Poets may sing,
"Let the ape and tiger die,"
but they are not quite dead yet, only caged, and where is the man in whose bosom there lurks no wish that he could open the door just once in a way and let them have a frisk? In the East there is no hypocrisy about the matter. The tiger's den is barred and locked, and the British Government keeps the key, but the ape has an appointed day in the year on which he shall have his outing. They call it the Holi, which is a misnomer, for of all Hindu festivals this is the most unholy; but of that anon.
I asked a Brahmin what this festival commemorated, and he said he did not know. He knew how to observe it, which was the main thing. Of course, there is an explanation of it in Hindu mythology, which the Brahmin ought to have known, and very probably did know, but was ashamed to tell. But it matters little, for we may be well assured that the explanation was invented to sanctify the festival long after the festival itself came into vogue, as has been the case with some of our most Christian holidays.
The Holi comes round about the time of the vernal equinox, when victory declares for day and warmth in its long struggle with night and cold. Then Nature rises and shakes herself as Samson rose and shook himself and snapped the seven new cords that bound him, as tow is snapped when it smells the fire. Then "the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest," and then also the young Hindu's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love; and so it came about quite naturally that, looking around, among his plentiful gods, for a deity who might fitly be invited to preside over his lusty rejoicings at this season, he pitched upon Krishna.
For Krishna, when he was upon this earth, was an amorous youth, and his goings on with certain milkmaids were such as would shock Mrs. Grundy at the present day even in India, supposing he had been only a man. But he was a god, therefore his doing a thing made it right, and, where he presides, his worshippers may do as he did. Consequently, man, woman and child of every caste and grade give themselves licence, during these days of the Holi, to act and speak in a manner that would be scandalous at any other time of the year.
Hindus of the better sort are beginning to be outwardly, and some of them, I hope, inwardly, rather ashamed of this festival, and it is time they were. Yet there is always something cheering in the sight of untutored mirth and exuberant animal joy breaking out and triumphing over the sadness of life and the monotony of lowly toil; and I confess that I find a pleasing side to this festival of the Holi. I like it best as I have seen it in a fishing village on the west coast of India.
At first sight you would not suspect the black and brawny Koli of much gaiety, but there is deep down in him a spring of mirth and humour which, "when wine and free companions kindle him," can break out into the most boisterous hilarity and jocundity and even buffoonery, throwing aside all trammels of convention and decorum. His women folk, too, though they do not go out of their proper place in the social system, assert themselves vigorously within it, and are gay and vivacious and well aware of their personal attractions. So the Koli village looks forward to the Holi and makes timely preparation for it.
The night before the poornima, or full moon, of the month Phalgoon arrives, each trim fishing boat is stored with flowers and leafy branches, all the flags that can be mustered and a drum; then the whole village goes a-fishing. Next morning each housewife gets up early to decorate her house and trick out herself and her children. For though the Koli is the most naked of men, his whole workaday costume consisting of one rag about equal in amplitude to half a good pocket-handkerchief, his wife is the most dressy of women. She is always well-dressed even on common days. The bareness of her limbs may perhaps shock our notions of propriety at first, for, being a mud-wader of necessity, like the stork and the heron, she girds her garments about her very tightly indeed; but this only sets off her wonderfully erect and athletic figure, while her well-set head looks all the nicer that it has no covering except her own neatly-bound hair. She never draws her saree coyly over her head, like other native women, when she meets a man. On this day there is no change in the fashion of her costume (that never changes), but she puts on her brightest dress, blue, or red, or lemon yellow, with all her private jewellery, and decks her hair with a small chaplet of bright flowers.