Festivals,  Folklore,  Heritage

The legend behind Holika Dahan

Tomorrow is Holi, the festival of colours. The whole country will be bathed in vibrant colours and the air will have a strange headiness all morning. But tonight, on the eve of Holi, we will all celebrate Holika Dahan.

Holika Dahan literally means ‘the burning of Holika’. A huge bonfire is lit in the evening, where all old, unused stuff is burnt up with a prayer. In Tamilnadu, before the main Pongal festival, Bhogi is celebrated similarly. Here at dawn, old and discarded things are burnt in the sacrificial fire to give way to the new. The messages behind most festivals which involve burning effigies or bonfires (including Dussehra) remains the same: the triumph of truth or good over evil.

As the legend goes, Hiranyakashyapu and Hiranyaksha were two asura (demon) brothers. When donning the Varaha avatar, Lord Vishna killed Hiranyaksha, the younger brother. As a result, Hiranyakashyapu detested Vishnu and wanted to kill him. In order to do this, Hiranyakashyapu wanted mystical powers and sought to be immortal. So he embarked on a rigorous penance to appease Brahma, in order to gain the boon of immortality from him.

While he meditated, the unnerved Gods decided to attack his home. Narada intervened and rescued Hiranyakashyapu’s pregnant wife Kayadhu, who he believed was sinless. She was brought to Narada’s house, where her unborn child ends up being affected by the positive environment he is growing up in, and by Narada’s unflinching faith in Lord Vishnu.

Meanwhile, Lord Brahma was impressed with Hiranyakashyapu’s austere penance and appeared before him. When asked to grant a boon for immortality, he refused. Instead, the scheming Hiranyakashyapu asked him for a boon which he thinks will inevitably make him immortal. He tells Brahma:

“Grant me a boon, that I cannot be killed by any of your creations— neither a human, nor a demigod, nor a demon, nor an animal. Grant me my wish that I will not die either indoors or outdoors. Nor will I be killed at day or at night. Let me neither be killed on land, in water or in air. May neither astra (projectile weapons) nor shastra (handheld weapons) destroy me. “

Brahma granted him his wish. Other versions of the legend say that he appeased Shiva with another penance and acquired unparalleled skills of warfare and expertise in use of several weapons. Now heady with pride, and confident that nothing could kill him, Hiranyakashyapu continued to wreck havoc in the three worlds, persecuting all believers of Vishnu. But one enemy was growing up right under his nose.

When Hiranyakashyapu and Kayadhu’s son Prahlad was born, he turned out to be a devout Vishnu worshipper, much to his father’s chagrin. He acknowledged the supremacy of only one God: Lord Vishnu, and continued to chant his name. An angry Hiranyakashyapu ordered his son to be killed. Numerous attempts were made to kill the little boy. He tried to push him down a mountain and get him trampled under an elephant, but each time Vishnu saved his faithful devotee.

Finally Hiranyakashyapu reached out to his sister, Holika. Holika owned a magical shawl, which she had received from Lord Brahma. It had powers to protect its wearer from fire.

13th century sculpture of Holika and Prahlad on the pyre

Holika sat on a pyre with the young Prahlad on her lap. She was wrapped in the magic shawl and intended to burn Prahlad alive. The young lad closed his eyes and continued to chant Vishnu’s name. When the pyre was set alight, a strong gust of wind miraculously blew the magic shawl from Holika, and covered Prahlad instead. Holika was burnt to ashes. It is to commemorate the death of Holika that the bonfire is lit on the eve of Holi.

As the legend continues, maddened by the death of his sister, Hiranyakashyapu summoned Prahlad to his court and directed him to acknowledge his father as the supreme Lord of the Universe. Prahlad refused and said that Lord Vishnu was the Supreme God and that he is omnipresent. Angrily, Hiranyakashyapu pointed to a pillar and asked him if ‘his’ Vishnu was in it. Prahlad replies: “He was, he is and he will be”.

Sculpture of Narasimha from Hampi (Photograph by
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Courtesy: Wiki Commons)

Now seething with rage, Hiranyakashyapu swang his mace and smashed the pillar. A terrible sound was heard, and Vishnu emerged from the pillar in his Narasimha avatar — part-lion, part-man, neither man nor animal. The time was twilight, neither day nor night. He lifted Hiranyakashyapu and took him to the threshold, which is neither indoors nor outdoors. He placed the demon on his lap, neither on the land, nor in water, nor in air. And he disemboweled him with his claws, neither astra nor shastra was used. Hiranyakashyapu met his end despite all his clever boons.

An artist’s impression of Narasimha. By Kallesh Thippeswamy

The legend of Holika is relevant today, as it talks about the need to use power for good ends. Holika was given the magic shawl on the condition that its magical powers would not be misused. It talks about how good will eventually triumph over evil.

And yet, as I write this, there is a terrible downpour. Completely unseasonal. Ominous dark clouds gather in the skies. And the weather is such that no bonfires can be lit. Strong winds are all around us. Is this a portent, I wonder. Or does it symbolize the reality today, when the distinction between right and wrong is so blurred, that nothing matters. Neither truth, nor ethics, nor morality. This year’s holika dahan will be a damp squib. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. And to think that Holi is my most favourite festival of the year.

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