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The Caste and Gender-Based Discrimination in the Festival of Holi

Written by Anaisa Arora, a grade 8 student.

Holi, an Indian festival, is a significant socio-cultural event in South Asia. It has inspired plenty of songs, films and books, all of which celebrate the Gods’ victory over demons.

By I Kid You Not , in Ages 12 - 18 Did You Know Festivals Mythology Opinion , at March 31, 2021 Tags: , , , , , , ,

Written by Anaisa Arora, a grade 8 student.

Holi, an Indian festival, is a significant socio-cultural event in South Asia. It has inspired plenty of songs, films and books, all of which celebrate the Gods’ victory over demons. The celebrations culminate with the burning of the Demoness Holika. The annual burning of Holika has become a celebration of coloured powders, paint walks, and family celebrations for Savarna (upper caste). Most people have no respect for the brutality that the marginalised castes and indigenous cultures equate with Holi. For centuries advocates, scholars and marginalised castes from Indian tribal societies have argued that the narratives of Holi have been invented to conceal a violent overthrow and conquest.

The Story of Holi From The Indigenous Perspective

According to another variant of the legend, Hiranyakashyap is not a demon king, but rather a king of an indigenous group known as the Asurs, which loosely translates to “demon” in Hindi. Asurs can still be seen in big numbers in the East of India. Hiranyakashyap, as an indigenous monarch, incurred the wrath of the Devas — the non-indigenous communities who were a separate clan of kings. These non-indigenous people were the ones who introduced the caste system into India. The Devas, who are not deities but merely a competing clan who deem themselves superior to the local people, managed to entice Hiranyakashyap’s young son into their fold, much to the chagrin of an anguished father. Then, he burnt his beloved sister Holika, to death, as a final blow to the embattled king.

Days later, the Asura empire was defeated, and the opposing clan rapidly expanded their influence, capping their gruesome victory with a biblical mythology that sanctified their settler colonialist schemes. This is why marginalised castes and indigenous people refuse to partake in this imperialist and casteist re-enactment of Holi. The connection between Holi, the brutal overthrow of an Ancestral ruler, and Holika’s murder has been passed down from generation to generation through oral histories, poetry, and songs by India’s marginalised castes and tribes, many of whom believe themselves to be the original inhabitants of the land.

The Indigenous Opinion:

The Indigenous retelling of this legend exposes the complexities of celebrating festivals as these mythologies were exclusively composed by the Brahmins. Brahmins dominated much of South Asia’s early literary history because indigenous people and marginalised castes were forcefully and aggressively shut out of knowledge production. 

Holi further reinforces Brahmanical Patriarchy by allowing casteist and derogatory insults to be thrown at Holika’s figure as part of the ceremony. This transforms into systemic violence against women in cities where Holi is celebrated, causing a tumultuous and disturbing atmosphere in which gender-based abuse attacks increase during this period.

This involves crowds of men tossing rocks or water-filled balloons at women walking down the street. We can’t foresee anything more from a festival whose core is the literal burning of an indigenous woman. The violence on Holi serves as a reminder of the ongoing brutality against oppressed populations and provides justification for more during this time. To prevent such attacks, many women, marginalised castes, and tribal people avoid public spaces. 

It’s also likely that the myth of Holi appropriated an indigenous or tribal spring festival — there’s a long tradition of appropriation that took local mythology and gods into the so-called Hindu fold — and introduced the brutal burning of Holika into it. This made this festival much more controversial and contributed to the appropriation and erasure of the indigenous culture.

Here are a few ways to discuss Holi with your relatives and friends:

  • Avoid praising it and fight cultural efforts to saffron-wash its brutal past. There are other ways to create traditions and follow rituals that do not include brutal conquest and the immolation of Bahujan women.
  • Spend some time reading about the festival and telling the Bahujan account of what happened during mealtimes.
  • Use the time to take the opportunity to meet and celebrate with your friends, relatives, and preferred family.

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