Holi Hai!: Purvaiya Ke Jhonke: Those Easterly Breezes Of Holi
Remember sparks flying around the fire of Holi, and moving back a few steps to avoid them? That first day of Holi festival was not that much fun as was the second day of playing with colors and water and watercolors.
But to mothers and new brides the first day was very important. Mothers brought their babies who had completed one-year to be blessed by the Holi fire. Newlywed couples circled the fire seeking blessings. And married women who had fasted through the day, came with ‘puja thalis’ of ‘kumkum’, rice, camphor, coconut, popped sorghum ‘dhani’, and a small jug of water to offer water ‘arghya’ while circling the fire, putting the coconut into the fire.
The mythical story of god Vishnu’s devotee Prahlad and his father king Hiranyakashyap is well-known. Evil Hiranyakashyap tried to kill son Prahlad and his sister by fire. But by the grace of Vishnu, the protector, the fire did not harm Prahlad and his sister but burned their aunt Holika. Hence the Holi fire is lit to symbolize destruction of evil and protection from Vishnu, the sustainer of the Hindu trinity. Rejoicing with colors and flowers and water follows the next day.
But Holi fire has another significance. Holi fire was also used to predict the weather to come. Usually, a wind rose after the fire was lit, and, in the old days, farmers and astronomers predicted weather, a harsh or a mild summer, a heavy monsoon or a draught, by looking at the flames dancing in the wind, which could be easterly or westerly or northward or southward. At other times, a small weather flag was also placed atop the wooden pile of the bonfire. Weather was predicted according to the direction the weather flag fell away from the fire’s impact.
An earthen pot filled with raw wheat berries and jaggery was placed underground over which the fire was lit. This was symbolic of life and sustenance coming from the earth.The wheat was cooked when the pot was dug out after the fire died. That was then distributed as ‘prasad’.
Contrary to popular belief, Holi does not mark the beginning of spring. Holi marks almost the end of spring. India falls in the path of the north easterly winds. Holi festival with its sudden winds is a reminder to enjoy the last few cool days of the spring season which is soon to end. Holi usually falls in the first or second week of March, before the heat of summer begins.
The cool winds around Holi are actually part of ‘Uttarayana’ or the sun’s northward journey which begins the day after the winter solstice which falls on December 21, plus or minus 3 days. The winter ‘ayanansha’ or solstice, which is also the shortest day of the year, marks the beginning of the sun’s visible journey towards north which ends on the day of the summer solstice on June 21st.
That the earth moves around the sun is a given. Its tilt on its own axis causes predictable and unpredictable winds is also known. With climate change, and the change in the angle of the tilt of the axis, newer winds have been circulating the northern hemisphere in the recent years. Long before the advent of newer technologies to detect all this, Indian astronomers had figured out these changes, the proof of which is found in many ancient books such as the ‘Surya Siddhanta’.
It helps to remember that the Hindu year is divided into six ‘Ritus’ or seasons which last two months each. These are Vasant or Spring, Grishma or Summer, Varsha or Monsoon, Sharad or Autumn, Hemant or Pre-Winter and Shishir or Winter. The twelve months named after the corresponding constellations are Kartik, Magshirsh (Hemant – mid October to mid December), Pausha, Magha (Shishir – mid December to mid February), Falgun, Chaitra (Vasant – mid February to mid April), Vaishakh, Jestha (Grishma – mid April to mid June), Ashadh, Shravan (Varsha – mid June to mid August), Bhadrapad, and Ashwin or Aaso (Sharad – mid August to October). Holi, which usually falls in the first or the second week of March, falls almost towards the end of the Vasant ritu.
Holi is the culmination of the easterly winds. ‘Uttarayan’ which begins on the winter solstice on December 21, leads to Vasant which begins on Vasant Panchami during the Hindu calendar months of Chaitra and Vaishakh and lasts two months from February 22 to April 21. Vasant celebrates spring crops and harvest and is considered the best season for weddings, the day of Vasant Panchami being the most suitable day on which a large number of weddings are planned.
In the Hindu lunar calendar, the positions of the planets influence all new beginnings and sacred events including weddings. Thus, due to the constellations’ final movement towards ‘Makar Vrutta’ or the tropic of Capricorn, no weddings or sacred events can be held for a month beginning December 14 till January 14, the Makar Sankranti day. Once the constellations are conjoined in Capricorn, all events can be held without the fear of any future harm coming in their way. India sees a surge in weddings from mid January till the end of February, a week before Holi. The week before Holi is called ‘Holashtak’ and is considered unsuitable to hold any important event.
Basically agricultural from ancient times, India is the land of many different cultures and the new year begins at different times for each of these, depending on harvest times. The new year for many cultures, corresponding to the spring harvest, begins in the days following Holi.
The Maharashtrian new year ‘Gudi Padwa’ falls on the first day of the Chaitra month, about fifteen days after Holi. This is followed by Ugadi, the Telugu new year, which usually falls in the last week of March or early April. Puthandu, the Tamil new year, usually falls in April according to the lunisolar Tamilian calendar. The same day is also observed as Vishu, the Malayalam new year, and Baisakhi, the Punjabi new year. Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu, the Assamese new year, also falls in mid April. The Bengali new year, Pohela Boishakh, falls in mid April too. The Gujarati new year, Bestu Varas, according to the Vikram Samvat calendar, is on the day after Diwali, and falls in mid October.