Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, March 04, 2012

Red is the colour associated with the Goddess. Lakshmi wears red. Durga wears red. Red is blood. Red is menstrual fluid. It is the colour of the earth before the rains. It is the colour of life and fertility. Kumkum is the red colour made using saffron or turmeric. Sindoor is the red of the setting sun obtained on earth from cinnabar (lead oxide). These are worn by men as tilak and by women as bindi. These are the colours to smear images of Ganesha and Hanuman. Then there is Abir and Gulal, hurled into the sky, during the festival of Holi.

Today this is toned down. But the hurling of red colour with red water by boys and girls, the consumption of bhang and the bawdy lyrics sung on the streets of North India, and in Bollywood (remember Amitabh Bachchan in Silsila) all point to Holi being an ancient fertility festival. It is not by accident that the festival comes precisely a fortnight after Maha-Shiva-ratri as the new moon gives way to the full moon, when the winter chill gives way to spring. Only now a dirty industrial pink has overshadowed the blood red, and oil paints have replaced organic dyes, and balloons and piston ‘pichkari’ have replaced fistfuls of dry colour powder.

On the eve of Holi, a bonfire is burned. The reason,we are told,is to remind us of Holika, a woman who could withstand fire. She entered a fire carrying Prahalad, a devotee of Vishnu, intent on killing him, but was instead burned to a crisp while Prahalad was saved. The story, though popular, does not align well with the ‘fertility’ roots of Holi, so may have been added to a preexisting fertility festivity.

The name Holi perhaps is a corruption of the word ‘Dol’ as the full moon is called Dol Poornima, referring to the swing which Krishna swings from as he plays with colour and water with friends. For Holi is very much a Krishna festival, a festival of love and mischief, as he flirts and banters with milkmaids. This is most evident in Mathura and Vrindavan, and during the Lat-maar festival when women of the region strike men with sticks.

In the south, Holika Dahan, or the burning of Holika, is referred to as Kama Dahan. This narrative connects the bonfire ritual to the fertility ritual.Shiva sets aflame Kama, god of desire, because he dares to shoot an arrow of lust at him. Kama’s wife, Rati, begs forgiveness on the day Shiva decides to marry Parvati, which is Maha-Shiv-ratri. A less angry Shiva promises that on the full moon of Dol Poornima, he will be reborn in the body of Krishna and Rati will be reborn in the body of Radha. In Krishna’s body, the lust of Kama will be tempered with love. It will not just be about the body; it will also be about the heart.