According to the legend, Hrinyakashyap did great penance to Lord Vishnu and was granted a boon wherein no one could kill him, neither a man nor an animal; he could not be killed during the day, or the night. This boon made him arrogant, and he asked everyone to pray to him instead of Lord Vishnu. His own son, Prahlad, refused to pray to him. Because of this, Hrinyakashyap tried to get him killed, but each time Vishnu saved him. Hrinyakashpap had a sister Holika, who was granted a boon to protect her from fire. She offered to help her brother out by sitting on a burning bonfire with her nephew in her lap. However, with Vishnu’s intervention, the fire burned Holika and spared Prahlad. That is when Vishnu took on the avatar of Narsimha, half man and half animal, and sprang out of a pillar to kill Hrinyakashyap at twilight, when it was neither day nor night. The grateful people took to celebrating Holi by burning a great bonfire of wood on the full moon day of Phagun.
Our little community, consisting of a cluster of houses around a large open courtyard, and some families living in an adjoining building also organized a bonfire each year. It often fell to us children to arrange for the wood and dung cakes for the bonfire. There was a big group of us, 3 girls and 4-5 boys. We had to make dung cakes, pick up wood, go around gathering wheat for the Prasad. We had to plan for this weeks in advance. The boys looked around old construction sites for bits of abandoned wood, picked up old ladders and bits of wood that were rotting in people's backyards and broke them into pieces. They looked for dried branches that had fallen off trees. Some wood was also purchased by the older men arranging the bonfire. The girls got around to gathering cow-dung. That was not hard, because there were lots of stray cows in Jamnagar, all of them obligingly providing us with fresh dung. We patted out the cow-dung mixed with hay in various shapes, round ones, leaf shaped one, triangles. There were large cakes and smaller ones. We even made dung cakes with holes in the middle, rather like a doughnut, for a dung necklace to be hung around Holika’s neck. These were laid out on the roof to dry and carefully gathered up again once they were thoroughly dry. We needed a huge mound of these, and I remember spending many afternoons doing this on the roof of my friends house
On the D-day, a shallow hole was dug in the compound where the bonfire was to be set up. It was about 3 feet wide and two feet deep. On one side of this hole a small niche was dug out. This is where a clay pot containing water, wheat and sugar was to be stowed. This was symbolic of Prahlad, the one that survived. The wheat and sugar for the pot was to be contributed by the all the houses lining the compound of our site, just a handful per house. The boiled wheat would be dug out next day and distributed again as Prasad. I remember a very high bonfire being built, with wood and dung-cakes. It was surely four of five feet high. A makeshift image of Holika was created with wood, with rope and dung necklaces around her neck. The bonfire was lit at night and the flames reached high as we fell back and danced and watched.
On the night of the Holi, we were to stay awake all night and keep an eye on the fire. The weather is quite nippy during Holi in Punjab, but in Jamnagar it is warm. We passed the night talking and playing antakshri till dawn. This is when the Prasad was dug out, and we took our share of it and went home.
This was the day of the Holi as most people know it, to be celebrated with colors. We returned after breakfast with our packets of gulal, pichkari and color bombs. It was a point of honor to allow yourself to be colored till you were black, and not give in to an urge to cry. The children could be distinguished only by their gleaming teeth. We were not allowed to wander far where ‘rough’ Holi was being played, with ashes, cow dung and dunking people into tanks full of colored water. We were happy to run around with our pichkari filled with colored water, hands packed with gulal, spraying groups of other reveling children, and being sprayed by them in turn. I returned at noon, and allowed my cousin to bathe me. It was painful to be scrubbed till I was raw, with my cousin muttering a string of curses to the other girls for having colored her little sister so ruthlessly.
Festivals all over the world celebrate something good, the birth of a messiah, victory of good over evil, a change in seasons that is the harbinger of prosperity. It is good to participate in them, but also important to know WHAT we are celebrating, so as to appreciate it more.