Holi is unique to North India and has no parallel anywhere else in the world. This uniqueness is indeed an anthropological wonder, unfortunately never studied by anthropologists. Equally unfortunate is the fact that no historian of India has ever thought of compiling a history of this custom and while there are a few myths here and there, they cannot stand in for a historical account of the festival; its origins and its proliferation. Like all of us, I took Holi for granted till a domestic help from the hills of Kumaon informed me of how Holi is celebrated in his land. Holi is a week-long affair where people keep wearing the colours and smearing each other with coloured powder through the entire period of five days before the full moon. On the day of the full moon people take their bath after the long winter. On the plains of Northern India, the night when the moon waxes to its fullest, Holika, an effigy most ghostly, made out of heaped garbage of dried straw and of shed leaves is burnt and around the bonfire, for the night is still rather cool, gathers a crowd singing and dancing often into the next dawn when colours are slapped on one another. In the east, especially after the Vaishnav movement of Shri Chaitanya, Holi is the Doljatra when it is believed that Radha Madhab comes around to the homes of people, knock at their doors and ask them to pour colour upon the Divine Self. In the Gangetic Plain, Holi is often a drunken revelry, imitating a sex orgy, an excuse to break through the various socially constructed constraints that hold back people from freely mixing with the other.
From a sociological common sense it appears that the Holi must have originated in the Shivaliks because of the strong suggestions of the human menstruation system with the flavour of a rite; indeed the Gods and Goddesses lived in that land and the source of rituals and festivals cannot be denied to the region. The rites of Holi are not really surprising, but the use of colour is. This way of donning colour on human beings, painting one another in colours of flowers and plants is indeed unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Truly when Holi spread elsewhere in the country, the colours were carried off rather than the rites. To burn Holika at stake in Punjab on the eve of the festival is a direct carry over from the witch burning custom of the West. Punjab being home to Aryans may have already a close proximity to territories in which burning of bodies and setting things to fire must have been a tradition. The celebration of Holi by burning the heaped rubbish as if upon a stake may well be a long embedded memory in the deep subconscious of the area. The actual festival of playing Holi is known Dhulendi around Delhi, a name that suggests play with dust. This means that the coloured powder is a euphemism of dust. The act of playing Holi is therefore one of a mudslinging orgy and in territories of the five rivers and the doab, it must have been a covert way of pulling off a riot, attacking with flowers and fragrances, colours and water jets those who the necessities of social order did not allow to do. Trailing down the northern plains into the Gangetic Valley, the Holi is sanctified behind the Radha Krishna cult and becomes licentious where men and women use the festival to mix freely across genders under the guise of deeply tangerine faces.
However it is in the 12th century that Holi seems to have found its aesthetic. The Vaishnav movement sieved Dhulendi of its dust and retrieved its pure colours in the festival of Doljatra. In this festival, the Gods seem to descend right upon your doorstep asking you to paint them with your colours; once you shed your inhibitions and emerge literally in your true colours you then spread your colours to those around you. The Dol in the east has a certain level of anonymity, anyman and everyman should be a recipient of your colours and you of theirs. The Vaishnav movement emerged as a sectarian movement and the Dol was a way of spreading amity and camaraderie.
Whichever way Holi is decoded sociologically and anthropologically, the aspect of colour resists analysis. The colour is the most perplexing aspect of Holi for nowhere in the world, human societies have used colour to celebrate what Holi celebrates while every society in its own way has festivals that are orgiastic or congregational.
Colour is then unique to Holi and in many ways also the fundamental principle of the Indian culture. The term raga used for music means colour; raga when used to depict human emotions also means colour. A person in deep rage is called to be of raga where her face may turn red or change colour. Holi falls in the time of spring, a time when nature proliferates and emerges out of its hibernation which in the hills is snow. Colour is therefore associated with rejuvenation, a renaissance, a moment of birth, an outbreak. The Carl Sagan television shows Cosmos which plots the birth of the Universe in a single calendar year. According to this calendar, 15th March is the date when the Milky Way was formed. 15th March is also roughly the time of Holi. The Milk Way created dust, the cosmic Dhulendi and reflected light in a spectrum producing colour! This is why; colour cannot be really decoded in terms of sociology and anthropology because its significance lies far beyond the human societies, even beyond the Time on earth, into the moments when the Universe was being born. Holi is a remembrance of such Times, a time before Time, the core of colour in the DNA of the cosmos. This is why in Doljatra, Radha Madhab emerges from within the concealed Time before Light and asks for colour from humans, for that is the start of Time itself, when Light gets its meaning as it collides with the dust of stars to spread colour.