winter are collected days in advance to light the bonfire.

Holi also marks the celebration of the barley harvest. Divinations for the coming harvest are cast by interpreting the direction of the flames.

In the south, the story is woefully tragic. Legend says that Kamdev, the God of love aimed an arrow at Lord Shiva. For this silly adolescent act he was burned to ashes.

His wife pleaded for his return, a wish that was only half- granted when Lord Shiva sent him back but as ever, anang (without human form). Hence in this part of India, Holi is not much cause for celebration. Instead, songs of lamentation fill the air. (Moral of the story: do not mess with a god.)

In the northwest, the tale is one of joy and romance. This association is based on India's most charming figure, Krishna, said to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Born among those who tend cattle, the cowherd Krishna indulged in endless pranks with one eye on the maidens and the other on butter.

His offenses -- drenching women with water, breaking pots of butter -- ignited the tempers of villagers, for which he was often grounded.

Through his charm, wit and displays of divinity he invariably brought them around. (Moral of the story: It pays to be a god.) Krishna is the quintessential youth that youngsters identify with -- the spirit of fun and flirtation, banter and merriment. In his image, they celebrate Holi, dousing each other with colored water and powder.

'Holi', the great uniter

Interestingly, despite several other religious connotations, for most of India, the festival is less of spirituality and more of spontaneity, fueled by Bhang, a potent liquid made from marijuana sneaked into milk-based drinks and sweets.

On a typical Holi day, preparations begin by arming oneself with shades of brightly colored powder and water guns. Friends meet family, greet strangers and hit the streets with fistfuls of gulal (colored powder) that they apply to each other, followed by an embrace and sweet treats.

Like most festivals, the event is an excuse to bridge social differences. Men, women, employers, employees, the poor and the affluent, all join in the war of colors, dancing to the beat of folk songs in unabashed gaiety.

Tourists and foreigners are not barred from the onslaught. It is wiser to join in than to stay holed up in hotels. Although the view from above may make for an award-winning photograph, going with the flow is no doubt more of an adventure.

For children, it is a day when mother cannot say no. An unannounced cease-fire dins by noon when groups flock toward rivers and seas (or bathrooms in the absence of any exotic location) to wash off layers of residue. The afternoon is spent with friends reliving the glory of the battle.

The names for Holi are as numerous as its shades. In Bengal, the festival is known as Dol Jatra or Dol Purnima. In Maharashtra many know it as Shimga or Rangapanchami. In Tamil Nadu, the day is known by three different names -- Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-dahanam.

With each more of a tongue-twister than the next, understandably Holi is the word popularly preferred.

Originally, the colored powder was made of fragrant seasonal flowers. They were said to have therapeutic properties to ward off some infections. Modern day gulal, however, may contain abrasive substances that instead cause infections.

The dangers of Holi do not stop there. Rowdy youngsters are seen hurling psychedelic tints in the name of fun. Water balloons catch people unawares, making memories more painful than pleasurable. Despite the government's ban on these, it pays to keep an eye out for these "UFOs" (unwelcome flying objects).

Bhang has its hazards, too, as does alcohol. It makes better sense to avoid offerings laced with this than end up in a ridiculous mess in an effort to be polite.

Celebrating in Jakarta

Back home in Jakarta, the India Club organizes elaborate celebrations. In 2004, club members made merry during an overnight stay at Puncak with several entertainment programs thrown in for good measure.

Other private celebrations included a day trip to Anyer beach. Getaways are preferred over residential celebrations since the maddening vibrancy of the festival triggers off more stares than support from foreign communities.

This year, Holi falls on March 26. Popular among fisherfolk, it will not be surprising if celebrations are low-key, with the tsunami wrecking havoc on thousands from this community.

Unlike many festivals in India, where the rich celebrate with greater pomp and show, resulting in a huge divide, Holi brings people together as equals. It does not require anything more than a few Indian rupees to spend on the colored powder, and nothing at all for the songs and the laughter.

As for the memories, they remain priceless!

For more information on Mar. 26 India Club Holi celebrations this year please contact Ibu Anas on 9391949. E-mail: www.indiaclubindonesia.org