Dhawal Shah | March 04, 2014
The Indian festival of Holi did not figure at all in my life in my early years growing up in Singapore. My first recollection of playing with colours was on a Sunday in Hindi School, at the age of 13 – where lessons ended early (always welcome) – and we were brought to the school field to celebrate Holi. It was probably the most fun I had in Hindi School and I went home drawing stares on the bus – most people probably wondering who this crazy-coloured kid was and whether they should call someone or do something. Only an old Punjabi uncle smiled knowingly and asked me ‘Holi khelke aiye ho puttar? Kithe?’ (Just played Holi son? Where at?).
Since then, Singapore has come a long way when it comes to the celebration of Indian festivals besides Diwali and Thaipusam. With a growing community of people from all parts of India now to be found on this island, Holi has become an event to be looked forward to every year. For the uninitiated, you may be ready to give up on this nostalgic digression – wondering if I’m ever going to explain what Holi is…. to which I say, all good things come to those who persevere!
Dating back to ancient times, the story goes that there was a powerful demon king called Hiranyakashyap, who considered himself a God and made his people worship him. However, his son, Prahlad, was a Lord Vishnu devotee, and refused to acknowledge his father’s godly claims. Angered by this, the king plotted to have his son killed by enlisting the help of his demon sister, Holika. Holika had been granted the boon of immunity to fire and conspired to sit on a burning pyre with her nephew Prahlad in her lap. This act backfired miserably though, as Prahlad, who never ceased uttering Lord Vishnu’s name while in the fire, was kept safe by the God and Holika burned instead. Lord Vishnu then proceeded to kill Hiranyakashyap as well. This ‘burning of evil’ is still remembered in parts of India with a reenactment of a burning pyre
Colours became associated with Holi because of Lord Krishna, who was another reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. It was said that he reveled in applying colours to his sweetheart Radha and other gopis (his female devotees) and this tradition of colours carries on with us until today.
Known as Phagwa in Bihar, Dol Purnima in Bengal and Hola Mahalla in Punjab, Holi is celebrated in the month of Phalgun on the full moon day (in the month of March in the English calendar). The festival of Holi is used to usher in the spring harvest and marks the end of winter in India. The typical celebration we have all come to associate with Holi involves a whole slew of colours either mixed with water and sprayed or just thrown in powder form. On the day of Holi, you will find lots of people wearing white (though they don’t remain white for long) to indulge in the color-throwing festivities with family and friends. On Holi, Bhaang – a drink made from the leaves and buds of the cannabis plant – is abundantly available together with Gujias – a sweet dish that looks like a samosa but is stuffed with grated and roasted dry fruits.
Having provided what I hope is an adequate overview of the festival, it’s time for some nostalgia again. Holi in Singapore is a pretty exciting event these days, and as mentioned, celebrated in many different open places from the field in front of Kembangan MRT station to school campuses. I remember bus transportation being arranged for students to play Holi during my time at the National University of Singapore. You would likely find plenty more non-Indians than Indians at these events, all wanting a taste of the festival and the chance to add some colour to their lives. Unfortunately, Bhaang isn’t allowed in Singapore, although Gujias are a dish you should look to give a try.
With the festival soon to be upon us again, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite 80s Holi song from the movie Silsila starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha – Rang Barse (Raining Colour).
Leave us a comment sharing your Holi anecdotes with us (how you celebrate it and your memories of the festival).
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