Sabhi ko Holi ki Shubhkamnayein! A very Happy Holi to all our readers celebrating day 1 of this exciting festival today.
Holi’s roots are in fact very ancient in origin. Though today it is primarily celebrated in Northern India, it was once part of an all India, vast, virtual month of Festivities known as Vasanta Maha Utsava.
Spring has a definitive place in the minds of most people and most cultures. It not only signifies the end of winter, and the end of the previous year, but also a time of renewal, rejuvenation, rebirth, and revelry. It is truly a celebration of life, youth and the young-at-heart alike.
Vasanta Mahotsava, Vasantha Utsava, or Vasant Utsav or Basant, is the ancient Spring Festival of Indic Civilization. It is mentioned in many old works from the Kathasaritasagara to the Kamasutra. Vatsyayana refers to it as Suva-santaka. Kalidasa’s Malavikaagnimitra and Sriharsa’s Ratnavali both include this festival, and the latter, in fact celebrates it in the opening act. [1, 353]
Vasanta Mahotsava was, therefore, a seasonal festival celebrated at the approach of the vernal equinox. [1, 353]
“The new year begins with Spring around the vernal equinox. But the poem begins with Summer so as to end with Spring; and auspicious ending, for Spring is renewal. The old year is dead and the advent of Spring is welcomed with song and dance and religious ceremonies. In ancient India this was known as the Spring Festival or the Festival of Love and it was celebrated with uninhibited revelry in a carnival atmosphere. New plays were written and staged as part of the festivities. The prologue to Kalidasa’s first play Maalavikaa and Agnimitra mentions it as the new play presented at the Spring festival.”[2,18]
But while the modern North excels in celebration and festivity, it is important to note that Vasant was once an all-India festival. Here is an account of its celebration in the Reddi Kingdom of Andhra :
“Beautiful descriptions of this spring festival are furnished by the Telugu works Simhaasanadvaatrimsika, Bheemesvara Puraanam and Kaaseekhandam produced in this age. These works give us a clear idea of the celebration of the festival and the different ceremonies practiced on this occasion. As the authors of these works lived in this age when the spring festival was at its zenith of popularity, we may be certain that, much influenced by the realistic grandeur of this carnival, they introduced it into their works, and provided us a good picture of the festival, as it was in vogue” [1,355]
There was a great carnival and the King would go to a park specially decorated for Vasant. There would be a pandal for Kama & Rati, Vishnu &Lakshmi, Siva & Sakti, and Sachi & Indra. Perfumes such as camphor, musk, civet, saffron, sandal were used, rosewater was freely sprinkled on people along with water mixed with turmeric. A bamboo water soaker was used (like the pichkari in holi). People mixed freely and the Reddi kings gave it royal grandeur. The king and queen were sprinkled with saffron-water by passersby. [1, 357]
The Reddi King Kumaragiri himself so came to embody this celebration that he received the title Vasantaraya (Emperor of Spring).
The Rayas of Vijayanagara were Emperors in their own right, and Vasant is famously featured in temple sculptures of this Empire in Karnataka.
“The festival of Holi also finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of old temples. A 16th century panel sculpted in a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, shows a joyous scene of Holi. The painting depicts a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids waiting with syringes or pichkaris to drench the Royal couple in coloured water” 
It is likely that what is being referred to as Holi above was in fact the grand festival of Vasantha Utsava, as listed elsewhere:
“Vasantotsavam was celebrated in this mandapa [Mahanavami Dibba] during Tirumala-raya’s period.” [2,11]
There are of course attempt to digest and appropriate Vasant Utsav as “Basant” by Sufis. But the Vasant Utsav itself is far more ancient, and in contrast with Sufism (a velvet glove for an iron fist), our Utsav is far more in line with the Indic Dharmic view of balanced relations between the genders anyway. Recent sufi attempts to digest Holi are even more risible and show the importance of understanding authentic Indic culture, rather than obsessing over the colonising syncretic.
Further, in the name of being “modern/post-modern”, many of our traditions are being digested by corporations and similar business efforts. The Color Run is one such example of Holi’s tradition of throwing colours being used as part of a marathon. While cultural exchange is good, cultural appropriation and de-sacralisating of our traditions is not. What usually starts as harmless participation, becomes appropriation, and when the Hindu/Indic roots are denied (as is being done with Yoga), finally becomes digestion (as explained by Rajiv Malhotra).
As such, it is far better to understand the significance, sanctity, and symbolism behind our traditions and culture, rather than merely exulting in “being recognised by global!“.
In any event, Vasanta Maha Utsava is the traditional two-week long Spring Extravaganza in Bharatavarsha. Here are the components and the significance in detail.
Vasant Utsav is not merely 1 or even 2 days, but in fact extends over several weeks. While there are references tracing it back to Vedic times, it is almost certain that its celebration was documented in mid-first millenium BCE.
Traditionally, there are four navratras, the most famous being in Sharad. The Chaitra Navratri, true to its name, is also celebrated over nine days, and honours the Goddess Durga. Here is a description of it and the other components of Vasanta Mahotsav.
As most know the famous story, Holi signifies the evil Holika’s defeat by the devout Prahalad, a great Vishnu Bhakta. Holika was the sister of Hiranyakashipu, the rakshasa king who had grown powerful and full of arrogance, demanding all worship him instead of Vishnu. His son Prahalad was obedient, but refused this command, saying despite his father’s accomplishment, Vishnu was Supreme, and thus, should be worshipped. Hiranyakashipu’s ahankar was wounded, and thus commanded Prahalada to sit on Holika’s lap in a fire, to demonstrate whether Vishnu would save him. While the evil Holika (who was also a cannibal) had a saree that could protect her from fire, Prahalad had no such defence, and only his devotion to Vishnu. Nevertheless, he was saved and escaped unharmed from the fire.
Elsewhere, it is said that Lord Krishna killed Poothana (another killer of infants) on this day. Thus, Holi has acquired its importance and grandeur on account of these successive defeats of evil. It is thus traditionally divided over two days, starting with Choti Holi (on Chaturdashi) and ending on Phalgun Phurnima (full moon).
Choti Holi/Holika Dahan
This is the day that the bonfire is prepared. This is called Holika dahan, and articles from the past year are also burnt, signifying a fresh start for the upcoming year.
Interestingly, parts of the South celebrate this Holika Dahan as Kamuni Dahamu, signifying the burning away of all wrong passions and impulses and baggage of the previous year, and renewing ourselves in the New Year.
This day needs no introduction in most of the world. From the colours (gulal) to the pichkaris (bamboo water soakers) to the dance and revelry, this is quite possibly the most fun festival in the entire world.
People from all classes and backgrounds freely mix and spread cheer and song in the name of Spring and the triumph of good over evil. More traditionally, one can find some additional rituals, especially in the villages of Northern India, which further underscore the mixture of the sacred with the festive.
“Some women in the village offer special puja during Holi. Small twigs of the ‘Kamal’ tree are painted in red and yellow and then laid out in little bamboo baskets (khartoo) along with thread, kumkum, jaggery and roasted grams. The women carry this basket and little pots of coloured water in their hands and go for the Puja”. After it is offered, Holi is then played. [4,226]
Despite the calendrical variations, the two main divisions in the Hindu Luni-solar calendar celebrate New Year on the same day. Most of North India uses the Purnimanta Calendar. This Calendar ends every month with the full moon. The Amanta or Amavasyat Calendar starts every month with the new moon. Due to this discrepancy, Holi, which would normally align with the two-week long Vasant Mahotsav now has a month-long gap.
Restoring the Amanta calendar in the rest of India would restore the two week-long celebration. Interestingly, because the Purnimanta calendar starts with Krishna paksha, the Chaitra Sukla Pratipada (first day of the Bright half of the moon) is on the same day in both calendars. That is the reason why Ugadi/Gudi Padwa and Nava Varsha/Navreh are all celebrated on the same day, by both calendars.
When we say Navratri, most people think of the 9 days leading up to Dasara. But this is in fact just 1 of 4 (some say 5) Navratris, other than the famous Sharad Navratri. There is also the Magha, Ashvin, and relevant for Vasant utsav, the Chaitra Navratri. All of these celebrate the glory of Shakti.
Chaitra Navratri, in particular, is significant as it ends with the Sri Rama Navami. This is all the more symbolic as the original reason for this Navratri involved Ayodhya. Prince Sudarshana, one of Rama’s ancestors, was driven from his rightful throne. Through worship of the Devi, and her bija mantra, he was able to get married and become king. Bhagavan Rama too worshipped Shakti, and the timing of his defeat of Ravana is on Dasara (the tenth day of Durga’s Victory). As such, Chaitra Navratri ending with Sri Rama Navami is highly significant.
Sri Rama Navami
The Mahotsav appropriately closes with one of our most Sacred Days, Sri Rama Navami. This is the day of Lord Rama’s birth in Ayodhya. As he renewed our Dharma in the previous Treta Age, Spring renews our commitment to Dharma in the present one.
The overarching vision of Vasant Utsav, however, contrary to sepoys (LW and RW), is not unrestrained license or debauchery. Rather, it is a celebration of life in a tasteful yet enthusiastic manner. The full spectrum of all things, rather than mere obsession with the lower chakras. It is about celebrating all aspects of creation, whether personal or cosmic.
In ancient times, this was arguably the most exciting of Indian festivals, with a large part of the subcontinent featuring a carnival atmosphere, of music, dance, food, socialising, and general celebration. With so many days of significance, from Holi to Yugadi to Sri Rama Navami, it is only natural that this Utsav would become a Mahotsav.
Holi, of course, needs no explanation on how to celebrate. The only suggestion is to play safe and to use safe organic gulal. There are plenty of healthy natural colour-based options that individuals can draw from. They are not only “eco-friendly” but are also made by people who actually care about the festival and passing on our traditions.
Vasant Utsav in general is celebrated in many ways. Beyond Holi and its famous festivities (an article in and of itself), there are many spring sports, with music, theatre, and dance.
“After the termination of the sports, the king with his queens went to a lotus pond nearby and sported in the water for a while. Re-turning from the lotus tank he gave audience to the public and rewarded poets and artists according to merit. Dramas were put on boards; dance recitals were given; musicians, showed their skill in music, both vocal and instrumental; and magicians and others proficient in other kalaas or vidyas, came there in search of patronage, and displayed their feats of strength, skill and sleight of hand. It was a grand occasion for patronising Arts and Letters.” [1, 358]
Dandiya Raas (from the Sanskrit Dandaraasakam) is played , especially during the nine nights of Navratri. Puja is also done, especially for Devi, via the Ghatasthapana Muhurta, which has to be done at a specific time during the day. Doing so will activate the positive energy of Shakti via the kalasa (sacred pot).
Finally, Vasant Utsav is often associated with Kama Deva, the God of Love, whose friend and ally is literally the personification of the month of Spring, Vasanta. Kalidasa himself famously celebrated this month in his Rtusamhara.
Above all, however, Vasant Utsav was a great coming together of all sections of society, in fun and frolic. Spring is a time for renewal, not only of relationships and spirits, but of values and societies. And it should be once again.
Vasantamahotsava was the major festival of those days, which exercised great influence on the people culturally and socially. It was occasions like this that advanced the knowledge and culture of the common people. [1, 358]
- M.Somasekhara Sarma. History of the Reddi Kingdoms.Delhi:Facsimile Publ. 2015
- Rao, V. Kameswara.Temples in and Around Tirupati.1986.p.11
- Gajrani, S. History, Religion, and Culture of India (Vol.5).Delhi: Isha Books.2004