Celebrated all over India since ancient times, Holi was an originally an agricultural festival to celebrate the arrival of spring.
This aspect still plays a significant part in the festival in the form of the colored powders. Holi is a time when man and nature alike throw off the gloom of winter and rejoice in the colors and liveliness of spring.
Holi also commemorates various events in Hindu mythology, but for most Hindus it provides a temporary opportunity to disregard social norms, indulge in merrymaking and generally ‘let loose’.
The legend commemorated by the festival of Holi involves an evil king named Hiranyakashipu, who forbade his son Prahlad from worshipping Lord Vishnu, although Prahlad continued to offer prayers to the god. This angered Hiranyakashipu who challenged Prahlad to sit on a pyre with his wicked aunt Holika who was believed to be immune to fire (In another version, Holika put herself and Prahlad on the fire on orders from her brother.)
Prahlad accepted the challenge and prayed to Lord Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika was burnt to death, while Prahlad survived without a scar to show for it. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi. According to some accounts, Holika begged Prahlad for forgiveness before her demise, and he decreed that she would be remembered every year at Holi.
Another account for the basis of the day is associated with a legend involving Lord Shiva, one of the major Hindu gods. Lord Shiva is known for his meditative nature and his many hours spent in solitude and deep meditation. Madana, the God of love, decided to test his resolve and appeared to Lord Shiva in the form of a beautiful nymph. But Lord Shiva recognized Madana and became very angry. In a fit of rage he shot fire out of his third eye and reduced her to ashes. This is sometimes mentioned as the basis of Holi's bonfire.
The festival of Holi is also associated with the enduring love between Lord Krishna (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and Radha. According to legend, the young Lord Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about Radha being so fair and he so dark. Yashoda advised him to apply colour on Radha's face and see how her complexion would change. Because of this association with Lord Krishna, Holi is extended over a longer period in Vrindavan and Mathura, the two cities with which Lord Krishna is closely affiliated.
Lord Krishna's followers find special meaning in the joyous festival, as general frivolity is considered to be an imitation of Lord Krishna's play with the gopis (wives and daughters of cowherds).