Tinted Tales

As Holi weaves its magic on the streets of India this month, bestselling author Anand Neelakantan delves into the stories behind its many hues

Like every Indian festival, Holi has many stories to tell and my mind being always drawn to narratives of yore, I began to trace those stories to their origin not too long ago. A fascinating world opened itself up to me. I saw many familiar myths from my own childhood being shaded with a different brush, coloured by new hues and transformed into a canvas entirely unfamiliar to me. Among the many stories I discovered, one of the most fascinating told me how Holi became a festival of colours. As it goes, Lord Krishna agonises over his dark skin and wonders whether a fair-skinned Radha will ever accept him. To alleviate his dilemma, Yashoda asks him to colour Radha and the other gopikas in whichever colour he wants, marking the beginning of a colourful tradition. Each colour comes with its own hidden symbolism, meanings and, at times, even presiding gods!

Blue, the colour of the sky and the sea, has deep significance in Indian mythology. Blackish blue is the colour of Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu. It stands for vastness and infinity, and is also the colour of hope. Throwing blue at someone during Holi is an indirect way of saying to them, let your life be as vast as the sky and as infinite as space. Through its indigo dye, blue is also historically linked with India. Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote in the 1st century AD about a dye called “indicum, a production of India” that “yields a…combination of purple and cerulean”.

Green, the colour of prosperity and abundance, signifies nature, happiness and the material aspect of life. It is the colour sometimes associated with Lord Rama too – in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, married women often wear a green sari with green bangles in Lord Rama’s honour.

Red is the colour of vitality and gestures towards physical wellness and robustness. It is also the colour of auspiciousness and celebration – the traditional red-and-gold Indian bridal attire has many an admirer around the world. The red of kumkum, made from turmeric powder mixed with lime, adds to the hue an association of sacredness and protection.

Yellow, the colour of turmeric, is also the colour of gold and is representative of new beginnings. Its appearance in the 18th and 19th centuries as the pigment of Indian yellow is also fascinating, used by artists wanting to capture the hue of sunshine in their paintings. All the colours of Holi carry an affirmation of life as a beautiful journey. That’s what I have learnt from this spectacular festival, and I hope there are more like me who find in its celebration a beautiful sense of community, harmony and happiness.

The writer is an author and the views expressed in the article are his own

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