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Happy Holi! Today is the festival of color and spring is close at hand (although it doesn’t feel that way in New York where the city is girding itself for a massive blizzard). We might not be in the tropical subcontinent (indeed, we might be under 3 feet of snow), but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate some vivid color—even if I can’t literally throw it in your face.
Now I love all of the glowing shades of Holi. Indeed, with typical Hindu heterogeneousness, the festival does not have one or two colors associated with it like parsimonious western holidays, but it is a festival of all color. However I think the most typical Holi color in my mind is the glowing beautiful magenta which you always see in pictures of Holi. Where did that crazy color originate?
Well, actually it seems like the beautiful purples and magentas of Holi are natural and come from boiled beetroot (or sometimes kachnar powder). This amazing glowing color comes from betacyanins–antioxidant phytonutrients which are always causing nutritionists to swoon because of anti-inflammatory benefits. You may recognize the hue from fancy boiled eggs—and apparently beetroot can also be used to dye yarn and fabric.
I would love to talk more about this exquisite magenta, but according to an earlier post, it doesn’t exist. That is a paradoxical conclusion to reach on the holiday of colors, but Holi comes from the same cosmology which gave us Kali, the goddess of destruction—and ultimate creation. Ponder the vicissitudes of color and non-color as we gear up for spring and have a happy Holi!
It’s April Fools’ Day! Although rampant pranks, tomfoolery, and hijinks can make navigating the internet (and the world beyond) a bit treacherous, today is also a special day for Ferrebeekeeper. Four years ago this blog started out on April 1, 2010. Thanks again to all of our readers for your support and comments! No fooling! My readers are the best!
I feel conflicted about April Fools’ Day as currently celebrated in the English and Scandinavian world. The news becomes somewhat useless today–as any story could be a fabrication. The real sadness is the actual news becomes suspect. Ebola epidemic, live artillery exchange between North and South Korea, and mudslides are hardly laughing matters (although anything involving our political leadership might be a different matter).
The French have a much nicer celebration of April Fools’ which is known as Poisson d’Avril (literally “fish of April”). In France, pranksters try to surreptitiously affix colorful paper fish to the backs of various friends, family, and colleagues. The day also has a more child-friendly aspect, as grade-school children make colorful craft fishes (either for pranks, or for display). Additionally, delicious confectionary fish are a happy addition to the informal holiday. Some folklore experts believe that the fish tradition was started due to a disconnection between the new year as celebrated by sophisticated courtiers and burghers (on January 1st) versus the beginning of the agricultural year in April–which played a bigger role in the life of more provincial folk. Other academics speculate that the holiday is even more literal and celebrated the hatching of naïve young fish which could be easily caught and consumed!
Of course the true roots of April Fools’ Day go back much further into the depths of history. The Romans had a holiday named Hilaria which was observed on the vernal equinox in veneration of Cybele, the great mother goddess. The Indians celebrate Holi, a spring festival of colors, intoxication, and fun. Perhaps the most ancient spring prank holidays involve ancient Persia. Purim, a Jewish spring holiday, commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from Persian hegemony. The day is celebrated by contemporary Jews with masquerading and comic dramatizations. The ancient Persians themselves had a sacred spring holiday, Sizdah Bedar, which celebrated humankind’s connection with nature through games, feasts, and communion with the forest and country.
It is this last holiday which encapsulates my true feelings. Winter’s dreadful desolation is finally passing and new life and hope are on the way (irrespective of pranks or paper fish). To quote The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a strange but evocative Victorian translation of medieval Persian verse:
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
Yesterday, March 20th, 2011 was the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. According to myth, Hiranyakashipu, a king among the demons, was granted a boon by Brahma after undergoing a long period of intense asceticism. Brahma decreed that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal.” Emboldened by his apparent invulnerability, Hiranyakashipu initiated an evil scheme to supplant the gods (because of his wickedness, I am going to include him in my “deities of the underworld” category as I customarily do whenever I write about the Asura). He demanded that all beings worship him instead of the rightful deities and he visited hideous torments upon those who disobeyed. The demon’s own son Prahlada was one such protestor. Prahlada maintained stalwart and absolute devotion to Vishnu, despite his father’s threats. In order to make an example for the rest of the world, Hiranyakashipu poisoned his son, but the poison turned to nectar. Enraged the demon ordered Prahlada put to death by being crushed by elephants, but this too went awry. After several other attempts to kill Prahlada also failed, Hiranyakashipu decided to burn his son on a great pyre. In order to ensure that nothing went amiss Hiranyakashipu decreed that his sister Holika, who had her own boon of fire resistance from Brahma, would hold Prahlada in the flames. However when the fire was lit Holika, despite her gift of being completely flame resistant, was burnt to death and her nephew Prahlada was spared.
Vishnu, the demon-slayer (who from time to time assumed mortal shapes such as human, pig, or turtle) then came to Hiranyakashipu as a lion avatar, Narasimha. Narasimha attacked the demon king at twilight as the latter was on the steps to his dwelling. Vishnu in his Narashima avatar-form clawed the renegade demon to death while holding him (the demon) on his (Vishnu’s) lap. The conditions of the boon were met because a god incarnated as a lion monster is neither man nor animal and Vishnu was holding the demon above the ground but not in the sky. Additionally twilight is neither day nor night and steps are neither in nor out of a dwelling. However, what exactly went wrong for Holika and caused the utter failure of her special power still remains a topic of debate among Hindu theologians
These fateful events are celebrated on Holi which also celebrates the passing of winter and the coming of spring. Holi is the festival of color and the first day of the festival (which is always a full moon) is celebrated by all manner of dying, painting, and friendly pelting of family and friends with colorful pigments. As an artist I love the idea of a festival of color and spring is clearly the perfect time for such a celebration. I have tried to fill this void in my life with Easter-egg dying but the color has been leaching out of Easter as it loses its preeminence among Christian festivals. So, to celebrate Holi, and the return of color to the world after the austerity of winter, I am going to devote the rest of this week to some of my favorite colors and pigments. Feel free to chime in with your favorite colors of any sort, this is a topic which I love dearly.