Legends of Holi are as colourful as Holi itself. There are myriad shades and tones in them from the subtle ones of love and devotion to the darker hues pertaining to demons and their devilish desires.
What is remarkable is the faith of millions of Hindus in these legends. They relive these stories every year and bring to life the incidents which occurred (or might not have occurred) thousands of years ago.
A belief in the legends, devotion to god and a strong belief in the fact that it is the good and the truth that ultimately prevails over the evil pulls the people to religiously follow the set traditions each year.
And, this faith - in god and the ancient traditions is what still binds the people in a spirit of love and harmony in this otherwise divided society.
The Legend of Holika and Prahlad
There was once a demon king by the name of Hiranyakashyap who won over the kingdom of earth. He was so egoistic that he commanded everybody in his kingdom to worship only him. But to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana and refused to worship his father.
Hiranyakashyap tried several ways to kill his son Prahlad but Lord Vishnu saved him every time. Finally, he asked his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. For, Hiranyakashyap knew that Holika had a boon, whereby, she could enter the fire unscathed.
Treacherously, Holika coaxed young Prahlad to sit in her lap and she herself took her seat in a blazing fire. The legend has it that Holika had to pay the price of her sinister desire by her life. Holika was not aware that the boon worked only when she entered the fire alone.
Prahlad, who kept chanting the name of Lord Naarayana all this while, came out unharmed, as the lord blessed him for his extreme devotion.
Thus, Holi derives its name from Holika. And, is celebrated as a festival of victory of good over evil.
Holi is also celebrated as the triumph of a devotee. As the legend depicts that anybody, howsoever strong, cannot harm a true devotee. And, those who dare torture a true devotee of god shall be reduced to ashes.
Celebration of the Legend
Even today, people enact the scene of 'Holika's burning to ashes' every year to mark the victory of good over evil.
In several states of India, specially in the north, effigies of Holika are burnt in the huge bonfires that are lit. There is even a practice of hurling cow dungs into the fire and shouting obscenities at it as if at Holika. Then everywhere one hears shouts of 'Holi-hai! Holi-hai!'.
The tradition of burning 'Holika' is religiously followed in Gujarat and Orissa also. Here, people render their gratitude to Agni, the god of fire by offering gram and stalks from the harvest with all humility.
Further, on the last day of Holi, people take a little fire from the bonfire to their homes. It is believed that by following this custom their homes will be rendered pure and their bodies will be free from disease.
At several places there is also a tradition of cleaning homes, removing all dirty articles from around the house and burning them. Disease-breeding bacteria are thereby destroyed and the sanitary condition of the locality is improved.
The Legend of Radha-Krishna
Young Krishna is known to be very playful and mischievous. The story goes that as a child, Krishna was extremely jealous of Radha's fair complexion since he himself was very dark.
One day, Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about the injustice of nature which made Radha so fair and he so dark. To pacify the crying young Krishna, the doting mother asked him to go and colour Radha's face in whichever colour he wanted.
In a mischievous mood, naughty Krishna heeded the advice of mother Yashoda and applied colour on her beloved Radha's face; Making her one like himself.
Well, there is also a legend to explain Krishna's dark complexion. It so happened that once a demon attempted to kill infant Krishna by giving him poisoned milk. Because of which Krishna turned blue. But Krishna did not die and the demon shriveled up into ashes.
The beautiful scene of Krishna's prank in which he played colour with Radha and other gopis has been made alive in myriad forms in a number of paintings and murals.
Somehow, the lovable prank of Krishna where he applied colour on Radha and other gopis using water jets called pichkaris gained acceptance and popularity. So much so that it evolved as a tradition and later, a full-fledged festival.
Till date, use of colours and pichkaris is rampant in Holi. Lovers long to apply colour on their beloveds face and express their affection for each other.
This legend is wonderfully brought alive each year all over India, particularly in Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon-the places associated with Krishna and Radha.
In fact, the entire country gets drenched in the colour waters when it is time for Holi and celebrate the immortal love of Krishna and Radha.
In some states of India, there is also a tradition to place the idols of Radha and Krishna in a decorated palanquin, which is then carried along the main streets of the city. All this while, devotees chant Krishna's name, sing devotional hymns and dance in the name of the lord.
Legend of Kaamadeva
The legend has it that when Lord Shiva's consort Sati committed herself to fire due to disgrace shown by her father Daksha to Shiva, Lord Shiva became extremely sad. He renounced his worldly duties and went into deep meditation.
Meanwhile, the daughter of the mountains, Parvati started meditating to acquire Shiva as her husband. Moreover, since Shiva was least interested in the affairs of the world complications began to generate in matters of the world which made all the gods concerned and afraid.
The gods then seeked the help of Lord Kaamadeva, the god of love and passion to bring Shiva back to his original self. Kaamadeva knew that he might have to suffer the consequences of doing this, but he accepted to shoot his arrow on Shiva for the sake of the world.
As planned Kaama shot his love arrow on Shiva while he was in meditation. This made Shiva extremely angry and he opened his third eye - reducing Kaamadeva to ashes. However, Kaamadeva arrow had the desired effect and Lord Shiva married Parvati.
A short while after this, Kaamadeva's wife, Rati pleaded Lord Shiva and said this was all the plan of the gods and asked him to to kindly revive Kaamadeva. An embodiment of love himself, Lord Shiva gladly accepted to do so.
Thus the incident had a happy ending for all.
It is believed that Lord Shiva burned Kaamadeva on the day of Holi.
Down south people worship Kaamadeva-the Love-god for his extreme sacrifice on the day of Holi.
Kaamadeva is depicted with his bow of sugarcane having the string of a line of humming bees and his arrow-shafts are topped with passion that pierce the heart. The deity is offered mango blossoms that he loved and sandalwood paste to cool off the pain of his fatal burns. Songs are also song in which Rati's sorrow is depicted.
The Legend of Dhundhi
It is believed that there was once an Ogress called Dhundhi in the kingdom of Prithu (or Raghu). The female monster used to specially trouble little children who became fed- up of her.
Dhundhi, had a boon from Lord Shiva that she would not be killed by gods, men nor suffer from arms nor from heat, cold or rain. These boons which made her almost invincible but she also had a weak point. She was also cursed by Lord Shiva that she would be in danger from boys going about crazy.
Deeply troubled by the Ogress, the King of Raghu consulted his priest. Giving the solution, the priest said that on Phalguna 15, the season of cold vanishes and summer starts. Boys with bits of wood in their hands may go out of their house, collect a heap of wood and grass, set it on fire with mantras, clap their hands, go around the fire thrice, laugh, sing and by their noise, laughter and homa, the ogress would die.
The legend has it that on the day of Holi, village boys displayed their united might and chased Dhundhi away by a blitzkrieg of shouts, abuses and pranks.
It is for this reason that young boys are allowed to use rude words on the day of Holi without anybody taking offence. Children also take great pleasure in burning Holika.
Another Ogress - Pootana
Yet another legend says that there was an Ogress known as Pootana.
Lord Krishna's devil uncle Kansa seeked the help of Pootana to kill infant Krishna by feeding him poisonous milk.
Pootana disguised herself as a simple and pious woman and treacherously fed baby Krishna with her poisoned breast. Lord Krishna, however, sucked her blood which revealed the monster behind that pious woman and laid her to death.
On the night before Holi, there is a practice to burn an effigy of Pootana - the Ogress who nearly killed Lord Krishna. The tradition is symbolic of victory of divinity over demonic forces. It also shows the end of winter and darkness - as typified by Pootana.