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The Holi Festival – Present & Past

Jari Mari Mata Temple on S.V. Road, Bandra.

The venue for the Holi bonfire on the night of the Spring Full Moon.

Past Holi bonfires at this location are a part of my childhood.

And the Present bonfire, now captured on very bad pictures on an old mobile phone, is mostly an attempt to relive those memories.


The Jari Mari temple is a short walk away from my childhood home. Every year, on the night before the festive play of colors on ‘Dhuleti’ a bonfire is lit in honor of of a good hero Prahlad conquering an evil demonness Holika.

These legends from the Hindu scriptures were just stories for me and were a marginal part of the drama created that evening every year with the lighting of the bonfire.

My grandma was a part of a “mahila mandal’ or a ladies group who got together to celebrate festivals.

(Here it is important to note one significant feature of the old Indian society that is different from current day urban society in India or elsewhere.  Today, the anchor of social relationships is the husband-wife unit. In those days, the husband wife relationship was just marginal to one’s social anchors. Every woman was bonded strongly with the other women in the joint or extended family. The mother-in-law, the sister-in-laws, the neighbours, all reached out to each other for their social interactions and husbands played a small part of the socialising. So this ‘mahila mandal’ acted as a sisterhood social structure)

In those days phones were not available. So we, the little children acted as the little messengers carrying messages to and from the ladies of the mandal to plan the evening’s festivities. ‘What time should we all go down to the temple’ ‘What sweets should we carry’ and such other matters were arranged through us.

My day would be spent as usual – going to school and arranging materials for the color play the next day and looking forward to the events of the 24 hours that would follow. The bonfire would mark the start of the festivities and the anticipation would build up over the whole day. Around 8 pm the excitement would become unbearable (am not sure why – because the bonfire actually had no ‘fun’ element – but am just recalling my memories) and I’d ask for permission to go to the temple to check if the fire had been lit or not. 250 meters was considered ‘too far’ for me to venture out alone so I was allowed to go to the mid point. It would always be too early in my first check and 2-3 other sojourns would follow before I could announce the good news.

Then my grandma would collect the ladies in our building and we would all gather downstairs and leave. Each of the ladies had a ‘puja thali’ or worship plate containing red powder, rice grains, yellow turmeric powder, white sugar flowerettes, stringed white sugar discs called batasha, a mud lamp, flowers, a small pot of water, a whole skinned coconut and sometimes a bunch of green grams attached to their stems.

We’d all walk together as a group and along the way other groups from other buildings would merge in.

At the bonfire, my grandma (and the other women) would lay down their thalis and perform the puja, while I would copy their actions without any comprehension or conviction or lack of it.

After offerings of the red powder and the rice grains, the coconut would be put into the fire along with the grams. (Later the priest’s helpers would retrieve the consecrated coconut from the fire and give back half to the offerer and keep half for the temple to distribute to other devotees.). She would then walk around the holi bonfire in the clockwise direction carrying the pot of water at an angle to allow a steady trickle as she walked. Three rounds later she would stop and offer the flowers and hold the lamp in her hand and perform an ‘arti’ of the holi bonfire murmuring some prayer chants that I never quite learnt.

We’d then urge the busy helpers to give us back a coconut half and he’d plod and poke with his irons into the fire and retrieve one.

This would mark the end of the prayer service.

The women gathered would then put a little color on each other since they would not be meeting on the following day of dhuleti. After a little chit chat we’d all head back home.

In those days – water balloons had just been introduced and boisterous young boys would stand at their windows and throw these at the women as they all walked back from the puja. As was customary and expected, the women would pout a few harsh words at them (a show of approval would have taken the fun out of the boys’ mischief) and the boys would laugh and hide. This was all done in good spirit, and I am certain that the women would have felt neglected had the boys failed to ‘trouble’ them with this fun stuff.

With heightened spirits and very fulfilling community bonding everyone would reach home, too excited to sleep, because the next day was ‘dhuleti’ the play of colors.

The Holi bonfire night is usually shadowed out by the glamour and the excitement of the color play and when most people speak of Holi, they speak of the color play. But they are part of the same 2-day festival.

Over the 2 years that I lived in Mumbai I planned again and again to show my children the bonfire – but unfortunately, I failed. As expected, I managed to organise spectacular dhuletis for them but the bonfire experience remained elusive and became a regret.

Yesterday, unplanned, un-orchestrated at a moment’s notice I decided to be a part of the bonfire and I watched it from the beginning.  Reliving my past, cancelling out a regret.

A few terrible pictures of a very happy experience :

Before the fire is lit

The additional dried leaves and logs to fuel the fire

Lit Bonfire

Video 1 : Circling around the Holi with folded hands

Video 2 : The Priest offering worship

Video 3 : Lighting the Holi fire (this bigger video will be put up once I have faster internet)


For years I held on to these wistful dreams and hopes of reliving these experiences …..and I finally did it!

Having learnt that the critical factor in living this desire was not the ‘effort’ but the ‘decision’ I am encouraged to live out more of these ….



March 2012



This entry was posted on March 9, 2012 by in Culture Kaleidoscope and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .



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