How Holi Works

History and Legend

Holi means getting thoroughly coated in gulal.
Holi means getting thoroughly coated in gulal.
© MORANDI Bruno/Hemis/Corbis

Mentions of Holi, or at least a celebration very much like it, go back at least as far as the 7th century, and today's festival may look a lot like it did back then. A playwright from that time describes a day of throwing of colors and an overall sense of elation [source: BBC].

In more recent times, the rebirth and hope of spring have become only part of the holiday's equation. Somewhere along the way, legends were attached the day. One ties Holi to the moment when Lord Shiva, a Hindu deity, first opened his third eye [source: The Hindu]. Another says Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu religion's main god Vishnu, occasionally enjoyed some mischievous color-throwing with his consort Radha and the children of his village [source: The Hindu].

But mostly, Holi has come to be associated with a particular tale of Lord Vishnu's greatness, a popular legend among his followers: the against-all-odds salvation of Prahlad.

It's a classic tale of good over evil: The pious son of a blasphemous king, Prahlad was forced to choose between his father and his god. The father, King Hiranyakashipu, had come to believe he was more powerful than Lord Vishnu, and demanded that his subjects, and his son, worship him above all others. Prahlad, deeply religious, steadfastly refused, and the father ultimately decided the son must die.

The king enlisted the help of his sister, Holika. Holika was immune to the effects of fire, and at the king's command she dragged her nephew into a burning pyre. Prahlad, amidst the flames, prayed.

Instead of burning, Prahlad walked from the fire alive. His aunt, on the other hand, burned to death, made suddenly vulnerable to the flames by Vishnu, who answered his follower's prayers -- proof that the good of Vishnu was more powerful than the evil of the king.

This -- the death of Holika -- more than any other, is the story told at Holi, and in many parts of India, the festival incorporates a ritual re-enactment, one that typically begins the night before the day of color.