HOLĪ is a popular North Indian festival noted for its Saturnalia-like excitement celebrated each year at the full moon in the lunar month of March–April. The ceremony is not found in South India, but a similar festival in honor of the god of love, Kāma, takes place there at the same time. While there does not seem to be a direct link between the two rites, literary sources suggest that both occasions are examples of an age-old tradition of celebrating the arrival of spring.
People in northern India usually celebrate Holī during the few days after the full moon. However, in many places the festival starts before the full moon, sometimes as early as Vasanta ("spring"), the fifth day of the waxing moon in the lunar month of February–March, when the Holī fire is first prepared for lighting. At this time, people begin to collect and contribute wood and cowdung to pile up around a central pole; in addition, a pot is sometimes filled with seeds and buried beneath this pile. The main Holī ritual centers around a bonfire ceremoniously kindled at the time of the rising moon. Both men and women circumambulate the fire, into which they often throw coconuts or on which they roast new barley. Divinations of the coming harvest are cast by interpreting the direction of the flames (when the fire is burning) or by the state of the seeds in the buried pot (when the fire has gone out). People sometimes take embers from the fire to their homes in order to rekindle their own domestic fires; they also collect the ashes from the Holī fire for use as protection against disease.
The Holī fire is also regarded as a funeral pyre (Marriott, 1966, pp. 201, 204), for it is understood to destroy a female demon commonly known as Holikā. Certain through a boon she was granted that she was never to die by fire, Holikā climbs the pyre taking in her lap Prahlāda, a faithful devotee of Viṣṇu who is either her brother or the son of her brother Hiraṇyakaśipu (Viṣṇu's enemy). Prahlāda, who is sometimes identified with the central pole that rises out of the fire, survives the ordeal through his fervent devotion to Viṣṇu; Holikā, the evil one, perishes in the flames.
This exemplary narrative does not really explain the erotic and occasionally violent mood of "playing Holī." People—usually members of the lower social strata—drench each other as well as powerful and prestigious members of the upper classes with water stained with various powders, cattle urine, and mud. Those victims of the various tricks and pranks played on them, including those men who during the festival have been beaten with sticks by women, must simply go along with their reversed status for the time being. The Holī celebration is marked by the selection of the King of Holī, the hearty enjoyment of lewd singing and shouting, the drinking of bhang, a drink of hashish mixed with milk and yogurt, and the fondling of phallus-shaped effigies. Anthropologists have been intrigued by these rites. McKim Marriott, for example, notes that "the dramatic balancing of Holī—the world destruction and world renewal, the pollution followed by world purification—occurs not only on the abstract level of structual principles, but also in the person of each participant" (Marriott, 1966, p. 212). The negation of social status is, however, a limited one, and Holī does not involve the complete reversal of everyday norms (Babb, 1975, p. 174). According to Hindus of northern and central India, the frenzy and licentiousness of the festival is merely a reenactment of the līlā s of Kṛṣṇa, the amorous and frolicsome "plays" that the god enjoys with cowherd boys and girls. Indeed, Holī is the "feast of love" (Marriott, 1966), and its excesses are clothed in the emotional feelings and motives of Kṛṣṇa bhakti movements (Biardeau, 1981, pp. 156–161).
In a Bengali variant of the festival, the burning of a human effigy is associated with the Kṛṣṇaite swing festival (Bose, 1953). In India, the swing carries erotic connotations and may be an element of a generalized marriage ritual. Although Kṛṣṇa does not appear in all variations of the celebrations, the burning of a human or animal effigy is ubiquitous and has gone on for years (ibid., p. 83).
In Andhra Pradesh, the festival to Kāma mentioned earlier retains some of the frenzy of the North Indian Holī (Christian, 1982, p. 255). Such ritual delirium does not appear to any significant extent in Tamil Nadu. Although a festival to Kāma may take place here and there in orthodox Śiva temples, Tamil celebrations usually involve only small local groups instead of entire villages. The Kāma festival begins after Śivarātri and runs until the full moon. An effigy of Kāma is constructed while people recount his story. Assisted by the effects of alcohol, the participants dance wildly, some of them dressed like tribal women (which evokes a good deal of erotic behavior). The effigy of Kāma is burnt in the fire in a ritual reenactment of a well-known tale in which Kāma sends an arrow to Śiva in order to distract him from his meditation long enough to allow the god to father a son. Enraged, Śiva destroys Kāma with a bolt of lightening from his third eye, reducing the Lord of Desire to ashes. However, the terrible yogin (Śiva) himself becomes "Desire" for a short time and enjoys the pleasures of sexual union with Pārvatī. For that moment Śiva becomes, in effect, Kāma. The theological reversal echoes the ritual reversal.
The element of bhakti does not appear in the South Indian festival, but here the ritual is more explicit. First, in conformity with the Hindu sacrificial context, the Kāma rite focuses on the element of desire—its fulfillment and destruction. Although kāma (the fulfillment of desire) may be the lowest of the four traditional goals of life (the others being artha, or "prosperity"; dharma, or "religious duty"; and mokṣa, or "salvation") it is just as essential as the others, for no aspect of the other three goals can be met withough desire (Biardeau, 1981, pp. 49–54, 78). The ascetic Śiva is also Kāma, and thus sires Skanda, for the heroic son must eventually save the world by destroying the demons who are forever threatening the power of the gods. In addition, kāma —desire without knowledge—is the goal attributed particularly to the śūdra, the noninitiated, lowest order of Hindu society. In the springtime, the time of cosmic renewal, everyone ritually becomes a śūdra in order to re-create the world. This temporary inversion of the social hierarchy and of the four goals of Hindu life is marked in the ritual when Kāma, or Holī, is crowned king.
Hindu Religious Year; Śiva.
McKim Marriott's "The Feast of Love," in Krishna: Myths, Rites and Attitudes, edited by Milton Singer (Honolulu, 1966), pp. 200–231, gives a firsthand account of the festival and interesting interpretations of its meaning from an anthropologist's perspective. Although slightly out of date, Nirmal Kumar Bose's "The Spring Festival of India," in Cultural Anthropology and Other Essays, edited by Bose (Calcutta, 1953), pp. 76–135, is useful for its information on regional variations. See also Lawrence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975) and Jane M. Christian's "The End Is the Beginning: A Festival Chain in Andhra Pradesh," in Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka, edited by Guy R. Welbon and Glenn E. Yocum (Delhi, 1982), pp. 243–267. Madeleine Biardeau's L'hindouisme: Anthropologie d'une civilisation (Paris, 1981) provides pertinent interpretations of some of the basic Hindu conceptions crucial to the working of the ritual.
Marie-Louise Reiniche (1987)