The joyous season of Holi is upon us!

The Chir was hoisted in Basantapur on Wednesday, which means that the joyous season of Holi - a time of fun and games and girl-teasing - is upon us. 

This festival celebrates the exploits, fun, and games of Lord Krishna,the beloved avatar of Lord Vishnu, who incarnated at Mathura and spent His childhood and youth on the banks of the holy Jamuna river in Vrindaban, among cowherd boys and milk maidens.

other Yashoda with infant Krishna

Krishna dances on demon Kaliya (Chola 10th century)

Playing with the Gopalas (cow-boys)

The name Holi refers to the demoness Holika, and her death.  Holika was the sister of the terrible demon Hiranyakashipu ('golden-haired'), who ruled and terrorized the three worlds.  Hiranyakashipu ordered that everybody should worship him as the only God.  His son, Prahlada, was a devotee of Vishnu's, and refused to stop worshiping Him.  Hiranykashipu tried different ways to rub  out his son, but they all failed because of Vishnu's intercessions.  Finally, Hiranyakashipu asked his sister to help him by taking Prahlada on her lap while she was seated on a burning pyre.  Holika had a magic shawl that protected her from the flames.  Again Vishnu spoiled the plot by whipping up a mighty wind which blew off the fire-proof shawl of Holika and covered Prahlada with it.  Prahlada survived, but Holika burned to ashes.  As a part of the Holi festival, an effigy of Holika is burnt in public on the eve of the last day.

Ritual burning of Holika 

You might wonder what happened to wicked old Hiranyakashipu.  Hiranyakashipu, like a lot of demons, wanted to be immortal. To fulfill this desire he performed the required tapas (penance) until he was granted a boon by Brahma.  Since the gods do not usually grant the boon of immortality, the demon used his cunning to get a boon which he thought made him immortal. The boon gave Hiranyakashyapu five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (weapons that are hurled) nor by any shastra (weapons that are hand-held), and neither on land, nor in water, or air.  As this wish was granted, Hiranyakashyapu felt he was invincible, which made him quite arrogant. And so Hiranyakashyapu decreed that only he be worshiped as God, and punished and killed anyone who did not accept his orders. His son Prahlada disagreed with his father, and refused to worship the demon as a god. He continued believing in and worshiping Lord Vishnu.  
As for Hiranyakashipu, Vishnu had enough of his shenanigans and the terrorizing of His devotees.  Vishnu appeared in the form of Narasimha - half human and half lion, at dusk when it was neither day nor night yet, seized Hiranyakashyapu at a threshold. which was neither indoors nor outdoors, placed him on his lap which was neither land, water nor air, and then used His lion claws to kill Hiranyakashyapu - which was neither a hand held weapon nor a hurled weapon. In this form, the boon of five special powers granted to Hiranyakashyapu was no longer relevant. Hiranyakashyapu was killed. Prahlada and the kingdom of human beings were thus free from the compulsion and fear of Hiranyakashyapu. After slaying the demon, Narasimha could not calm down, and wandered the world in a rage.  Prahlada went looking for his lord, and when he couldn't find him, he sat down and began to perform austerities to attract Vishnu.  This was on the Mrigendrashikhara Mountain (Shivapuri) on the northern rim of Kathmandu Valley.  When Vishnu did not appear for a very long time, Shiva observed Prahlada's predicament and laughed out loud.  Shiva is known as Ashutosha, the god who is quickly pleased.  From Shiva's laughter flowed forth the Bagmati river, the holy river of Kathmandu Valley.  Eventually the gods brought Prahlada to Vishnu-Narasimha, who calmed down when he saw his great devotee safe and sound.

Narasimha guts Hiranyakashipu (Belur)

The birth of the Bagmati from Shiva's laughter.

Bagdvara - the sacred source of the Bagmati

In Kathmandu, a week before the holiday, which falls on the full-moon, a long bamboo pole, topped with fringes of colorful cloth, called the Chir is erected in front of the Kumari's house in the Basantpur area of the old royal palace. 

The Chir pole commemorates Shri Krisna's teasing of some of the Gopis (milk maidens) by hiding their clothes in a tree while they were bathing in the sacred Jamuna. 

From the moment the Chir is hoisted, for the next eight or nine days, the period of playing with colors reigns.  People douse each other with water and throw vermilion powder on each other.  This practice commemorates  Sri Krishna painting his beloved Radha's face with colors when he courted her.  When Krishna fell in love with Radha, he was worried that she wouldn't love him because he was dark complexioned (blue) whille she was so fair.  His mother advised him to flirtatiously and playfully apply colors to Radha's face, thus covering up their difference.  And it worked...

Playing Holi with the Gopis



The play is particularly intense, but still fun, on the 3 last days leading up to full moon day (March 5).  Ethnic groups from the Terai and Indians celebrate the festival for one day longer.  Holi is celebrated with great fervor all over north India.  Many people, including women and children, eat or drink bhang, a preparation of marijuana and spices which only adds to the revelry, fervor, and fun.  (
Late in the afternoon of the full moon day the Chir is lowered and taken to the Thundikhel field in central Kathmandu where it is ceremonially burnt, like Holika was.  Playing with color is now officially over, and normal, well-behaved and decorous life resumes. 

                                 Radha-Ramana (Vrindavan)
                                                  photo  Robyn Beeche

So, batten down the hatches!

Here's wishing you all a joyous, wet, wild and wonderful Holi !

Love & Pranams,