Of all the festive seasons, spring is perhaps the most redolent with a context. Not merely socio-cultural but one that is distinctly biological. For spring was the mating season before organized society and the concept of marriage came into being, when pubescent men and women indulged themselves in wine, song and dance. Sexual promiscuity took place with consequential pair-bonding, which in turn, led to socially sanctioned nuptial unions.
Now, despite the accretion of layers of civilization, neither has the erotic element of the festival nor the convivial spirit and revelry paled into oblivion. On the contrary, each era has imparted to it different nuances of meaning and symbolism, with different communities and countries observing it differently. The ethos and causal factors of its origin though remain universal and unvarying.
In India, the spring festival was known as Kamadev Mahotsav or the festival of Cupid or Eros. Still known as Kama Dahan in parts of South India, the spirit of the festival has remained alive in racial memory and folklores for scores of millennia.
To this – Kamadev Mahotsav or esprit de erotique – have been knit various religious myths, parables and anecdotes over the years. Between 3000 B.C. and 600 B.C., a number of them were incorporated in Vedic, Upanishadic and Puranic literature, and were reproduced in drama, playlet, folk-dance-drama, and music in Vedic, Sanskrit, Prakrut, Pali and other patois languages and dialects.
The oldest myth, still extant, is that when Shiva practiced Yoga on Mount Kailas and remained in mystic communion with the Supreme Being for a prolonged period, Indra, the king of the Suras and sovereign of Swarglok, grew apprehensive of his power. He persuaded Kamadev to go distract Shiva, deep in meditation. Kamadev is portrayed as an enchanting youth, armed with a bow, bedecked with flowers and five types of arrows, and with the elusive power to arouse men and women to frenzied passion.
Once agitated, Shiva smouldered with rage and with his third eye reduced Kamadev to ashes. Anguished, Rati, Kamadev’s consort, entreated Shiva to pardon her husband and bring him back to life. Shiva, moved to pity, granted her wish but Kamadev wouldn’t return in corporeal form, he said; he would inhabit a subtler, all-pervasive form. Thus in the spring festival, Kamadev, in his invisible form, rouses natural impulses.
Then there is the eponymous legend of Prahlad and Holika dating back to the Puranas. Prahlad, the young and immature son of Hiranyakashyap, the ruler of the Asuras, was a devotee of Vishnu, the head of the Sura clan. His fraternal fondness for the Suras became unbearable for his father, who tried his best to wean him away from such attachment. Failing in his endeavour and desperate, he made up his mind to sacrifice his young son to safeguard the future interests of the Asuras. His sister Holika had been blessed with the boon of remaining unhurt by fire. So he requested her to enter into a bonfire with Prahlad on her lap. Holika acted as her brother wished, but the result was a disaster. Vishnu interceded, the boon failed to fructify, and she was burnt and reduced to ashes; Prahlad came out miraculously unscathed. This occurred on the first full-moon day around the vernal equinox, which coincided with the festival of spring. Accordingly, the name of the spring festival was changed from Kamadev Mahotsav to Holika Utsav or simply Holi. Ritual observances such as the lighting of the bonfire on the last day of the festivity – Holikapoda or burning of Holika – were accentuated.
The medieval ages ushered in the cult of Radha and Krishna. Vaishnavism became dominant. Radha was believed to be the symbol of universal Prakriti, nature, and Krishna, Ultimate Reality, and from their communion cosmos was created. In human form too their ‘lila’ manifested in the spring festival when they became the symbols of primordial entities of Prakriti and Purusha. These symbolisms got exaggerated in the festival of spring. The idols of Radha and Govind in a beautifully decorated swing or Viman or Doli or palanquin came to be worshipped in their eternal ‘lila’ of creation. The old name of spring festival came to be known as Dola Yatra or the festival of Dola Govind. Another accretion of ritual resulted. The decorated swing or Viman with the idols of Radha and Govind was made to swing back and forth to the tune of various musical instruments, songs, dance and merriment. People gathered in thousands in the revelry now known simply as Holi or Dola Yatra or Dola Melan or spring congregations.
Colour has always been an integral part of the festival. Apart from song and dance, the celebrations included splashing red coloured water on one another or smearing crimson powder, known as phagu, avir or gulal. The colour red was symbolic of a woman’s menstrual period, who, in the beginning of human evolution, was believed to achieve fertility only during spring and summer. The bonfire is symbolic of the mythical burning of Holika, and the erotic songs are reminiscent of Kamadev Mahotsav during the breeding season of early man.
Since marriage wasn’t institutionalized yet, the season, with its association of fertility, resulted in match-making by mutual consent. To preempt clashes among revellers, the pair-bonded girls put kumkum marks on their foreheads to ward off suitors. Over time, kumkum has metamorphosed into a symbol of marital status worn by married women even today.
Holi apart, the passing of winter heralds a round of seasonal festivity. Basanta Panchami or Shri Panchami, normally occurring at the end of January and early February precedes the Agni Purnima by 10 days, and is today observed in commemoration of the dead river Saraswati and its tributary Drushatvati, still a dominant part of the collective unconscious of the Indians. After the evolution and use of phonetic alphabets, the Rig Veda was transcribed from the racial memory in the riverine region of Brahmavarta bounded by these two rivers then in existence. Now Saraswati is believed to be the Goddess of knowledge, language and music. The day ushers in the vernal semester of learning to be spent in the residential seminary or Gurukul Ashram.
The Agni Purnima, the first full-moon day before the vernal equinox, corresponding to the Ash Wednesday of the Christendom, is another spring festival. On this day bonfire is made in three heaps on the outskirts of villages and people bid winter adieu.
Chaitra Parva or Chaitali is another festival observed by the Lunia and Kaivarta castes to launch their vocations on an auspicious note: salt manufacturing and fishing respectively. Dance on Chaitighoda or Pakshirajghoda (flying horse) is symbolic of their professions. Chaitighoda is made of a wooden horse-head artistically painted with colour and set on split bamboo contrivance, covered beautifully with flailing multi-coloured cloth representing Pakshirajghoda’s wings. The goddess Vasulai, the presiding deity of the aforesaid communities is believed to descend, possess and energize the idol of Chaitighoda. These folks go on visiting door-to-door in villages exhibiting their winged-horse dance, music and song. Another accompaniment of the troupe is Chadaiya and Chadaiyuni. Chadaiya, a boy playing the part of a female seagull and Chadaiyuni, a girl playing the part of a female seagull, amorously go on singing, dancing with erotic gestures and symbolisms. Though initially confined to the Lunia and Kaivarta folks, the doorstep performances soon earned them mass support. The symbols of this festival – Pakshirajghoda or winged-horse or Pegasus – could be found in the myths and mythologies of the Greeks.
Maha Vishuv Sankranti or Pana-sankranti is one of the key days of vernal and aestival festivity. For the Assamese, Bengalis, Oriyas, Tamilians, Maithilis, the Magadhis and Keralites, it is the beginning of a new year. In Punjab, Baisakhi is celebrated with exuberance. Parallel spring celebrations exist even outside India.
Our mythological Kamadev and Rati, the Indian god and goddess of love, have their counterparts in other cultures too, such as the Greeks’ Eros and Aphrodite and Cupid and Maia of the Romans. A still closer similarity is paralleled by the imaging of Cupid in the likeness of Kamadev; Cupid is imaged as an enfant terrible, young and enchanting and naked, armed with a bow and arrows like Kamadev.
Easter, derived possibly from aestas (summer) or aestus (heat) was supposedly symbolic of the coming of the festivals of spring and summer. The origin of Christianity has influenced the spirit in which it is observed. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and Palm Sunday are all metamorphosed versions of the spring festival.
The month of May derives from Maia, the Roman goddess of love. May Day in places of higher latitude is a vernal-aestival festival and the May Pole, around which pubescent men and women sing and dance, symbolizes the phallus. The May Queen is the prettiest girl who presides over the May Day festivities, when the revellers indulge in ‘maying’.
Lupercus was the Goddess of fertility of the ancient Romans. Lupercalia, the festival of fertility, which falls in the second half of February, was observed by the ancient Romans with offerings to the goddess Lupercus for begetting healthy children and leading happy, consensual conjugal life. Saint Valentine’s Day is another erotic spring festival observed in the west that’s caught the fancy in India today.The word ‘Lent’ in German and Dutch means the lengthening of the day, spelling the onset of spring. It falls forty days before Easter Eve and originated as a spring festival that involved merry-making and boat racing. Perhaps its association with academic pursuits could be compared to our own Basanta Panchami. Even now various European universities have a Lent term or semester. The spread of Christianity brought about changes. Today, Lent means the forty-day period of partaking of Lent fare, involving abstention from meat up to Easter Eve as penitence, in memory of the period when Christ was in the wilderness.