Holi is the celebration of spring and related to agriculture. Festivals for children are a time of fun and frolic. In our country, each festival is celebrated in its own set style. Actually, Holi festivities start long before the festival arrives. All the food and snacks were then homemade. I don’t think we could buy ‘Gunjias” off the shelf in the 1960s. Mothers definitely had more time and we would help out in cooking ‘besan sev, gunjias (which took forever) Dahi Baras, Dal samosa, Bada Kanji, and Thandai. Each day was devoted to cooking something, as it was made in huge quantities. The feel of the festival was in the air as even our neighbors were busy in their kitchens. You hunted for your old clothes to play Holi.
Holi is celebrated over two days. Day one is Chooti Holi/ Holi Dahan or small Holi and the next day it is Badi Holi /Dulhandi or Big Holi. Some parts of the country continue to play for longer. For Holi Dahan, a bonfire is lit. In some families, it is lit in the courtyard of the house and for others, it is a community affair and lit on the street corner. The time the fire has to be lit is decided in consultation with the priest. For days in advance wood, leaves, old furniture, in fact, anything that can be burnt safely is collected into a heap at the crossing of a road or any pre-designated place by the community. A good way to get rid of things nobody wants. Today for convenience the Dahan takes place at sunset. The auspicious time could also be at midnight or at three or four am depending on the position of the stars.
In our house, my father would get stalks of wheat which are yet to ripen, and also green gram still in their jackets attached to the plant. If you go to the market on Choti Holi these are sold in the vegetable market in bunches. We would carry these with us and roast them in the fire. As the whole area was very hot these stalks were tied on a bamboo stick for roasting. Before lighting the Holi women worshipped the Holi with water, rice and roli. Some even tied the kalava or sacred thread around it. The best part was when we came home we peeled two grains of wheat and two grams, giving them to my father and wishing him ‘Ram Ram’. We wished each and every member of our family in this manner irrespective of whether they were older or younger than us. We in turn were wished by everybody and given the grains. It was a ritual that added to the fun of trying to see who wished the elders first.
In my maternal Grandfather’s house, in Moradabad, we would collect dried cow dung cakes called Upla, Kanda (used in the villages as a cooking medium) and string them like a garland. These were placed on the floor one on top of the other. Actually, the number of these garlands stacked was uneven in number i.e. five, seven, eleven. Here the Dahan was done in the courtyard of the house. The best part was that whole sugarcane was roasted and we got to eat it. Another ritual here was that all the children got a necklace made of dry fruits. It was very exciting to have all those dry fruits hanging around your neck ready to eat. Now, these are the garlands I found in the market. Changing times and tastes!
1. Dry fruit 2. Biscuits and chocolate 3. Mahkana (foxnuts or lotus seeds), biscuits, and toffees
I am sure you have your own rituals and memories thereof. It is amazing how there are subtle differences in the rituals of celebration from one area to another. On talking to my maid I realized that in her village they waited for the Holika Dahan and got the fire from it to light the kitchen fire in the house and only then the gunjias were made.
When the Holi fire cools, the ash from the Holi is collected and the next day used to put on the forehead of the person we wish Happy Holi.
On the day of Dulhandi, we would all be up and excited to strain our herbal color and prepare buckets of it. Dried Tesu flowers were bought from the market and soaked a day before overnight in a bucket of water. Then this Tesu colored water is ready to be strained. In fact, at my maternal grandmother’s house, the flowers were soaked in a metal container and left on the warm ash of the Holika fire overnight. This gave an intense color the next day. It gives an orange-yellow liquid color to play. We would play with our friends, neighbors, and family. In the evening it was time to wear party clothes and go visiting. It is said that on Holi go and meet and greet even people you don’t get along with. It is a day to forgive and forget and start again.
Trivia:- A 300BC stone inscription has a reference to Holi on it.