For those of us living in the urban areas, India is like a cheap hotel with two options for seasons, AC and non-AC.
As our grass is now English lawn, Indian romance culminates into wedding in company of tulips imported from Netherlands and trees that line our streets are exotic aliens from distant continents, it is no surprise that the festival heading our way is as misunderstood as its Wikipedia entry.
But, we are also a nation where Ritusamhara, an epic poetic celebration of seasons was once written and where spring is named Kusumakar – causer of flowers – for the most wonderful change it (once) brought to our surroundings; I need to take you for an excursion to Indian jungle to reconnect you to the most romantic festival before it is completely reduced to a festival to fear, especially for young women with sensitive heart and skin.
Unlike what is popularly believed or what Wikipedia claims, Holi is neither end of winter nor arrival of spring. Vasant – Indian spring – begins on Vasant-panchami, i.e. fifth day of waxing moon of Magha. So, Holi, the full moon day of Phalguna is actually the fortieth day of Vasant where this most glamorous season of all is at its very peak.
Holi may have been given a mythological excuse in form of story of Prahallad and Holika, but what it really stands for is romance, more so, beautiful celebration of romance in the jungle.
Kesuda, the flower of palash tree that has become a symbol of Holi is one of the flag-bearers of a wonderful natural phenomenon that not only paints our jungles with bright colour of romance but also tells us something really magical about true spirit of Holi.
While Indian tree-loving fanatics are second to none in the world in showing lunatic obsession to save trees even if they are obstructing traffic, what India has really missed is scientific and observant mind-set amongst them that tries to understand workings of nature. So, unnoticed by most urban landscape planners, even today many of our city-trees are exotic leafy aliens imported by British administrators who wanted to have streets lined with shadow-casting trees in summer.
Interestingly, it is this inability to cast shadow during summer months that holds the key to the romance of Holi that you can understand only if you get out of controlled ecology of a city and venture out into the woods.
For a native tree in Indian jungle, Holi stands for hitting the full-bloom button, and what is most sensational is that trees like palash or semal become completely leafless and flaunt flowers on every branch, painting the forest red with their festive spirit during this period. But, this wild abundance is madness with a method.
Unfortunately for our native ecology, Indian monsoon is preceded by one of the hottest dry seasons on earth.This makes sexual reproduction a great challenge for native trees.
As trees breed through flowers pollinated to turn into seeds that must have water to germinate, an Indian tree will have to produce a lot of seeds during the period of great water scarcity and time their arrival with a great precision if it wants monsoon rains to germinate at least some of them.
As extreme situations demand extreme adaptation, many Indian trees have evolved an amazing trait of going completely leafless during this period. This is a brilliant strategy because, by going leafless they not only stop water-loss through leafs, they can invest all their biological resources in producing huge number of flowers. When this really practical move is executed by all the trees simultaneously, the net outcome is a riot of colours that turn an Indian jungle into a party-place.
As flowers need pollinators, they have evolved to attract birds and insects. As birds and insects also need to time their breeding with arrival of monsoon, abundance of flowers starts a chain-reaction down the entire food chain. So, trees’ pragmatic response of heat and water-scarcity ends up with the arrows of Kamadeva hitting every denizen across the entire jungle.
With birds and insects thronging trees laden with colourful flowers, romance drips like nectar into the air, so there is no surprise that this unique ecological drama led to birth of a festival that allowed humans to resonate with the exuberance displayed by nature.
Unfortunately for us, living inside weather-proof pigeon-holes that we call homes completely cut off from seasonal dance of nature, all this has no real meaning now. Vasant of today is debased completely and has lost its spirit.
So, for modern women, flowery arrows of Pushpadhanva that Kalidasa romanced about are now replaced by water balloons and groping hands. Holi has turned into a festival out of context and what is left is an ugly exoskeleton of sex, while the beautiful body of romance is completely lost.
If we think that we are a culture worth cherishing, we need to start with understanding the ecology that we belong to. Our festivals have been part of a dance of nature that must be recognised and experienced. If you want to be part of this eternal dance, escape from the cocoon of urbanity and enjoy Holi in company of nature this year.
Watch a palash in full bloom, listen to chorus of rosy pastors emitting from a semal tree or look at bulbuls feasting on a pangara this Holi, and you will feel the power of Indian Vasant and the romance she offers to all her children.