Known as the Festival of Colour or even the Festival of Love, Holi is a celebration which marks the beginning of spring. Interestingly, the origin of the festival is unknown; however it is still celebrated with passion and excitement across India and now, even the UK. However, without understanding the true meaning of the festival, is it still relevant for British Asians to celebrate Holi?
In essence, Holi holds its meaning in old folklore. The many stories surrounding the festival differ greatly but have derived, not necessarily from Hinduism, but from old Indian myths. One of the most popular reasons why Holi is celebrated is based on the story of King Hirankashyap and his sister Holika – from whom the festival gets its name.
In celebration of demon Holika’s death, people lit bonfires and throw colour in happiness.
The legend states that King Hirankashyap was a demon who believed he was a God. The egotistical king wanted to be worshipped by everyone in the village as a deity. However, his son Prahlad became a worshipper of Lord Naaryayana instead, refusing to accept his father as God. Angered by Prahlad’s disobedience, King Hirankashyap ordered his sister Holika to take him into the fire so he could be burned for his insubordination. Upon being promised her life would be saved, Holika treacherously coaxed Prahlad to walk through the fire with her. However, through devoted chanting to Lord Naaryayana, Prahlad emerged from the fire unscathed and Holika was burned. In celebration of demon Holika’s death, people lit bonfires and throw colour in happiness.
While there are many more stories based on folklore, over time Holi also became synonymous with the beginning of spring. Some say that the colours of the newly blossomed flowers are inspiration for the colour thrown on the day of festivities. The introduction of spring also marks the harvest of new crops, which is also a cause for celebration for many farmers in India. Quite obviously, the origin of Holi has been widely distorted over centuries of continued celebration, resulting in several different meanings emerging across different groups. So how can a festival, which essentially has no fixed and focused meaning, still be relevant, not just in India but even in the UK?
...in the UK, Holi is celebrated by people of every culture in Britain.
Prinal Nathwani, Chairman of the City Hindus Network tells us that for British Asians, it is important to keep tradition alive because these festivals promote universal, didactic philosophies: ‘For most young British Asians, there are often situations when there can be a perceived conflict between traditional faith and cultural values, and the values of the society in which we live. In this context, the relevance of celebrating festivals such as Holi is questioned by many, but if one looks deeper into the rituals and practices enshrined in these festivals, the relevance of these celebrations becomes obvious. Holi in particular espouses principles of community co-operation and cohesiveness.’
So Holi is important for British Asians, but it is important to note that in the UK, Holi is celebrated by people of every culture in Britain. When Holi’s geographical background is considered, the festival becomes very relevant for all cultures. Interestingly, the custom of celebrating Holi initially spread very quickly across India and even to Nepal. The custom was adopted across several communities and religions, and Holi became a culturally inclusive event rather than just exclusive to Hindus. Therefore, it is quite justified for the tradition to spread to the UK and for everybody to celebrate it. Currently, Holi is celebrated in many places across the UK. The Holi One festival in Birmingham is one of the largest celebrations of Holi in the UK. The ticketed event is a home to many British artists and even boasts non-Asian visitors.
Although Holi’s history is vested in Indian folklore that has been changed over time, the very essence of the celebration has been kept alive by culture, which has then been gifted to other communities. Rather than being a festival that is exclusive to Hindus or Indians, it has become a culturally inclusive event. Essentially, it is what it is; fun and enjoyable – a true community event. So does it matter that we don’t necessarily know how the tradition was born? For all intents and purposes, the answer is no. Anyway, what better way is there to celebrate spring than with explosions of colour and a little bit of community cohesion?