The festival of Holi symbolises a celebration of the victory of good over evil, heralding the arrival of spring and the end of winter, in vast parts of India. For many it is a day for social gatherings to splash each other with colours, of laughter, forgiveness and to reset and renew ruptured relationships.
Also called the “festival of colours”, Holi lasts for a night and a day, starting on the evening of poornima (full moon eve) in the month of faagun of the Hindu calendar. The Holi festival has a cultural significance amongst various Hindu traditions of the Indian subcontinent. While several locations around India, such as Mathura are well-known for their Holi celebrations, few have experienced the unique zest and spirit with which Holi is played inside the historic walls of Jaisalmer’s golden fortress.
It is customary to wear old white cloths on Holi, (and be prepared to get them riotously splashed with a spectrum of colours!). The festival of Holi is now celebrated in various parts of the world by the expat Indian community, but there is nothing quite as exhilarating or original as celebrating it in a place like Jaisalmer.
Numerous legends and stories associated with Holi make for a vivid rendition. The most popular one is related to the killing of Holika. The story is all about an arrogant king who wanted his subjects to worship him. His son Prahlada refused and worshipped Lord Vishnu instead. The king then attempted to kill his son but failed at every try. Finally, the king’s sister Holika gifted with the power of immunity from fire sat with the boy in a burning pyre. However, the prince Prahlada emerged unscathed, while Holika burned to death. Holi commemorates this event from mythology, and huge bonfires are burnt on the eve of Holi as its symbolic representation.
People worship the burning Holika by circumambulating the fire and ash from Holika is traditionally used by households in whatever way possible. Local farmers also sprinkle this ash in their fields believing it to improve their crops. Holi is also celebrated by many as a form of thanksgiving and to pray for a good, forthcoming harvest.
Communities living inside the fort such as Brahmins, Hajuris and Rajputs traditionally gather at key focal points and sing and compose music in different groups. Unlike anywhere else in India then, the musical element of a Holi celebration in Jaisalmer has rhythms and melodies drawn from songs of the desert bards, going back a millennium. Some songs are related to the various acts of Lord Krishna.
The festival of Holi also draws on the legend of Radha and Krishna. Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) loved Radha but felt self-conscious about how different their skin colours were. So on the advice of his mother, he went and playfully painted her face so it was the same colour as his. It is said that lovers often celebrate holi in this tradition.
One of the unique traditions of Holi in Jaisalmer is that a member of the Vyas community is nominated to be the king of the fort, just for the day.
Here some Hajuris relax mid-celebration. The Hajuris are a community who served the Rajput dynasties of Jaisalmer in the past and have lived inside the fort for centuries to this day. They continue to play a musical instrument, a single faced shallow rimmed drum with a parchment pasted on its rim, a big favourite of Holi revelers. Playing the instrument through the streets of Jaisalmer and encouraging people to play with colours and celebrate Holi for as long as they can, the Hajuris acquire alms on the festival of Holi.