March 26 2021

Holi – the festival of colours has a dark side

Among the numerous Hindu festivals, Holi stands out as the most vibrant. The festival of colours, as Holi is fondly called, is celebrated on March 28th this year. Though Holi in its truest form is all about spreading laughter and love, the festival has been witnessing a spike in crimes including sexual harassment, robbery and drug consumption in the recent years.

 

THE MYTH OF HOLI

 

The most common and popular legend tracing the roots of Holi relates to a demon named Holika. According to ancient mythology, Hiranyakashyap, the king of demons, proudly considered himself as invincible and demanded that everyone worship him alone as God. Hiranyakashyap’s son, Prahlad refused to obey his father’s commands and continued to worship Vishnu. Infuriated by his son’s disobedience the Demon King plotted to kill Prahlad. He sought his sister Holika’s help as she had owned a magical cloak that protected her from fire. As Holika tricked Prahlad to sit on a pyre with her, Prahlad started praying fervently to Lord Vishnu to save him. In answer to the child’s prayers, the protective cloak which was wrapped around Holika miraculously flew to Prahlad, covering his body and saving him from the fire while burning the vicious Holika to death.

 

HOLI CELEBRATIONS – AN URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE

 

Commemorating the victory of Good over Evil, the ritual of Holika Dahan is performed on the eve of Holi each year, where large bonfires are lit and prayers are offered to God. In Kathmandu Valley, the festival begins with the raising of a ceremonial pole decorated with colorful cloth strips in Basantapur, Dabar Square. Devotees tie thread and light oil lamps to offer prayers in the pole and which is later burned to ashes. The riot of colours takes place on the day after Holika Dahan.

In the Indian village and Terai region of Nepal, people follow the traditional custom of commencing Holi by smearing each other with the sacred ashes leftover from the previous evening’s bonfire. The village communities then gather in large numbers to playfully spray with water and powder of different colours. A defining characteristic of Holi in rural India is traditional folk music. As our Kitchen Garden In-charge, Satyendra Prasad points out, “In Bihar various types of folk music like Jhamta and Chaita are sung to welcome spring and celebrate the festival of colours.” On the opposite, Holi in urban areas has come a long way from the simple joys of smearing one another in vibrant hues or singing folk songs. Pool parties, colourful Rain Dance, Bollywood-style parties, water games, celebrity DJs and Live performances by renowned musicians dominate the Indian and Nepali urban Holi culture.

 

MAKING SPACE FOR WOMEN

 

With urban women enjoying more autonomy, Indian towns and cities witness a mix of men and women on the streets, playing Holi with equal gusto. In the peri-urban and rural areas the street celebrations are dominated by the men and children. Karuna-Shechen India’s Communications Officer, Anyesha Nandi shares her experience : “Being raised in a metropolitan city I was taken by complete surprise by my experience of Holi in Bodhgaya where I could hardly spot any woman celebrating the festival outdoors.” Women, particularly married ones, usually play Holi indoors with their near and dear ones, while young girls may be allowed to play on the streets near their houses.

While Holi in its truest form is all about spreading laughter and love, unfortunately in the recent years the festival has witnessed a spike in crimes including sexual harassment, robbery and drug consumption. Passing lewd comments, forcefully smearing with colours and molestation are on the rise where men under the influence of bhang – an edible form of cannabis – or those intentionally using colours to garb their identities, tend to take advantage of the festive fervor. Because of the fear of harassment, women’s mobility is compromised during the festival as patriarchal society believes that it is the responsibility of women to be more careful justifying the men’s behavior. Karuna-Shechen Nepal’s Communications Officer, Rojina Karmacharya shares : “For me, Holi is always associated with the terror and constant fear that we had to face while walking to school during the festival that is why I never like celebrating it”. This reflects the situation of women in the society where their personal space and consent is not respected and valued as of their male counterparts.

Holi, when played as it is supposed to be -in a safe and consensual manner- is a festival unmatched in terms of its vibrancy, fun, mirth and happiness, spreading the message of equality through the application of hues on one and all.