Holi: The Festival of Colours

Myths and Legends of Holi manifested through folk art and culture of Rarh region of West Bengal.

By Banglanatak

Palash during HoliBanglanatak

Festival of Holi

In the month of March, the Rarh region of Bengal (Birbhum, Bankura, Bardhaman, Medinipur, etc) - also known as the region of red soil, appears to be fiery red with blooming of Palash flowers signifying Spring or 'Basanta'. The region is also known for its different manifestations of Holi festival through folk songs, dances, rituals, and local crafts. 

Palash Flowers signifying SpringBanglanatak

Vasanta Bhel by Amulya Kumar
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The festival of Holi is an ancient and popular Hindu tradition that marks the welcoming of Spring - the season of harvest, triumph of good over evil, and eternal love. The red Palash flower is depicted here. Jhumur is an indigenous folk music and dance form of the Rarh region of West Bengal. Here, listen to a Jhumur folk song on Basanta.

Folk Holi Festival in NimdihBanglanatak

Holika Dahan

On the eve of Holi, a pyre is burned with an effigy of Holika, an asura, placed on top of it. According to folklore Holika was the sister of Hiranyakashipu, the King of Asuras (demons). Prahlad was the son of Hiranyakashipu but an ardent devotee of Vishnu. 

Holika DahanBanglanatak

The Demon King got angry and planned to kill Prahlad with the help of his sister Holika, who tried tricking Prahlad to sit on a bonfire, hoping to burn him to death. Instead, Holika got burned and Prahlad was saved by Lord Vishnu who killed Hiranyakashipu.   

Folk Holi Festival in NimdihBanglanatak

Ekdin Nikunje by Salabat Mahato
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The celebration of Holi happens on the last full moon day of the month of March. Holi eve is observed with Holika Dahan, where all sing and dance around the fire to celebrate the victory of good over evil. This is a scene of Jhumur folk performance at Holika Dahan festival in Nimdih, located on the border of Purulia in Bengal and Jharkhand.

Jhumur Folk DanceBanglanatak

Biraha Basanta by Amulya Kumar
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Jhumur is a folk form found in the Rarh region of Bengal as well as in parts of the Chhotanagpur region. It is performed in groups and especially during festivals like Holi to celebrate togetherness. 

Hiranyakashipu depicted in Patachitra by Manu ChitrakarBanglanatak

Legends of Holi in Bengal Patachitra

Bengal Patachitra, a traditional art form of story-telling through scroll paintings have illustrated the various myths and legends of Holi for ages. This is a Patachitra frame depicting Hiranyakashipu Asura.

Patachitra of Radha and Krishna (2018) by Uttam ChitrakarBanglanatak

Mythology of Radha-Krishna

We also find beautiful depictions of Radha Krishna in Bengal Patachitra. Folklore of Radha Krishna is also central to the festival of Holi explaining why it became a festival of colours, and is one of the most widely accepted legends in India.

Krishna Leela in Bengal PatachitraBanglanatak

Lord Krishna had dark complexion and often complained about it to Mother Yashoda, especially feeling jealous of Radha's fair complexion. Once, playfully, Yashoda had suggested that Krishna could smear Radha with colours and turn her complexion into any colour he wants.

Patachitra on Raslila (2018) by Suman ChitrakarBanglanatak

Mischievous Krishna went and put colours on Radha and her Gopis (friends). This loving prank of Lord Krishna with Radha turned into an evergreen folklore of their divine love celebrated with colours. Holi thus became a symbol of eternal love and friendship.

Holi Festival at Nimdih (2020)Banglanatak

Festival of Colours

Owing to this legend of Radha Krishna, festival of Holi has become a festival of colours associated with playfulness and love.

Krishna Radha Wooden Doll of BengalBanglanatak

Celebration of Divine Love of Lord Krishna and Radha

In Bengal, the eternal love of Radha Krishna is displayed through a diverse array of crafts and festivities. These are wooden dolls of Natungram, Bardhaman, a famous hub of craftspersons traditionally making such dolls that have been customarily used for local rituals. 

Wooden Doll of Chaitanya from Bengal by Artists of NatungramBanglanatak

Holi also marks Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's birthday, born more than 600 years ago on Holi (Phalgun Purnima), and believed to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna by his devotees. He was a 'Bhakti' saint devoted to Lord Krishna. He preached pure love and devotion through which one could truly connect with the Lord. These are wooden dolls of Chaitanya made in Natungram, Bardhaman district. Vaishnavism had seen an upsurge in the region and hence the Krishna and Chaitanya idols are popular here.

Exquisite Terracotta Carvings of Bishnupur TemplesBanglanatak

Radha Krishna Stories in Temple Architecture

Terracotta ('baked-clay') is a unique and integral craft of Rarh Bengal that has been extensively used in temple architecture of the region, mostly themed on Vaishnavism - devotion to Vishnu and his avatars, especially Lord Krishna. These carvings depict the stories of Radha Krishna.

Exquisite Terracotta Carvings of Bishnupur TemplesBanglanatak

This terracotta panel depicts the divine love of Radha Krishna and its celebration by the Gopis (Radha's friends).

Terracotta Carvings of Bishnupur TempleBanglanatak

Legends associated with Holi like the one on Hiranyakashipu Asura are beautifully depicted in terracotta on the walls of temples of Bankura. 

Terracotta Carvings of Bishnupur TempleBanglanatak

In this terracotta panel the mischievous smearing of colours by Lord Krishna on Radha is depicted. After Krishna did that, Radha fell in love with him.

Terracotta Tiles of BengalBanglanatak

The traditional artists of Panchmura in Bankura district are well known for their terracotta work and are still continuing the tradition. Panchmura is an active and renowned hub of terracotta craft. 

Rasmancha Temple of Bishnupur in West BengalBanglanatak

Ras Leela in Bankura

The Rasmancha, a historically significant terracotta monument in Bishnupur of Bankura district, West Bengal was built in 1600 CE under the reign of King Hambir Malla of this Mallabhum region (region ruled by the Malla Kings; presently the Bankura district). This was culturally a centre of  the Vaishnava Ras festival (till 1932) that precedes Holi and celebrates the love of Radha Krishna.

Its architectural features are very interesting as upper structure looks like a pyramid. Middle part resembles Bengali huts and the arches of the lower part resembles Islamic architecture. During the Ras festival, all the Radha Krishna idols of Bishnupur town used to be brought here to be worshipped.

Sadhu & Kangal Baul singers in front of Radhabinod Temple at Jaydev Kenduli in BirbhumBanglanatak

Fairs and Festivals

The Radhabinod temple in  Joydev- Kenduli village  situated  on the banks of River Ajoy at Birbhum district of West Bengal is another exemplary work of terracotta architecture and is famous for its Baul Festival. It is dedicated to the famous poet Joydev who wrote the Gita Govinda - poem on love between Radha and Krishna. 

Girish Khyapa is a renowned Baul Singer of BengalBanglanatak

Bauls, the wandering minstrels of Bengal beautifully portray the stories of Radha and Krishna through their songs. Moreover they spread words of love and togetherness making their songs a perfect match for expressing the essence of Holi.

Baul Performance at Folk Holi Festival in Nimdih by Khaibar Fakir, Subhadra Sharma and groupBanglanatak

Bauls participate in this festival every year to commemorate the great poet Joydev and to celebrate celestial love and oneness with God. 

Kala Bhaban ShantiniketanBanglanatak

Basanta Utsav in Shantiniketan

Shantiniketan in  Birbhum district was modelled by Rabindranath Tagore on the principles of humanism, internationalism, and cultural plurality. Established in 1863, it has been a seat of education which is of international renown with the setting up of the Visva Bharati University in 1921.

Baul Performance at Folk Holi Festival by Khaibar Fakir, Golam FakirBanglanatak

Tagore promoted cultural festivals for celebrating our traditions of pluralism and 'unity in diversity', Basanta Utsav being one of the most significant. At this festival, students and teachers and all residents play Holi together with coloured powder and celebrate through songs and dance performances. The campus becomes active with Baul songs and tribal dances. 

Colours of HoliBanglanatak

Coloured powder called 'Aabir' of different shades, often made from dried flowers, is used to play Holi. People playfully smear these colours on each other to celebrate togetherness.

Holi Festival at Nimdih (2020)Banglanatak

Many popular Holi festivals have emerged in Rarh Bengal over the years that attract a large number of tourists.  This is an image of a Holi festival in Nimdih. 

Holi Festival in NimdihBanglanatak

It is a land of folk songs and dances along with beautiful topography of Dalma mountain range, red soil, Palash trees, rivers, all of which provide a perfect setting to celebrate spring, positivity and goodness. 

Celebration of Folk Holi Festival

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