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Holi is perhaps the most rowdy and notorious of all Hindu festivals. It occurs on the full moon day of the month of Phalguna (February-March) and is essentially an outdoor festival welcoming the appearance of spring. Observant Hindus light bonfires, and parents carry their babies clockwise round the flames to invoke the protection and blessings of Agni, the god of fire. In India, children use pumps to squirt brightly coloured liquids at each other – and at unsuspecting passers-by. Not an occasion for wearing your best clothes!

Different stories are associated with the event. In South India, people remember how Lord Shiva burnt to ashes the god of love, Kamadev (Cupid), whose arrows interrupted the ascetic god’s meditation. Around Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, elders relate the stories of Krishna and the Gopis (milkmaids) who used to bombard each other with brightly hued powder and coloured water.

The most famous story, though, is that of the witch Holika, after whom the festival is named. Long ago there lived a wicked and atheistic king called Hiranyakashipu. His name suggests that he was very materialistic, fond of gold and soft beds. His son, however, was just the opposite. The saintly Prahlad, though only five years old, was a great devotee of Krishna (Vishnu). This enraged his demonic father who tried to kill him in various ways – by hurling him from a cliff top, casting him into a pit of poisonous snakes, and dashing him before the feet of charging elephants. Throughout the ordeal, the boy’s ardent prayers to the Lord invoked His protection and he remained unharmed. Hiranyakashipu seethed.

Breathing heavily, he summoned his evil sister, Holika, whom he knew had received a boon from Agni that she could not be harmed by fire. She consented to her brother’s scheme, and carried her faultless nephew into blazing fire. The young Prahlad, constantly chanting the name of the Lord, remained unscathed as the wicked Holika burned to ashes.

This story is also connected with the appearance of Narasingha, the half-man/half-lion incarnation of Vishnu who finally killed the tyrannical King. During the colourful occasion of Holi, devout Hindus remember how the Lord always protects His faithful devotees.