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Radha celebrating Holi - History of Holi

History of Holi – Legends & Mythology, Stories

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History of Holi

History of Holi – Holi is one of the most ancient festivals of India. It was originally called ‘Holika’. This festival finds a detailed description in early religious books like – Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grihya-Sutras.

Some historians also believe that though the Holi was celebrated by all Aryans it was celebrated more in the Eastern part of India.

It is also believed that the Holi existed several centuries before Christ. However, the meaning of the Holi as a festival is believed to have changed over the passing years. Earlier it was treated as a special rite performed by married women for the well-being and happiness of their families.

Calculating the Day of Holi

With respect to the Lunar Months, two traditions are being followed, especially in India – one is ‘Purnimanta‘ and another is ‘Amanta‘. As per the Purnimanta, the first day of the month starts after the full moon; and as per the Amanta, the month starts after the new moon.

In the early days, Purnimanta was being followed.

As per the Purnimanta system, Phalguna Purnima was the last day of the year. The new year started from the Vasanta-Ritu (the day when spring starts). Because of this, the full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, marking the commencement of the spring season. This perhaps, explains the many different names of this festival like – Vasanta-Mahotsava and Kama-Mahotsava.

Reference to Holi in Ancient Texts and Inscriptions

The history of Holi goes long back. The festival of Holi has a detailed description in the Vedas and Puranas such as Narad Purana and Bhavishya Purana. It also finds a mention in Jaimini Mimansa. A stone inscription belonging to 300 BC found at Ramgarh in the province of Vindhya has a mention of Holikotsav on it.

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King Harsha too, has mentioned Holikotsav in his work Ratnavali that was written during the 7th century.

The famous Muslim tourist, Ulbaruni too, has mentioned Holikotsav in his historical memories. More so, other Muslim writers of that period have mentioned that Holikotsav was not only celebrated by the Hindus but also by the Muslims.

Reference to Holi in Ancient Paintings and Murals

The Festival of Holi finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of many ancient temples. A 16th-century panel sculpted in a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, also shows a joyous scene of Holi. The painting shows a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids and are waiting with syringes or pichkaris (water guns) to drench the Royal couple in the colored water.

A 16th-century Ahmednagar painting is on the theme of Vasanta Ragini, spring song or music, as well. The painting shows a royal couple sitting on a grand swing, while maidens are playing music and spraying colors with pichkaris (water guns). This also suggests that Holi is celebrated for long.

There are many other paintings and murals in the ancient temples of medieval India that provide a pictorial description of Holi. For instance, a Mewar painting (Circa 1755) shows the Maharana Pratap with his courtiers. In the painting, the ruler is bestowing gifts on some people, a merry dance is on, and in the center, there is a tank filled with colored water.

Along with this, a Bundi miniature shows a king seated on a tusker and some damsels are showering Gulal (colored powders) on him from a balcony above.

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Legends and Mythology

In some parts of India, especially in Bengal and Odisha, Holi Purnima is celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1533).

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The literal meaning of the word ‘Holi‘, however, is ‘burning‘. There are various legends and stories to explain the meaning of this word. Most prominent of all is the legend of the demon king Hiranyakashyap.

Hiranyakashyap was a demon king who wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him. But, his own son, Prahlad, became an ardent devotee of Lord Narayana. Hiaranyakashyap then commanded his sister Holika, to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap.

Holika had a boon that she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, Holika was not aware of the fact that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result of this, she paid a price for her sinister desires. Prahlad was saved by the grace of the god and for his extreme devotion. Therefore, the Holi festival is celebrated as the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion.

The legend of Lord Krishna is also associated with play with colors in some parts of the country. It is believed that Lord Krishna started the tradition of playing with colors by applying it to his beloved Radha and other Gopis. The plays gained popularity gradually with the people and became a tradition.

Lord Krishna playing Holi with Radha - Holi History
Lord Krishna playing Holi with Radha

There are few other stories associated with the festival of Holi like

  • the legend of Shiva and Kamadeva
  • Ogress Dhundhi, and
  • the legend of Pootana.

But all these stories & legends depict the triumph of good over evil and in turn lends a philosophy to the festival. You will find many interesting stories associated with the festival of Holi when you look at Holi history.


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