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The 4 Main Legends and Stories of Holi

Like other major Hindu holidays, Holi is a festival that is steeped in rich legends and mythology. Holi is known to many as a joyous celebration of love, springtime, and of course, lots and lots of colors. For those who are not familiar with Hindu history and mythology, however, many of the legends which form a core part of the Holi tradition are often lost behind the riotous celebration.

While Hindu religious mythology is rich and vastly complex, there are a few major legends especially relevant to the festival of Holi, which may help outsiders gain an appreciation of some of the celebration’s narrative underpinnings.

1. Prahlad and the Demoness Holika 

First and foremost is the legend of Prahlad and the Demoness Holika (who is the namesake of the festival).

Legend holds that through penance the demon king Hiranyakashipu was granted five magical powers of protection, which he believed would combine to make him immortal. Holding firm in this belief, he forced his subjects to worship him as a god. However, his son Prahlad refused to do so and instead stayed true to his adoration of the genuine god Vishnu. Acting out of spite, Hiranyakashipu attempted many times to kill his son but was always bested by Vishnu. 

During one of these such attempts, Hiranyakashipu conspired with his demoness sister Holika and developed a plan to kill Prahlad. Holika had a special cloak that protected her from fire, and she planned was to bring Prahlad into the fire with her, then remove the cloak and expose Prahlad to the flames. In actualization, however, the cloak flew from Holika to Prahlad, thus protecting the son and leaving the evil Holika to burn in the flames.

Vishnu would ultimately come to slay Hiranyakashipu by circumventing his 5 magical powers of protection. He took the form of a half lion half man, which bypassed Hiranyakashipu’s protection against animals and men. He arrived at dusk, which was neither night nor day, brought him to the doorstep, which was neither inside or outside, and placed him on his lap, which was neither land, water, nor air. He then killed the demon king with his claws, which are were not technically weapons.

In commemoration of the triumph of Prahlad and Vishnu over the demon siblings Holika and Hiranyakashipu, Holi begins with a bonfire the night before the celebration, symbolizing the burning of Holika and the triumph of good over evil.

2. The Story of Krishna and Radha

The following morning of Holi is when the color fight begins, and for the explanation behind this, we have to take a look at the story of the divine love between Krishna and Radha.

Krishna, in Hindu mythology, is the god of compassion and love. As a child, a demon attempted to kill Krishna by poisoning his milk. However, rather than killing young Krishna, the milk had the unintended effect of turning his skin to a characteristic dark shade of blue.

Young Krishna was self-conscious of his dark blue complexion, and also deeply in love with the fair-skinned Goddess Radha. In despair, he sought advice from his mother Yashoda, who suggested to Krishna that he simply color the skin of Radha whatever hue he pleased. Krishna took this advice at face value and, in professing his love for Radha, playfully painted her skin to be like his own.

This story, over time, has inspired the traditions of Holi which we see today, where people from all walks flood the streets and, in light-hearted celebration, drench each other in colors from across the spectrum.

Holi is also the festival of springtime and blossoming love, and the love story of Krishna and Radha serves to inspire these deeper sentiments of renewed joy and hope each year.

3. The Sacrifice of Kamadeva

Another story, regarding the god of love and passion Kamadeva, is also linked to the celebration of love that is intertwined with Holi festival.

As the story goes, the god Shiva was extremely distressed after the loss of a consort and sought solace in deep meditation. Meanwhile Parvati, the daughter of the mountains, began meditating in pursuit of marrying Shiva, but Shiva was so deep in his own meditation that he could not be roused back toward the affairs of the world.

Concerned about this, the gods asked Kamadeva to help awake Shiva from his stupor. Knowing full well the probable consequences, Kamadeva fired a love arrow at Shiva, who awoke from meditation in anger and opened his third eye, incinerating Kamadeva instantly before him. The love arrow, however landed strong, and Shiva was brought back to the affairs of the world with his marriage to Parvati. At the request of Kamadeva’s wife, Shiva later gladly brought him back to life.

Holi marks the day on which Kamadeva struck Shiva with his arrow, and as such is celebrated as an embodiment of the divine love and sacrifice.

4. Chasing Away the Ogress Dhundhi

A legend of Holi that is loved by children is the story of the Ogress Dhundi. Dhundi was nearly invincible, except for her vulnerability to the wildness and mischief of young boys. As the story goes, a King of Raghu was particularly distressed by this ogress. A priest recommended that in order to defeat the ogress, at the start of the summer season, all the boys be sent out to collect fire materials and build a fire. The boys would then circle the fire, laughing, clapping, and being merry, thus causing a ruckus and keeping the Ogress Dhundi at bay.

Thus it became tradition that on the day of Holi, young children would let loose on the Ogress Dhundi by running wild, making mischief, and chasing the ogress away with their merrymaking. To this day, children especially revel in the chaos of this Holi tradition, letting loose with colorful attacks, playful pranks, and having no-limits ser on their fun.