Colourful harmony: For Mughals, Sikhs, Hindus in India or abroad

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By: Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee

Leave the Hindu alone, from Mughal Emperor Jahangir to Sikh King Ranjit Singh all celebrated Holi in India. While Emperor Jahangir played Holi colours with ladies of his zenana, Maharaja Ranjit Singh celebrated Holi publicly.  Sikh Empire that time extended across what are now northern parts of India and Pakistan. According to a report by Tribune India, Sikh court records state that 300 mounds of colours were used in 1837 by Ranjit Singh and his officials in Lahore. Ranjit Singh would celebrate Holi with others in the Bilawal gardens, where decorative tents were set up. Even abroad, we have holi celebrations. Outside India and Nepal, Holi is observed by Hindus and other communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well in countries with large Indian subcontinent diaspora populations such as Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Mauritius, and Fiji.

It has great impact on literature and culture studies. Bahadur Shah Zafar himself wrote a song for the festival, while poets such as Amir Khusrau, Ibrahim Raskhan, Nazeer Akbarabadi and Mehjoor Lakhnavi relished it in their writings. Holi is an ancient Hindu festival with its cultural rituals. It is mentioned in the Puranas, Dasakumara Charita and by the poet Kālidāsa during the 4th century reign of Chandragupta II. The celebration of Holi is also mentioned in the 7th century Sanskrit drama Ratnavali. The festival of Holi caught the fascination of European traders and British colonial staff by the 17th century. Various old editions of Oxford English Dictionary mention it, but with varying phonetically derived spellings such as Houly (1687), Hooly (1698), Huli (1789), Hohlee (1809), Hoolee (1825) and Holi in editions published after 1910.

The Colourful festival of Holi is well known as Phagun Purnima that comes in February and early March giving us the message of bridging social gap and renewal of sweet relationships. There are varied legends related to Holi but all celebrating the victory of good over evil in the Indian subcontinent for centuries with poems documenting celebrations dating back to the 4th century as it marks the beginning of spring after a long winter. The most popular anecdotes tell us that an evil king Hiranyakashipu became so powerful that he forced his subjects to worship him as their God. But to the king’s ire, his son Prahlada continued to be an ardent devotee of the Lord Vishnu. Owing to this, the angry king plotted with his sister, Holika, to kill his son who being immune to fire tricked Prahlada to sit in a pyre with her. When the pyre was lit, the boy’s devotion to Lord Vishnu helped him walk away unscathed while Holika, from whom the festival derives its name, was burned to death despite her immunity. So the people make bonfire with dried leaves bamboo twigs and wood on the eve of the festival. It is celebrated by millions of Indians and other South Asians living all over the world.

Despite having roots in Hinduism, Holi has been celebrated across all religious communities in India. It is not uncommon to see Hindus and Muslims open up their homes to each other for religious festivities. In ancient Greece a similar annual festival of culture and colours was celebrated called Dionysian festival.

The Hindu traditions such as Shaivism and Shaktism draw legendary significance of Holi to Shiva. The legend says that in yoga and deep meditation, goddess Parvati wanting to bring back Shiva into the world, seeks help from the Hindu God of love called Kamadeva on Vasant Panchami. The love god shoots arrows at Shiva, but irked at this, the Lord opens his third eye and burns Kama to ashes. This upsets both Kama’s wife Rati (Kamadevi) and his own wife Parvati. Rati performs her own meditative asceticism for forty days, upon which Shiva understands, forgives out of compassion and restores the god of love. This return of the God of love is celebrated on the 40th day after Vasant Panchami festival as Holi. The Kama legend and its significance to Holi has many variant forms, particularly in South India.

North and Western India, Holi frolic and celebrations begin the morning after the Holika bonfire. Children and young people form groups armed with dry colours, coloured solution and water guns (pichkaris), water balloons filled with coloured water, and other creative means to colour their targets. Traditionally, washable natural plant-derived colours such as turmeric, neem, dhak and kumkum were used, but water-based commercial pigments soon attained popularity. People take delight in spraying coloured water on each other. By late morning, everyone looks like a canvas of colours. This is why Holi is given the name “Festival of Colours”.

Groups sing and dance, some playing drums and dholak. After each stop of fun and play with colours, people offer gujiya, mathri, malpuas and other traditional delicacies. Cold drinks, including drinks made with marijuana, are also part of the Holi festivity. Even the Jains and Newar Buddhists of Nepal too celebrated Holi. Grand celebrations of Holi were held at the Lal Qila, where the festival was also known as Eid-e-gulaabi or Aab-e-Pashi. Mehfils were held throughout the walled city of Delhi with aristocrats and traders alike participating. This however changed during the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb. He banned the public celebration of Holi using a Farman issue in November 1665. Sikhs have traditionally celebrated the festival, at least through the 19th century, with its historic texts referring to it as Hola. Guru Gobind Singh – the last human guru of the Sikhs – modified Holi with a three-day Hola Mohalla extension festival of martial arts. The extension started the day after the Holi festival in Anandpur Sahib, where Sikh soldiers would train in mock battles; compete in horsemanship, athletics, archery and military exercises. (The writer is an Associate Professor and Head, Post Graduate Dept. of English Dum Dum Motijheel College. He can be contacted at [email protected]. )

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