The much awaited Spring Festival of India-Holi, a festival of colours, joy and merriment is around the corner. According to the Hindu calendar it is celebrated on the Phalgun Poornima (Full moon) which falls this year on Saturday 19 March 2011. This festival, especially celebrated with great enthusiasm and gaiety in northern India and even in rest of the country is meant to welcome the spring and win the blessings of Gods for good harvests and fertility of the land. As with all the Hindu festivals, there are many interesting legends attached to Holi, the most popular being that of Prince Prahlad, who was a devout follower of Lord Vishnu. After Diwali, Holi is being considered as the second most important festival of India. It is a festival of fun and frolic and has been associated with the immortal love of Krishna and Radha. The exuberance and the festivity of the season are remarkable.
Unlike all the other festivals of India, the Holi festival crosses the social taboos and people indulge in the intoxicating drinks (bhang) and sweets prepared by using opium. It is a festival of romance often represented by the love-play of Radha and Krishna. Brij Holi is famous all over the world for its gaiety and fun. Each year, young and old, men and women, all indulge themselves in the spirit of colours and for once forget the social taboos.
Holi celebration begins with lighting up of bonfire on the eve of the Holi festival (Saturday, 19 March 2011). On the next day (Sunday, 20 March 2011) known as ‘Rang Panchami’ children, young and old apply various colours on the forehead and face of their family members, friends, neighbours and relatives and express their joy and happiness. Sometimes the revelry extends into drenching each other in water mixed with bright colours.
However, in modern times, the joyous festival of Holi that is meant to celebrate the arrival of spring has considerably lost its religious significance and has become ruthlessly commercialized, boisterous and another source of environmental degradation.
The burning of fuel wood to create the bonfire for ‘Holika dahan’ presents a serious environmental problem. According to a study done in the state of Gujarat, each bonfire uses around 100 kg of wood, and considering that approximately 30,000 bonfires are lit in the state of Gujarat just for one season, this leads to a wastage of a staggering amount of wood and pollution of atmosphere. One can imagine the total amount of wood that is being used for bonfires throughout the country and the amount of pollution created in this process.
There has been a number of NGOs and Groups such as ‘Sadvichar Parivar’ who advocate one symbolic community fire rather than several smaller bonfires across the city. There are also environmentally conscious groups which suggest that these bonfires be lit using waste rather than wood.
In traditional celebration of the Holi festival, colours that were being used to play with on the Rang panchami day were prepared from the flowers of trees that blossomed during the spring season. The natural flowers provided the raw material from which the brilliant shades of Holi colours were made. Most of these trees also had medicinal properties and Holi colours prepared from them were actually beneficial to the skin.
However, over the years, with the disappearance of trees in urban areas, commercialization of the festival and with greed to profits, these natural colours came to be replaced by industrial dyes manufactured through chemical processes. Few know that the colours used usually contain harmful chemicals and can cause blindness and even cancer. Skin irritation and itching of eyes are other harmful effects. Holi colours, like gulal contain chemical compounds such as oxides, metal, glass particles, powdered mica and even anelyne.
Doctors also point out the harmful effects of the colours brought from roadside vendors. Artificial colours available as powder or paste or water colours are made of chemicals which can be extremely harmful. Apart from causing irritation, they can also cause toxicity in higher doses. The commonly used chemicals include copper sulphite for green colour, lead oxide in black colour, mica granules in gulal and various other heavy metals. These can cause skin allergies, dermatitis, rhinitis, asthma and allergic pneumonitis.
Gone are the days when everyone would participate in the fun and joy of the Holi festivities. According to a report in the Times of India dated 17 March 2011, fear of getting groped by men is keeping women of Vrindavan and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh at home during the festival of colours. As Holi gets closer, young girls are not allowed to step out of the house without parents’ permission. Holi celebrations in Uttar Pradesh begin much in advance of the festivities in other parts of the country. The famous ‘Lath Maar Holi’ where the women of Barsana hit men with sticks and men shield themselves, started on 14 March and culminated in the compound of Mathura’s Krishna Janma Bhoomi temple on 16 March.
Even before the beginning of the Holi festival, in cities like Mumbai and suburbs miscreants use water filled balloons to harass people who walk on the roads. Hiding on the terraces of buildings or from their balconies these mischievous elements aim water-balloons at strangers at their unguarded moments causing a lot of embarrassment and inconvenience. There had been instances when the colour water filled balloons thrown at commuters in local trains had resulted in the loss of eye sight of unsuspecting travelers. Rather than the festival becoming an occasion of celebration and fun, many people dread to step out of their homes on the Holi day for fear of being harassed.
However, these above facts should not deter people from celebrating Holi in a befitting and meaningful manner. There has been a lot of awareness that has been spread by various NGOs and environmental groups as to how Holi can be celebrated in a more healthy manner. In an attempt to ensure safer Holi celebrations, the department of environment and social forestry of the government of Maharashtra has organized sale of natural colours for the festival in Mantralaya on Saturday. Eco clubs across the state have made natural colours and are distributing them through NGOs.
People can prepare organic colours on their own by using available cheap ingredients. For example, yellow colour can be prepared by mixing turmeric (haldi) powder with gram flour (Besan); for pinkish red colour palash and marigold flowers can be soaked, crushed and boiled; beetroot and carrot can be boiled in order to get red and orange colours respectively; purple colour can be obtained by boiling amla and black grapes; spinach, coriander and mint leaves can be boiled to avail green colour.
It is important that rather than finding fault with the way the festivals are being celebrated, it would be proper to spread awareness among the people regarding the spiritual essence and social relevance of such festivals. Holi has been an environment friendly festival in olden days. It was known for its social significance and spiritual content, and was regarded more for its proximity with nature. Nowadays, the social aspect and the pompous celebrations have taken over its essence. There is greater need to educate the people in general and youth in particular to respect the values and spirit associated with these festivals, more so about Holi.