India, ashes to ashes and dust to dust
ou will cover your face, skin and clothes with brightly coloured powder paint and coloured water. You’ll dance, sing, jump, clap and laugh; though before you can do all this you need to search for firewood. The Hindus will dedicate their celebrations to Krishna, one of their most loved deities, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, the creator and destroyer of the universe, or the primary god that was the origin of the powerful Vishnu and Shiva, depending on the type of Hinduism the believer follows. However, collecting the firewood comes first.
The Holi festival is held every year to celebrate the end of winter and the start of spring; mainly taking place in India but also celebrated in other with significant populations of Hindus like Sir Lanka or Nepal. The date changes every year but the festival is held between February and March and attracts both believers and non-believers, as it has transcended religion.
And Radha turned blue
When Krishna was a boy he wasn’t happy having dark, black skin. He used to look at the young girls, especially at Radha, who would later become his consort, and feel jealous of their fair skin. His mother, tired of seeing her son suffer, decided to darken Radha’s skin to make it the same as her son’s. The move is now one of the legends behind the origin of the Holi festival.
On this day the city streets fill with people who gaily throw the gulal powder, coloured corn starch that makes them turn blue, yellow or pink, thus getting rid of all differences. Everybody is equal during Holi. For a few hours in India, a huge country full of inequalities and social contrasts, where over one billion people have been classified and condemned for life according to the caste they were born in, there are no classes or races. Neither are there men or women, or rich or poor. But first of all you need to look for the firewood.
This is one of the most famous festivals of Hinduism and is celebrated by Indian migrants in almost every part of the world, though many local residents have since adopted it as their own. While somewhat similar to the famous carnivals held everywhere from Spain to Brazil, Holi in India, the country where it originated, is an experience of exaltation, emotion and spirituality.
Holi is the day of the year with the greatest freedom. Not only do people want to celebrate the tentative emergence of spring, they also want to celebrate their personal lives. During Holi, blankets of powder fall from the balconies and windows of the houses, the ground turns blue, and the multitudinous procession makes its entry; walking along the streets or heading towards the temples. You can’t tell the different between the young and the old. But, don’t forget, they have all collected their firewood.
The god behind the curtain
Vrindavan, in Braj, is known for being the heart of this festival. It attracts a procession of thousands of people who want to dance, sing and pray before the temple of Krishna, where the statue of the deity is kept safely behind a curtain that is opened every so often, representing the most ecstatic moment of the festival.
The women protect their faces with their saris and the children, sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, throw balloons of yellow water. There are no complaints, no protests, nor any reasons to get annoyed. The travellers also take it all in their stride: though, watch out, Holi doesn’t respect even the most expensive cameras. The locals often pick foreigners to be their favourite targets because the presence of strangers on the streets always makes them so curious, so don’t be surprised if you see a dozen people crowding around a holidaymaker in the street or asking them to pose for a photograph, as if they were famous actors or football players. Smartphones have democratised photography. But before all this, you need to collect the firewood.
Although Holi is held all over the country, its epicentre is in the region of Braj, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in the north of India. According to sacred texts, Krishna spent his childhood in the forests of the region, which is why in cities like Agra or Mathura, and especially in Vrindavan, the festival is even more high-spirited and lasts for over two weeks. In fact, the best firewood comes from these forests, where the boy Krishna is said to have become Lord Krishna. The same firewood that, on the eve of the festival, is used to build the huge bonfires that burn and symbolise the triumph of good against evil; the fire that turns demons to ash and which brings to mind the legend that relates how Prince Prahlad escaped death when he refused to worship the evil king Hiranyakashipu, in a bonfire protected by Vishnu. Instead it was the king’s sister, the terrible Holika, who burnt to death, giving her name to the country’s most famous festival.