The week-long Hindu festival of Holi got underway Monday with the erection of the “Chir,” a tall pole topped with colored fabric streamers, in Kathmandu’s old palace square. The festival has religious origins but is also an exuberant celebration in which participants douse each other with colored water and brilliant powdered pigments.
Too exuberant, say some. In recent decades the merry-making has extended beyond the holiday itself, March 19th this year in the hill districts and March 20th in Nepal’s lowland Terai plains, too much of the week of lead-up. Traditional buckets and balloons of colored water have been augmented by permanent ink and even wastewater. Women and girls are favored targets of gangs of young men, and schools routinely excuse girl students from attendance during the festival.
As every year, the Nepal Police have banned the import of balloons into the Kathmandu Valley and stepped up patrols, but no one expects those actions to have much effect.
The Chir pole is believed to symbolize a tree where the god Krishna hung the clothing of milkmaids who liked to bathe naked in the holy Jamuna River in northern India. When the milkmaids discovered that they were being watched, Krishna – who stories say enjoyed “frolicking” with the maids – chided them, returned their clothes, and bade them be more modest. To this day, women bathe and worship at rivers with wide strips of red cloth wrapped around their torsos.
The festival is named for the demoness Holika, who attempted several times to tempt a young prince away from his devotion to Krishna. The god foiled Holika each time. In anger she grabbed the prince and leapt into a furnace with him. When the fire died down, Holika had been consumed but the prince’s devotion had protected him; he was found sitting in the ashes unharmed.
The preference for dousing each other with red color represents the flames that destroyed the demoness, and the custom of boys to sing ribald songs to girls peeking out of upper-story windows probably stems from the lusty tales of Krishna and the milkmaids. In recent years young men have increasingly favored silver and gold paints, and some adventurous young women have joined them in the streets for “rang kelne,” playing with colors.
On the holiday itself the Chir pole is lowered at an auspicious time determined by the state astrologers, and spectators tear off fragments of the fabric streamers to keep as protective talismans during the upcoming year. Men carry the pole away to the city’s central parade ground, where it is burned at night. The ashes are treasured as protection from evil, and people daub them on their foreheads in place of a traditional tika.
And near midnight the final ritual of Holi takes place on the parade ground. The centuries-old tradition stems from a traditional Kathmandu story about a repentant gambler named Keschandra, “silver tresses.” Keschandra lived in a city courtyard called Itum Bahal, and when his father died he went on a gambling spree. Before long he had squandered his entire inheritance. Reduced to begging, he went to Pashupatinath temple to collect alms from the worshippers there.
One day he was given a bowl of maggoty rice, which he spread out on the ground so that he could separate the grain from the maggots. While he was begging nearby, pigeons ate all the rice.
The god Bhairab took pity on Keschandra and turned the pigeons’ droppings into gold. When Keschandra returned, he found so much gold that he could not carry it all, and he enlisted the assistance of a demon that lived at the temple’s cremation grounds to help him carry it home. In return for his assistance, the demon Gurumapa was allowed to live in the monastery compound that Keschandra built at Itum Bahal.
Gurumapa was also accorded the right to eat all the disobedient children in the neighbourhood. To this day, residents of the area warn their children, “Be good, or Gurumapa will come for you!” But as is the way of demons, Gurumapa got out of hand and began eating good children too. Keschandra decided to solve this problem and prepared a huge party for Gurumapa. Sated by a feast of rice and meat, Gurumapa agreed to leave Itum Bahal and live under the parade ground.
He stipulated, though, that he must be served an annual feast in compensation for not being allowed to eat children. And so, every year on Holi the men of Itum Bahal prepare a huge kettle of rice and buffalo meat and carry it at midnight to the parade ground for Gurumapa.