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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Holi and Environment

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In India there is unity and integrity in its immense diversity. Diversity is up to such extent that it is hard to prepare a list of the people belonging to different religion, religious sects, regional languages, traditional practices, food preferences, dresses, dances etc. However, it is a great wonder that an inherent unity and integrity in its strongest form exists in every part of the country that can only be reflected when the people of India celebrate functions or assemble for a genuine cause both during war and for peace. One section of society has sacred regard for the faiths and beliefs of other section of society and cooperate each other during social functions, marriages, religious celebrations, and even during hard times of each other. When unity of India or its integrity among vast diversity is a subject of our talk, we can not leave one of the Hindu festivals named Holi.
The festival of joy and colours
Holi is a festival of joy, unity and colours. It is celebrated in India in Hindu societies since the time immemorial. The early religious texts contain a detailed description of this festival. Different non- Hindu religious and historical texts also have appropriate discussions about this festival. There is also a detailed description of this festival in early religious works such as Jaimini's Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras. .”Holi has a detailed description in the ancient Vedas and Puranas such as ‘Narad Purana’ and ‘Bhavishya Purana’. The festival of Holi also finds detailed descriptions in the Jaimini Mimansa. During an excavation, a stone inscription of 300 BC was found at Ramgarh and this stone inscription has mention of ‘Holikotsav’ i.e. the ‘celebrations of Holi’ written on it. This gives logic to the theories of the historian who believe Holi to be a celebration even before the birth of Christ. Other ancient references like the mention of holikotsav in King Harsha’s Ratnavali written during 7th century and the description of holikotsav in the travelogues of Ulbaruni support the fact that Holi is not a nascent celebration in the country”.

Apart from the references in religious and historical texts Holi finds a reference in scriptures also.”Celebrated in northern parts of India, Holi is a festival of joy and colors. On the joyous occasion, people follow the tradition of smearing color onto the faces of their friends and guests, playfully. Holi is one of the principal matters mentioned on a 16th century temple at Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagar (now in Karnataka) which  has a panel sculpted with the joyous scene of Holi celebrations. This painting illustrates a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids who are waiting with pichkaris to drench the couple in colored water. Another painting on the theme related to Holi, the Vasanta Ragini - spring song or music is found in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. This 16th century painting depicts a royal couple sitting on a huge swing, and several maidens surrounding them playing music and spraying colors with pichkaris. There are several other illustrations and paintings belonging to medieval India that can be found in the temples and palaces of that era. An interesting painting of Mewar (circa 1755) illustrates the Maharana with his courtiers bestowing gifts and riches on his people while a merry dance is going on. Also, there is water tank filled with colored water in the center of his courtyard. Similarly, a Bundi miniature depicts a king seated on his tusker and some beautiful women showering Gulal (colored powders) on him. These are few of the examples which Holi has been an integral part of the country since ever. It existed here before Christ was born; it continued in the medieval era and is being celebrated in the country till now”.

Origin of the festival

Holi has its origin in Hindu religious texts from “Holika” the sister of Hiranyakashyap a demon- a demon king. Hiranyakashyap wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana or Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result she paid a price for her sinister desires, while Prahlad was saved by the grace of the god for his extreme devotion. The festival, therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion. Legend of Lord Krishna is also associated with play with colors as the Lord started the tradition of play with colours by applying colour on his beloved Radha and other gopis. Gradually, the play gained popularity with the people and became a tradition. There are also a few other legends associated with the festival - like the legend of Shiva and Kaamadeva and those of Ogress Dhundhi and Pootana. All depict triumph of good over evil - lending a philosophy to the festival. In some parts of India, especially in Bengal and Orissa, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1533).

Image :1 - Lord Krishna playing Holi with Gopies

Environmental Significance of Holi

Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalgun (February/March), (Phalgun Poornima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March. In 2009, Holi (Dhulandi) was on March 11 and Holika Dahan was on March 10. In 2010, Holi is on February 28 and Holika Dahan was on February 27.

Impacts of using synthetic colours

Earlier, many spring blossoming trees used to offer colours that were extracted and used in celebrating Holi. But now that most of those trees have died out, cut and cleared by human beings, and industrialization has been encouraged to make too much money, synthetic colours have taken their place. Two veteran NGOs of Delhi, the national capital of India – Toxic Link and Vatavaran published a fact sheet in the year 2001 and elaborated harmful effects of synthetic colours used in three forms- paste, dry colours and as water colours. They reported about severe health impacts of synthetic colours in paste form. According to the analysis of these NGOs the black colour was found to contain lead oxide that can result in renal failures. Silver colour with aluminum bromide and red colour with mercury sulphate was found to be carcinogenic. The Persian blue used in blue paste was reported to cause contact dermatitis while the copper sulphate used in making green colour paste was reported to cause allergies of eyes and even blindness.

Image : 2- Colours of Holi

As for dry colours, even the Gulal was found to be toxic as it contained heavy metals that may cause asthma, skin diseases and even blindness. Asbestos and silica used as bases in Gulal are reported to be associated with serious health issues.

As for wet colours, these have been reported to cause skin discolouration and dermatitis as gentian violet is used as colour concentrates in these colours. There is a complete lack of control over the quality and composition of these colours. Usually these colours are sold by vendors who are not at all concerned with their quality etc.

After the publication of the report by these NGOs a number of other social groups too started promoting the use of natural colours in Holi celebrations. Some of these other social groups are - Development Alternatives, Delhi and Kalpavriksh. “The CLEAN India campaign and Society for Child Development, through its Avacayam Cooperative Campaign have both launched campaigns to help children learn to make their own colours for Holi from safer, natural ingredients. Meanwhile, some commercial companies such as the National Botanical Research Institute have begun to market "herbal" dyes, though these are substantially more expensive than the dangerous alternatives. However, it may be noted that many parts of rural India have always resorted to natural colours (and other parts of festivities more than colours) due to availability reasons”.

The traditional Holika Dahan bonfire has been alleged to contribute to deforestation. According to a report about 30.000 bonfires each burning approximately 100 kg of wood are burnt during Holika Dahan. However, it has been observed that most communities burn Arand (Ricinus communis) shrubs along with waste wood during the occasion. Still, in the time of climate change and global warming when release of carbon dioxide and few other gases have been confirmed to contribute this global problem, burning of anything to release gases in the atmosphere should be restricted.

Image :3 - Ricinus communis plant usually placed in the middle of Holi bonfire

Image : 4- Holi bonfire

An evil practice has been accompanying with the Holika Dahan since long and that is – young boys of colonies or villages move during the night collecting wood for Holika and catch valuable wood items of different families- like wooden cot, building wood, furniture etc. In this regard social groups may spread awareness and try to raise the moral standards of these boys.

Drinking of Bhang on the occasion of Holikotsav is very popular. Cannabis sativa is an annual plant in the Cannabinaceae family. It is a herb that has been used throughout recorded history by humans as a source of fiber for its seed oil, as food, as a drug, as medicine, and for spiritual purposes. Each part of the plant is harvested differently, depending on the purpose of its use. However, drinking crude extract of leaves of this plant in heavy quantity is reported to cause impotency, arrhythmia, psychosis, mental disorder, memory loss and even heart attacks.

Image : 5- Cannabis sativa

In the modern age use of cannabis has been replaced by wine and drinking has become very common even in the young and teenagers especially during Holi. Some stupid sellers sell intoxicated wine during these occasions and cause deaths of hundreds of people.

Eating and distributing sweets is a common social practice during Holi celebrations. Some greedy sweet sellers mix cheap and synthetic materials in sweets and endanger the community health during the time of joy and mix serious tragedies in our social life. Such sweet sellers should be caught and punished by law of the country. Some sort of serious awareness about prohibition of liquor must be promoted in our societies but since it is the source of revenue to the government, the government keeps its efforts to the limit of issuing statutory warnings only. However, some Indian states have banned it, and the illegal business in the darkness in those states too has been reported to flourish in a good speed.

The festival of Holi has been reported to be celebrated in many countries of the world including USA, South Africa and U.K.as Indians have migrated everywhere in the world. However, foreign people who like some of the Indian traditions and culture take keen interests and enjoy with Indians in their festivals.

Key Words : Holi, Colours, bonfire, Prahlad, Holika, Synthetic colours, Pastes, Ricinus communis, statutory warning,carcinogenic, allergy

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