On the full moon of the last month of the Indian year (Phalgun – Feb/Mar), a special festival is celebrated.
I first experienced Holi in Panjab, after we had left Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and it was eye-opening.
I already knew the three main stories associated with the event. Inter-connected, they stemmed from the Arya tradition, morphed into Vedic tradition, aspects of which were then debunked in Sikh tradition, until they came to be made synonymous with Hindu tradition. The version of the story which one celebrates at Holi is usually chosen after a quick period of introspection as to which story resonates the most.
An arrogant and obnoxious king of Multan, Panjab, considered himself the perfect human being – a god whom his subjects ought to worship. This king’s son, Hiranyakashipu (Hira, for short – which in its diminutive means ‘gem’), however, worshipped not his father but Lord Vishnu. When debate, dictates and threats proved useless in swaying the child to do his father’s bidding, the king employed a nursemaid to smear her breasts with poison before suckling the child. The nursemaid died from poisoning; Hira lived. Exasperated, the king then ordered his son to sit in his aunt’s lap – she who, following a prolonged period of penance had been granted the ability to withstand fire – and she would then sit on a pyre with the child in her lap. The son acceded to his father’s demand – his aunt was burned alive; Hira emerged unscathed.
Seldom making its way into this version of the Holi story is that Hira, Lord Vishnu’s worshipper, covered himself in an array of earth elements of various colours, and thus protected himself from the fire. The inclusion of such a critical aspect of the story would have been deeply problematic to a an Arya culture grown increasingly impotent in terms of its capacity for analytical understanding and instead pinning all its hopes on divine intervention. If Hira saved himself, whither the miracle of God’s intervention and grace!
Sikhs have taken up the baton of analytical understanding and insight discarded and lost by the Arya. Indeed, according to their dharma (i.e., Sikhism) there is no divine intervention. Psyche and divinity are logical aspects of creation, albeit at a rarified super-conscious level; though of course, they must get their hands dirty, so to speak.
Accordingly, Holi is celebrated as the victory of good over evil in the form of Hira smearing himself with the colours of the earth. No divine intervention in sight!
As a child, Krishna’s skin pigment was deep purple. In fact, he was so deeply and darkly purple as to resemble people from Africa. You can conclude, therefore, what his origins were; I have an open mind about such things, but Hindu India is certainly not ready for such facts. Anyway, Krishna was besotted with Radha. She was fair. He was dark, very very dark, purplish-black indeed, on top of which he had all the usual boyish complexes. Following his mother’s advice, Krishna the child smeared Radha – who up until then had dismissed his approaches – with earth colours. Their differences thus muted, the children played together happily and went on to become the great lovers of Vedic Indian lore.
Lord Shiva, a very boring guy should you happen to meet him since he is always meditating, is portrayed as moody, unapproachable and intolerant of mischief and petty conversation. You can decide for yourselves whether that makes him a social outcast or a god, though for my part I respect this configuration of his personality. Anyway, one day an upwardly mobile, divinely-steeped person decided to test Lord Shiva’s meditative focus. Assuming the form of an irresistible damsel, the changeling began dancing in front of Lord Shiva. Where others would have been fooled, Lord Shiva was not. The changeling was burned to ash with one look from Lord Shiva’s third eye, who then gave him back life. Thus, during Holi, ash is smeared on the forehead by the devout to represent the death and the revival of the changeling. Over time, earth colours were introduced too – suggesting some symbiosis of the various Holi stories.
Now let’s imbue proceedings with some Sikh analytical thought and insight. For this, I need to revisit my childhood.
As I said earlier, my first Holi celebration took place in Panjab after we had moved there from Kenya. In the days leading up to the event, all the local kids raced around borrowing each other’s possessions as if it were their right to do so (we would now call this thieving). We gathered together things we had thus ‘borrowed’, including from our own mothers’ kitchens, after school and raced to the local playground – basically, a large area of dry and barren earth, around which housing was erected, and which we used for playing gulli-danda, kick-about and, above all, cricket.
Escaping the clutches of mothers and sisters, as we ran we held close our booty of turmeric, neem, dhak, kumkum, powdered red sandalwood, dried flowers, radishes, pomegranates, mehndi, gram flour, vibrant and deep coloured fruits and vegetables such as berries, grapes and beetroot, dried tea leaves and charcoal… and of course most important of all, water.
No single household had all these items, so we each gathered what we could find, and brought them to the playground where the older boys organised for us to take turns grinding everything into a paste using a pestle and mortar – basically a larger flat stone and a smaller more rounded stone. We would then leave the paste out to dry in the sun.
Each group of lads would end up with a fair amount of dry powder at the end of this activity. Three days before the last full moon of the year, younger kids like me were assigned to collect firewood from around the local area. As darkness fell and the full moon appeared on the horizon, we lit a fire to commemorate the symbolic burning of the young boy Hira.
The next day, the fun began. We dispersed our dry powder in large metal buckets filled three quarters of the way up with water. We filled our bicycle pumps, appropriately sealed to prevent leakage, with the colourful solution… and then it was a case of let them have it! No one was spared, as we sprayed all around us with colour, and everyone was a happy smiling target – old and young. Those of us who didn’t have bicycles yet, filled up glass Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles and shook them around. It was playful war.
Misunderstanding the rules, I would often forget the playful aspect in favour of the war aspect, thinking it was my mission to remain as dry as possible while soaking as many other people with colour as possible. One lad too umbrage at this misunderstanding of mine and came after me, glass bottle against glass bottle. The inevitable happened, the necks of the glass bottles broke, and I was slashed deep at the wrist just above the bone, while he was similarly if also less deeply cut. A gaping bloody wound opened up just centimetres from a huge vein that snakes its way around the wrist bone, and was duly wrapped in cloth. Instinctively, I submerged my hand and wrist into one of the buckets of colourful water, and then an elder yanked it out of the water and smeared it with some of the powder we had ground days earlier. I got an earful that day, and I still bear the scar to this day – but damn it was fun!
Looking back at the event now, I can apply some rational thinking to what went on.
The season is turning; bio-systems are undergoing a physical cleanse to release them from the rigours of winter; and the cold virus abounds. Cures and cleanses are sought in homeopathic medicines whose ingredients are earthbound. The beginning of springtime is thus the moment in which we boost our immune systems.
All of this activity is of course stepped in rite and ritual – but its effects are tangible and embodied.
In communities that celebrate Holi using traditional earth ingredients, none of the eye, skin, or inflation problems suffered by city dwellers are experienced; and rates of influenza are lower, as is their severity. In urban areas, by contrast, the use of industrial synthetic colours entails eye irritations requiring hospital intervention, severe skin problems requiring manufactured medicine, and seriously debilitating bouts of flu.
If I were you, I’d make my way to India – off the beaten track there are places where Holi celebrations last a month. Tell them Avtar sent you!
As for the story of Holi that resonates with me? Well, I prefer to conceptualise the event as a turning point away from old grudges, feuds and animosities; and towards the renewal of friendships and reinforcement of existing ties.
The new organic year has kicked off and has brought with it spring and new life.
Now, go bury the hatchet…