In Hindu mythology, Hiranyakashipu was the king of demons, and he had been granted a boon by Brahma, which made it almost impossible for him to be killed. The boon was due to his long penance, after which he had demanded that he not be killed ‘during day or night; inside the home or outside; not on earth or on sky, neither by a man nor an animal’. Consequently, he grew arrogant, and attacked the Heavens and Earth. He demanded that people stop worshipping gods and start praying to him. But his own son, Prahlad, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from Hiranyakashipu, Prahlad continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. He was poisoned but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and still survived. All of Hiranyakashipu’s attempts at killing him failed. Ultimately he ordered young Prahlad to sit on a pyre on the lap of his sister Holika, who could not die by fire by virtue of a shawl which would prevent fire affecting the person wearing it. Prahlad readily accepted his father’s orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as the shawl flew from Holika, who, then was burnt to death, while Prahlad survived without a scar to show for it, after the shawl moved on to cover him. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.
In Vrindavan and Mathura the festival is still celebrated for 16 days (until Rangpanchmi in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna). Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the festival by playing pranks on the gopis here. Krishna is believed to be complained about his dark color and Radha’s fair color to his mother and so decided to apply color to her face. The celebrations officially usher in spring, the celebrated season of love.
There is another story about the origin of holi. The Kamadeva is God of love. Kama’s body was destroyed when he shot his weapon at Shiva in order to disrupt his penance and help Parvati to marry Shiva. Shiva then opened his third eye, the gaze of which was so powerful that Kama’s body was reduced to ashes. For the sake of Kama’s wife Rati (passion), Shiva restored him, but only as a mental image, representing the true emotional and mental state of love rather than physical lust. The Holi bonfire is believed to be celebrated in commeration of this event.