Holi fell on March 1-2 this year, and is known as the ‘festival of colors’. It is celebrated by throwing colors on one another. Copious drinking of bhang (a cannabis infused drink) add to the revelry, making for a boisterous milieu. Like most other Hindu festivals, it celebrates the victory of good over evil.
But of course there’s a myth behind the festival. Eons ago, an ambitious king named Hiranayakashyapu decided to attract the attention of the celestial gods and gain a boon of immortality. Thus, he undertook a rigorous tapasya (penance), neither eating nor drinking for a long period, pleading to Brahma, the Creator, to grant him his wish. However, he realized that the gods would never grant immortality to mere mortals. And so, when at last his penance was noticed by the gods and he was asked to state his wish, he asked that he be granted five extraordinary powers: that no animal or beast could kill him, outdoors or indoors, neither in the night or in the day; whether by a shastra (handheld weapon) or by an astra (projectile weapon), and neither on land, nor in water, nor in air. Brahma could do nothing but grant the king his wish, since he has fulfilled the required penances, and a god had to keep his word.
The king now believed he was as immortal as one can get, and decreed that, in his kingdom, no other god would be worshipped henceforth, other than himself. In other words, he put himself on as high a pedestal as any heavenly god. While his subjects were too terrified of the now almost invincible king’s wrath not to follow the decree, one individual continued to pray to Lord Vishnu. He was merely a kid, but was the king’s nephew, Prahlad, and had always been a devotee of Vishnu. Despite repeated warnings, Prahlad refused to bow to the king’s dictates on this matter.
The enraged king tried many subtle ways to have him killed, but could not succeed. So one day, he sought his sister Holika’s help in getting rid of his rebellious nephew. Apparently Holika, too, was the recipient of a special boon; she had the power to resist fire. One version of the story is that she had a cloak that was fire-proof. Anyway, the king coaxed Prahlad to sit on his aunt’s lap, and then asked Holika to sit on a bonfire. The blazing fire somehow caused Holika’s cloak to come loose and drape Prahlad instead, burning her to toast in a matter of seconds. The boy is, of course, safe and sound.
Lord Vishnu, fed up with the king’s shenanigans to kill his devotee, and no doubt encouraged by the other gods to curb his evil ambitions, thought up a way to destroy the king. He took on the form of Narasimha (half human, half lion), and arriving at dusk (neither night nor day), carried the king to a doorstep in the palace (neither outdoors nor indoors). Then, he put the king on his massive lap (neither land, water, nor air), and, using his deadly-sharp claws (not an astra nor a shastra), disemboweled the now panic-stricken king.
So ended the life of the evil king. You’ll see a bonfire in Tundikhel, Kathmandu, the night before Holi, to signify the death of Holika.
Inspired? If you are interested in our festival tours, have a look at what Royal Mountain Travel can also offer:
Top image: ebany/Flickr