Exploring the history of Hindu festivals: the ancient strands of Holākā
By By Manasatarangini T
Published in Indiafacts.org
In Hindu tradition there is a clear demarcation of at least three distinct classes of ritual observances: 1) The most conservative of these are the śrauta rituals that deviate little from their Vedic prototype specified in the texts known as the brahmaṇa-s and śrauta sūtra-s. 2) The next are the gṛhya or domestic rituals, which are associated with the major events in an individual’s life such as birth, naming, studentship, marriage, setting up of a household, and death. These show a conservative core going back to the earliest Vedic age or earlier, specified in texts known as the gṛhya sūtra-s, along with later accretions coming from texts known as the purāṇa-s, local customs and sectarian traditions. 3) Finally, we have the festive observances, which are followed by the whole of Hindu society including the lay people. Examples of these include Indradhvaja, Dīpāvalī, Holākā (commonly called Holi in Northern parts of India) and vasanta-pañcamī.
Of the three, the śrauta rituals are practiced by very few people today and are largely unknown to the modern lay Hindus even though the foundations of their dharma lie in these rituals. The gṛhya traditions are somewhat more widely known, though they too are declining among the Hindus of urban India. In contrast, the festive observances are still widely known and practiced. However, unlike the śrauta and gṛhya rituals the festive observances are much less tethered to the canonical texts and are greatly prone to local variations. Indeed, this distinction is clearly recognized by the great theorists of ritual in Hindu tradition, i.e. the commentators of the mīmāṃsa system, who explicitly distinguish these festivals from the rituals ordained by the words of the Veda. Nevertheless, these festivals are likely to have been of great antiquity in the Indo-Aryan world because at least some of them correspond to festivals of comparable intent observed elsewhere in the Indo-European world. The earliest references to these festivals are seen in the sūtra-s of the 18th pariśiṣṭha of the Atharvaveda (the Utsava-sūtrāṇi), which provides a list of such observances that are to be supported by the state.
We believe it is important that the history of these rituals be closely studied as it provides clues to understand our past and the role they played in the well-being of the people. Indeed, it was for this reason the great king Bhojadeva Paramāra paid great attention to their description and observance. Two centuries later these observances were studied and described at length by the great encyclopedist Hemādri in his Caturvarga-cintāmaṇi. Unfortunately, the loss of Hindu power to Islam and Christianity resulted in the memory of the old practices being forgotten to a great degree. In our times the systematic study of the early lay or social observances of Bhārata was done by the great Sanskritist V. Raghavan. His work was published with assistance of his successor S.Janaki because of his death before it saw print. Our intention here is to merely revive the study of these observances with an examination of the early history of Holākā. We must stress what we present here is largely indebted to Raghavan’s work along with some additional observations.
Pūtanā was originally a fierce kaumāra goddess who was completely demonized in the vaiṣṇava narrative.
The earliest mention of Holākā is in the 18th pariśiṣṭha of the Atharvaveda in the form a brief sūtra:
atha phālgunyāṃ paurṇamāsyāṃ rātrau Holākā ||AV 18.12.1
Now on the night of the phālguni full moon is Holākā.
This continues to be its date of observance to the current day. The verse of the Gāthasaptaśati of the Andhra king Hāla refers to getting “dirty” in the phālguṇi festival:
phālgunotsava-nirdoṣaṃ kenāpi kardama prasādhanaṃ dattam |
stana-kalaśa-mukha-praluṭhat sveda-dhautam kimiti dhāvayasi || 37/4.69 (provided in Sanskrit for easier understanding)
[The man addressing his female friend says]:
In the phālguṇi festival someone innocently colored you by throwing dust,
Why are you trying to wash that away, when it has been washed, by the sweat flowing off the nipples of your pitcher-like breasts?
The preparation of powder for throwing in the festival is also alluded to in the same context in the Gāthasaptaśati
mukha-puṇḍarīkac-chāyāyāṃ saṃsthitau paśyata rājahaṃsāviva |
kṣaṇa-piṣṭa-kuṭṭanocchalita-dhūli-dhavalau stanau vahati || 39/6.24
Look! Sitting in the shadow of the lotus which is her face,
dusted by the powder thrown up as she grinds for the festival,
are her two fair breasts sitting like a pair of royal swans.
Not unexpectedly, such frolicking in the festival could have negative consequences. Indeed, a Mahārāṣṭrī Prākṛta gātha attributed to the same work of the Andhra monarch preserved only in the Telugu country sarcastically states:
khaṇa-piṭṭha-dhūsara-tthaṇi mahu-maataṃb-acchi kuvala-ābharaṇe |
kaṇṇa-gaa-cūa-maṃjari putti tue maṃḍio gāmo|| 38/8
With breasts colored by the festival’s powder,
eyes showing intoxication by liquor,
with a lotus as ornament and mango shoot behind the ear,
you are, girl, a real honor to our village!
Thus, one may say that by the beginning of the common era when the Andhra-s held sway, the key elements which define Holākā were already in place: the color play and the drunken revelry. These are mentioned in authoritative medieval digests on festivals which collect material from earlier texts. For instance, the Varṣakṛtyā-dīpikā says that the people smear themselves with ashes from a bonfire (see below) and color powders and prance about like piśāca-s on the streets (grāma-mārge krīḍitavyaṃ piśācavat).These are features of the festival that persist to the current day.
Painting, Radha celebrating the Holi festival, opaque watercolour on paper, Pahari, Kangra, 1788.
Credit: Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London