“Holi beyond a Hindu Lens”

March generally marks the season of yellow and orange, which is commenced by Holi,the festival of colors. Holi is popularly known as a Hindu festival and the mass media is generally littered with images of Krishna and Gopis splashing color on each other in Vrindavan. There are two popular Hindu myths behind this festival. The first relates to the demon king Hiranyakashyap, who grew arrogant and menacing due to a boon bestowed upon him to make him indestructible. Though an ardentdevotee of Lord Shiva, the demon king despised Lord Vishnu and sought to replace him. He was contested by his own son Prahlaad, who despite his father’s orders continued to worship Vishnu. The infuriated Hiranyakashyap resolved to teach his son a lesson and asked his sister Holika for her help. Holika was blessed with a special cloak that protected her from fire. She tricked Prahlaad to sit with her on a pyre while wearing that cloak. The legend says that Prahlaad’s devotion for Lord Vishnu made the cloak slide off Holika, to encase him. As a result, Holika was burnt and Prahlaad survived.Subsequently Vishnu appeared and killed Hiranyakashyap. Hence, the bonfire celebrated a day before Holi symbolizes the victory of good over evil and the festival takes its name from Holika. The second myth relates to Lord Krishna and Radha. Krishna, as a baby, acquired a dark blue skin after drinking the milk of demon Putana. When Krishna enters youth, he wonders if the fair-skinned Radha and the other Gopis would like him for his dark skin color. His mother Yashodha suggests him to approach Radha and color her face in any color he wanted. Since then, this playful coloring of Radha’s face by Krishna is commemorated as Holi in the Braj Region and is seen as the festival of love, while spring becomes the season of love. The lesser known fact about the festival of colors is that it was utilized by many Muslim Kings to promote communal harmony during their times. We can all recollect the famous song from Mughl-e-azam, ‘Mohe Panghat pe Nandlal ched gayo re’, where Madhubala’s Anarkali dances in front of Akbar and Jodhabai on the eve of Janamashtami. This is one of the most popular images of a Muslim ruler celebrating a Hindu Festival. Similarly, many Muslim rulers including Akbar capitalized upon Holi to not just celebrate communal harmony, but to also cultivate a positive and inclusive image in the public. “Who says Holi is a Hindu festival?” asks Munshi Zakaullah in his book Tarikh-e-Hindustani. Zakalluah, while giving a detailed account of Holi celebrations during thereign of Muslim Rulers in India, says that the carnival of Holi would last for days during the Mughal Empire, where people from all religions, castes, creeds and classes would come together to throw color on the Emperor. Perhaps, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was the most famous for his Holi Celebrations. The poet cum emperor would allow all his Hindu ministers to smear gulaal on his forehead and even the poorest of the poor would come and sprinkle color on him. Zafar, who was anyway known for his love of grandeur and opulence, would also ensure a lavish arrangement on the festival of Holi. Urdu monthly Khilona (March 1960) reports that groups of people used to dance around the Holi pyre, singing Horis and indulging in a lot of fun, sometimes even at the cost of the princes and princesses and that day it was not a punishable act but the one to be rewarded. Special groups of jokers used to sing songs around the Holi fires but it was all taken in a sporting spirit.During the Shahjahani tenure of Delhi, Holi was known as Eid-e-Gulabi (Pink Eid) or Aab-e-Pashi (Shower of Colourful Flowers), and truly so owing to its carnival spirit and hysterical rejoicing for both Hindus and Muslims. Even Jahangir is shown holding Mehfil-e-Holi in `Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri’. Artists like Govardhan and Rasik have depicted Jahangir playing Holi with his beloved wife Noorjahan in their paintings.

Mughal Emperor Jehangir playing Holi in his palace:
Mughal Emperor Jehangir playing Holi in his palace:

Mohammed Shah Rangila, in a remarkable painting, was shown running around the palace with his wife chasing him with a pichkari (water cannon). Even poets and Sufi saints were not untouched by the fervor of Holi. We have all heard of the famous Sufi Basant. The story goes like this: One day Amir Khusru saw some Hindu Women singing and carrying some mustard flowers to their deity on Basant Pachami. In order to cheer up his master Mehboob-e-Ilaahi Khwaja Hazrat Nizamudin Auliya, who was depressed about his nephew’s death, Khusru dressed up like a woman in yellow clothes and started singing and dancing in front of his pir. This brought a smile upon Auliya Sahaab’s face and since then Chistis also celebrate the festival of basant. Auliya Sahaab also asked the Chisti sufis to come out with in their ecstatic state and celebrate the spring festival of Holi in all its playfulness and revelry. Holi has long crossed over the lines of sectarianism. Both Hindi and Urdu poetry present to us a rich repertoire of Holi-related poetry and stand as testimonies for the rather non-communal ways of celebrating this festival of color, love and joy. To end with a poems from some poets on Holi:

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s verses on Holi now are sung as part of the phaag ( folk songs of Holi). One of the most sung verses being:

Kyo Mo Pe Rang Ki Maari Pichkaari
Dekho Kunwar Ji Doongi Mein Gaari
(Why drench me with color spray,
now my prince, I will swear at you)

Bahut Dinan Mein Haath Lage Ho Kaise Jane Doon
Aaj Phagwa To Son Ka Tha Peeth Pakad Kar Loon.
After long have you come in my hands, how will I let you go?
Today is Holi, and perfect time to catch hold of you)

Sufi poets too eulogized the Radha Krishna romance and Holi, when expressing their love for their revered Sufi Saints or even God.

To begin with  Sufi poets, it is Shah Niaz’s ‘s Hori Ho Rahi hai, (immortalized by Abida Parveen):

Holi hoye rahi hai Ahmad Jiya ke dwaar
Hazrat Ali ka rang bano hai Hassan Hussain khilaar
Aiso holi ki dhoom machi hai chahoon or pari hai pukaar
Aiso anokho chatur khiladi rang deeyon sansaar
“Niaz” pyaara bhar bhar chidke ek hi raang sahas pichkaar.

(Holi is happening at beloved, Ahmed’s (saww) doorsteps.
Color has become of Hazrat Ali (as) and Hasan (as), Hussain (as) are playing.
It has become such a bustling scene of Holi that it has become talk of the town,
people are calling others from all over,
What unique and clever players (Hasan and Hussain) that they colored the entire world.
Niaz (the poet) sprinkles bowlfuls of color all around,
the same color that comes out of thousands of pichkaaris.


Bulleh Shah also played Holi with his Master:

Hori khailoongi keh kar Bismillah
Naam nabi ki rattan charhi, bond pari Illalah
Rang rangeli ohi khilawe, jo sakhi howe fana fi Allah

(I shall play Holi, beginning with the name of Allah.
The name of Prophet is enveloped with light,
He only makes us play with colors, who annihilates with Allah)


Amir Khusro  relates to  Holi through multiple fascinating ways, in various places. Khusrau refers  not just to the color, or the play but of  the birth place of Krishna Mathura in the famous Aaj Rung hai rey:

Gokal dekha, Mathra dekha,
par tosa na koi rang dekha
Ey main dhoond phiri hoon
Des bides mein dhoond phiri hoon,

Purab dekha pacham dekha
uttar dekha dakkan dekha
Re main dhoond phiri hoon
Des bides mein dhoond phiri hoon,

Tora rang man bhaayo Moinuddin
Mohe apne hi rang mein rang le Khwaja ji
Mohe rang basanti rang de Khwaja Ji
Mohe apne hi rang mein rang de

{In summary: I saw Gokul, Mathura ( bith place of Krishna) and even East to West I roamed, but I did not find anyone with a color like yours. My heart is enamored by your color, hence color me in your shade, my master.}


~Neharika Mahajan~

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