The Festival of Colours

“Colour! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.”
Paul Gaugin

Life is but myriads of mysteries and just like the great French post-impressionist said that colour is the enigmatic lingo — then life must be a concocted conundrum of colours. We as humans see the world in colours, we live, dream, and imagine in colours, and most importantly, we express ourselves in colours as well – be that blue, black, yellow, or a hundred shades of grey. Since colours have been an integral part of our existence, the idea of celebrations of and with colours has always been there. Holi is one such vivid vibrant idea that transpired to become one of the most fascinating festivals in the world, long before the use of water guns, balloons, colour sprays, pumps and pichkaris. Holi, otherwise known as the festival of colours, is the celebration of the triumph of virtue over maleficence — thus, it is a celebration of life itself. It celebrates love, life, passion, and positivity.

Even though the festival has its roots in Hindu mythology, the festivity still tinges a few places in Muslim-majoritarian Bangladesh. But due to its embracing exuberance, people regardless of their caste and creed indulge in the festival on the streets of Old Dhaka by forgetting all the troubles and turmoil of life. With the spirit of spring at heart, people rejoice with utmost fervour and enthusiasm as they apply, blow, throw, and splash colour bombs to each other’s faces. As I entered to take photos on that day, I was welcomed with a shower from above and I looked up to see some children on the rooftop mischievously smiling at me. This ritual of playing with colours has also found its home in many Muslim weddings as this can take the celebration to the next level. And likewise, even though it is primarily celebrated in South Asia, it has spread across different parts of the world in some form to celebrate the blossoming of love and the change of season at the end of winter.

The idea of celebrations of and with colours has always been there. Holi is one such vivid vibrant idea that transpired to become one of the most fascinating festivals in the world.

Holi is one of the most ancient festivals with cultural rituals which was also known as ‘Holika’ in some parts of South Asia. According to the Puranas (one of the Hindu religious texts) and the seminal poet Kalidasa, the oldest mention of the festival can be found in the 4th century during the reign of Chandragupta II. Under the Mughal empire, Holi was celebrated as ‘Id-e-Gulabi’ or ‘Aab-e-Pashi’ which means a cascade of colourful flowers. As the full moon spreads its radiance to mark the end of winter according to the lunisolar calendar which typically falls in either March or late February in the Gregorian calendar, the occasion is observed. According to 17th century Indian literature, it is a festival that celebrates good spring harvests and fertile land. Many Hindus find this an occasion to retune and restore ruptured relationships and to get purgative relief from past emotional impurities. It stems from a Hindu legend of a female demon named Holika and her evil brother Hiranyakashipu who thought himself to be the ultimate god as he was once granted a wish by the Lord Brahma (the Hindu God of creation) due to his great devotion to the past. He became invincible by the blessing as no man, animal or weapon could kill him as per his wish. It soon made him arrogant as well and he ordered his people to worship him instead of God. His son, Prahlad who had faith in his heart and was an assiduous devotee of Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God to preserve and protect the universe) and as such, he refused to worship his father. Upon seeing such ‘audacity,’ the kind along with his sister plotted to kill Prahlad but each time they failed as Lord Vishnu came as a protector to save His devotee. The story ends as Vishnu comes as an avatar named Narasimha in the form of half-man and half-lion to bestow the blessing of Lord Brahma and save mankind from the evil siblings — Hiranyakashipu and Holika. People started celebrating Holi which evolved from the destruction of the demon Holika and thus represents the victory of virtuous force over malevolent force. According to some historians, the part about applying and throwing colours at each other is based on a different myth. As the Hindu God Krishna who has blue skin was unhappy with his colour, his mother suggests that he paints his beloved blue. This leads to the colourful powder celebration which also epitomizes the celebration of love and unity.

Across many parts of South Asia, the festival begins with a bonfire of a puppet of Holika or a piece of wood or two to symbolize the burning of the evil force. This fire also represents the fire of faith from which the devotee of Lord Vishnu once came out safe. The ritual is known as “Holika Dahan” which translates as the bonfire of malevolence. To add more jubilance to the festive mood, special sweets named ‘gujiya’ and traditional drinks like ‘bhang’ are prepared. Each of the colours carries a distinct meaning, red symbolizing love and fertility and yellow representing positivity and also the natural agents of remedy. The colour green is for a new life or a new beginning, while blue represents the Hindu God Krishna referring back to the second mythological story. As Covid-19 hit its blow, the festivities and rituals of the festival were restrained to residences for the past two years. The celebration sparked more colours this year than the past two occasions but still amid Covid restrictions and government-held safety measures. The festival partakers await a new dawn, a new beginning — await a new spring when they could colour up, cheer up and roam around freely in a world free of Covid-19.

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Gopashis Biswas G.Son

Gopashis Biswas G.Son is a visual storyteller based in Bangladesh. His works have been published in periodicals and showcased in over 10 countries around the globe, receiving several prestigious national and international awards. Besides his visual journey, G.Son teaches and examines media and literature at a public university. His present works focus on the symbiosis of new media and its data and how these elements become socioculturally invested with ideals of precision, reliability, objectivity and ‘truth’ in the politico-commercial nexus.

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