We have seen that the primary basis of this and similar rites is probably the propitiation of sunshine. But the present observances in India are probably a survival of a very much more primitive cultus. We have already seen that in one form of the popular legend, Holî is the sister of Sambat, the year, and revived him from death by burning herself with his corpse. We find the same idea in Nepâl, where a wooden post adorned with flags is erected in front of the palace, and this is burned at night, representing the burning of the body of the old year, and its re-birth with each succeeding spring.70
The Drâvidian Hill tribes of Mirzapur do not perform the Holî ceremony like their Hindu neighbours, but on the same date the Baiga burns a stake, a ceremony which is known as Sambat Jalânâ, or “the burning of the old year.”
In Kumaun each clan puts up the Chîr or rag-tree. A middle-sized tree or a large branch is cut down and stripped of its leaves. Young men go round and beg scraps of cloth, which are tied to the tree, and it is then set up in the middle of the village. Near it the Holî fire is burnt. On the last day the tree itself is burnt, and the people jump over the ashes as a cure for itch and similar diseases. While the tree is burning, men of other clans try to snatch away some of the rags. It is regarded as being very propitious to be able to do this, and the clan which loses is not allowed to set up the tree again. Faction fighting in order to gain the right of setting up the tree has practically ceased under British law.71
The ceremony in another form appears at Gwâlior. There, instead of a tree, they burn large heaps of cow dung fuel. The Marwâris erect a nude figure known as Nathurâm, made of bricks, of a most disgusting shape. This, when the pile of cowdung cakes is consumed, is broken to pieces with blows of shoes and bludgeons. Another beautifully carved image of the same kind is paraded through the bazars and kept safely from year to year. This Nathurâm is said to have been a scamp from some part of Northern India, who went to Mârwâr and seduced a number of women, until he was detected and put to death. He then became a malignant ghost and began to torment women and children, and now his spirit can be appeased only by a series of indecent songs and gestures performed by the women. No Mârwâri household is without an image of Nathurâm, and a representation of him is laid with the married pair after the wedding, while barren women and those whose children die pray to him for offspring. He is in short a phallic fetish.
The Holî, then, in its most primitive form, is possibly an aboriginal usage which has been imported into Brâhmanism. This is specially shown by the functions of the Kherapat or village priest, who lights the fire. He is sometimes a Brâhman, but often a man drawn from the lower races. As we have seen, his duties among the Drâvidian races are performed by the Baiga, who is always drawn from the non-Aryan races. It seems probable that the legends connecting the rite with Prahlâda and Krishna are a subsequent invention, and that the fire is really intended to represent the burning of the old year and the re-birth of the new, which they pray may be more propitious to the families, cattle, and crops of the worshipers. The observance seems also to include certain ceremonies intended to scare the evil spirits which bring disease and famine. The compulsory entry of the local priests into the fire can hardly be anything but a survival of human sacrifice, intended to secure the same results; and the dancing, singing, waving of flags, screaming, the mock fight, and the throwing of red powder, a colour supposed, as we have seen, to be obnoxious to evil spirits, are probably based on the same train of ideas.
Finally comes the indecency of word and gesture, which is a distinct element in the rite. There seems reason to believe that in the worship of certain deities in spring, promiscuous intercourse was regarded as a necessary part of the ceremony.72 This appears at what is called the Kâhi ka Mela in Kulu, in which indecency is supposed to scare evil spirits.73 We have already noticed the practice of indecency as a rain charm, and it seems at least a plausible hypothesis that the unchecked profligacy which prevails among the Hindus at the spring feast and at the Kajalî in autumn may be intended to repel evil spirits which check the fecundity of men, animals, and crops. The same idea probably also underlies the licentious observance of the Karama among the Drâvidian races. The same theory explains similar usages in Europe, such as the Lupercalia, Festum Stultorum, Matronalia Festa, Liberalia, and our own All Fools’ Day, where the indecent part of the performance has disappeared under the influence of a purer faith and a higher morality, and a little kindly merriment is its only survival.
Of the mock fight as a charm for rain we have spoken already, and at the Holî it may be merely a fertility charm. Of these mock fights we have numerous instances in the customs of Northern India. Thus, in Kumaun, in former days at the Bagwâh festival the males of several villages used to divide into two bodies and sling stones at each other across a stream. The results were so serious that it was suppressed after the British occupation of the country.74 The people in some places attribute the increase of cholera and other plagues to its discontinuance. In the plains, the custom survives in what is known as the Barra, when the men of two villages have a sort of Tug of War with a rope across the boundary of the village. Plenty is supposed to follow the side which is victorious.
Another of these spring rites is that known as the Râli ka Mela in Kângra, the Râli being a sort of rude image of Siva or Pârvatî. The girls of the village in March take baskets of Dûb grass and flowers, of which they make a heap in a selected place. Round this they walk and sing for ten days, and then they erect two images of Siva and Pârvatî, who are married according to the regular rites. At the conjunction or Sankrânt in the month of Baisâkh the images are flung into a pool and mock funeral obsequies are performed. The object of the ceremonial is said to be to secure a good husband.75
In Gorakhpur this spring rite takes the form of hunting and crucifying a monkey on the village boundary. This is said to be intended to scare these animals, which injure the crops. But the rite seems to be intended to secure fertility, and is possibly the survival of an actual sacrifice.
Of the same class is what is known in the Hills as the Badwâr rite, where a Dom, one of the menial castes, is made to slide down a rope from a high precipice. The intention is to promote the fertility of the crops and expel the demons of disease.