IntersectionalityCaste Reading Caste In Holi: The Burning Of Holika, A Bahujan Woman

Reading Caste In Holi: The Burning Of Holika, A Bahujan Woman

Every Holi, we burn Holika – a Bahujan woman. Our festivals are based on Vedic & Puranic stories which suppress stories of the lower castes.

As a middle-class woman who has lived in a city all her life, my disaffection with Holi began quite early. I think I was 15 when I decided it is not a festival worth celebrating, and I have not really participated in it since.

Regardless of what my 15-year-old saw fit and had decided however, it was still a festive occasion for my family. My mother and my aunt still made some delicious puran polis every year, fried up some kanda bhaji, made aamti (for want of a better word, a curry made from the water that the dal for the puran poli stuffing was cooked in) and of course, gulavani—a preparation made using water and jaggery to dunk the puran poli into. We were never allowed to touch any of it till an offering was made to the burning pyre which symbolizes the death of Holika and evil.

In spite of all this rosiness, I opposed Holi. My opposition to Holi and Rang Panchami, back then, was couched in a cushy concern for the environment. Burn down trees? Generate toxic fumes? Waste water? No thanks, I am educated, I used to think.

Within a year or two, from a concern for the environment, my “educated” self moved on to find a term and politics that I had longed for without ever having known it. Feminism encompassed everything that bothered me about my life: the different rules for me and my brother, the constant surveillance my body was subjected to and the desire to break free from it all.

Armed with this lens, Rang Panchami then became to me another legitimated patriarchal vehicle for violating my bodily integrity as a woman. The forced water, colours and balloons made me see how my body was considered a free-for-all source of entertainment for men.

Now that I look back, I am amazed by the ease with which such a vocabulary and apparatus were made available. An apparatus that made it possible for me to contest a day sacred to so many with declarations that were as glib as they were contained by my peculiar social location, contaminated by my class and its biases.

This realisation is even more painful given that I have not had such easy access to an apparatus that asks questions that are as fundamental, if not more, about what Holi really represents. That missing apparatus was caste. And it was an apparatus that was not available to me in spite of being a Bahujan woman.

So what is Holi really about? As K. Jamnadas points out in Holi – A Festival To Commemorate Bahujan Burning, it is a holiday premised on Bahujan burning. In the same piece, he points out how the festivities around this day are indirectly connected to Hiranyakashyapu. From the many versions of the story behind the festival—which involves burning a pyre one evening, and celebrating with colours the next—the one constant is that it was a part of Narasimha’s scheme to save Prahlad’s life.

Narasimha is considered an avatar of Vishnu. Hiranyakashyapu’s son Prahlad had recognized the one true God in Narasimha and had gained popularity as his ardent devotee. This did not go down well with the asura king Hiranyakashyapu, who obsessively plotted his own son’s murder. One such foiled attempt was when he sent his sister Holika for the hitjob, who decided to use a special blanket to protect herself from the fire while she made Prahlad sit with her in a lit pyre. Prahlad’s prayers to Narasimha ensured that he was unharmed while Holika burnt.

What we celebrate is this burning of Holika. A Bahujan woman. To those who want to ask how I can accept that asuras represent Bahujan, and give credence to the racial theory of caste (one that Ambedkar himself does not believe in – see Who Were the Shudras), I say you are missing the point. The racial theory of caste suggests that a foreign race invaded India and this race went on to become the Brahmin class, while the peoples they conquered and subjugated went on to become the lower castes.

A refashioning of this theory, which began with Mahatma Phule’s Slavery, declares that the Vedic and Puranic stories which dictate our festivals rely on suppressing the story of the lower castes, and it is they who are painted as asuras. This refashioning is a part of the attempt to contest hegemonic constructs of culture; constructs of culture which have a project of invisibilising the lives of the marginalized written into them.

Vedic and Puranic stories which dictate our festivals rely on suppressing the story of lower castes, who are painted as asuras.

As Reju George Mathew has pointed out, “One cannot consider it as stupidity or lack of awareness when a group of Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan students (along with some Christian, Muslim, Atheists etc.) attempt to project the Asura-Dravidian cultural and identity symbols, along with declaring their pride in being Asura” What is more important here is the recognition of the context in which these new cultural norms are sought to be instituted. And setting the agenda of culture clearly cannot remain an upper-caste privilege.

After all, it has taken me over two decades to realize that though my family makes puran poli for Holi and celebrates Holi—Brahminization in full display—there is a reason we make gulavani with it, while my savarna friends do not. They have puran poli with milk. Our gulavani is a carry-over from the times when my family did not have access to milk. Because the culture around me is so silent on caste, I could not make sense of my own life practices.

So if there is one thing you set fire to this Holi, let it be the structures that thrive on one version of culture being all-pervasive. Structures and stories that do not allow a vast majority to make sense of their lives.


  1. Sumit Vanjari says:

    She tried to kill pralhad and got burned herself. Irrespective of cast I will celebrate holi no matter cast the aunt of prahlad was. Bad writing example, do ur homework..

  2. Luke says:

    Sadly your article comes out when all are high and drunk in the festivities.
    You would have come out with this earlier. Make this accessible on Whatsapp with brief references.
    This article like most did not serve its purpose You could have made people have a conversation on this by inviting renowned people in a video interview. All the best for your future articles. And by the way “throw out the word “feminism” its not needed in an educated world. You would need to change it to a a More Jhat word. No one like the word feminism. in cultured societies women are treated with respect. Its in the matriachial society in Maharashtra, and south india and North east India. If we are your target group, dont use the word feminism. If Rajhastan and Delhi is your target group then feminism is a must there.

    • VInod Kumar says:

      Basically The Drunker s dont belongs to any religion or culture, they drink for any reasons.. actually this article reminded my school geometry theory which proves A is equal to B by some sort of steps.. This Pastime of Holika has nothing to do with caste or Feminism

  3. VInod Kumar says:

    Nice I really appreciate the view you have marked in your Post,

    However i like to narrate that the whole Puranas and vedas has been compiled by a Fisherwomen Son Sage Vyasadeva…

    And Famous Ramayanas author was an Shudras as per your consideration,,

    So what could be the reasoning for this Low birth People writting books which Glorifies Brahmins and debasing Shudras..

    • Vivekashis Bhavan says:

      Very good reasoning.

    • Sanjaya Kumar Nanda says:

      I supposed you are a learned person but don’t like to appreciate the dalit president of India Mr. Kobind who showed his optimum dedication towards his higher caste master. Though he was frequently badly humiliated by them in many occasions.

  4. ramakant naik says:

    Very good articulation.

  5. Fire-proof Holika! What caused her to be burned by fire
    Holika received benediction that she won’t be burned by fire when somebody is trying to kill her. This boon was for her PROTECTION and not for other’s DESTRUCTION. Therefore when she entered into fire with Prahlad with a destructive motive, she got burned; and by the protection of Lord Narasimha, Prahlad was saved.

    An analysis on your below writing
    ” What we celebrate is this burning of Holika. A Bahujan woman. To those who want to ask how I can accept that asuras represent bahujans, and give credence to the racial theory of caste (one that Ambedkar himself does not believe in – see Who Were the Shudras), I say you are missing the point. The racial theory of caste suggests that a foreign race invaded India and this race went on to become the Brahmin class, while the peoples they conquered and subjugated went on to become the lower castes.”

    Point 1: Burning of holika means burning of destructive, harmful, evil and impure mentality. When gold is put on fire, it sheds out its impurities to shine brighter. When impure mentality which represents holika got burnt, the gold like character of Prahlad shined brighter.
    If you attribute burning of Holika to burning of Bahujan; then, would you accept burning of Ravana to burning of brahmin? I don’t think you would ever compare burning of Ravana to be a plot done my non-brahmins to minimize brahmins. Dasheera is victory over evil so as Holi.
    Point 2 : Dr.Ambedkar not only rejected racial theory, he also rejected any invasion of foreign race(brahmin) and making other subjugated.
    Below is an except form Dr. Ambedkar’s book entitled : “Who were the Shudras” the reference which you have also quoted but gave your own commentary. Below is what Dr. Ambedkar has written and I am quoting it as it is

    (1) (1) The Vedas do not know any such race as the Aryan race.
    (2) (2) There is no evidence in the Vedas of any invasion of India by the Aryan race
    and its having conquered the Dasas and Dasyus supposed to be natives of India.
    (3) (3) There is no evidence to show that the distinction between Aryans, Dasas and
    Dasyus was a racial distinction.
    (4) (4) The Vedas do not support the contention that the Aryas were different in colour
    from the Dasas and Dasyus.”

    In this context, Dr. Ambedkar’s words are like gold(Prahlad), and your commentary is the impurities(Holika). I just burnt the impurity to show what real gold is!
    I am open for discussion and criticism

  6. Julia Hauser says:

    Dear Pradyna, thank you for this interesting article. I am a German scholar currently on a trip to India for researching alimentary debates between Europeans and Indians during the nineteenth and twentieth century, and I am only beginning to realize the complexities of food and social status / caste in India. I would be glad to hear from you why access to milk can be difficult, since I simply wasn’t aware of this.

    • Julia Hauser: @mariawirth1 on twitter can be your credible source for your queries.

    • Ramapriya says:

      I agree with Madhav on the credibility of Mariawirth. Please contact her for your genuine questions. Pradnya Waghule looks like confused student.

  7. Rakesh Srivastava says:

    You people have good oratory and writing skills but unfortunately to make it mass circulated you distort facts to your convenience- “Holika” was daughter of Sage “Kashyap & Diti and sister of “Harnyakashyap” (father of Prahlad), which clears she was not a Bahujan. Please don’t divide people for your own selfish interests, World & history was not divided back then as it is today. Ramayan was written by Vaalmiki (who was originally known as Ratnakkardah a low caste person) which is till today is most respected Religious book for every Hindu.

  8. Ramapriya says:

    I would suggest feminism to verify the facts before publishing any article. Sooner or later it is going to be must for every article.

  9. Can you please explain how the idea of ‘woman’ enters the narrative? How is being a Bahujan ‘woman’ important here, rather than just being a Bahujan?

  10. sri.s says:

    Before you write something based on Indian/Hindu Puranas/Mythologies please read those from old translations to know it right. Just because you are a student of literature and have the ability to write you should not distort the story as you please or as it suits your political/social views. Its not only you many writers ‘the self claimed liberals’ are distorting hindu mythological stories or Puranas and trying to prove those as ‘racists’ or judge those with 21st century vales. These things are done with vested interest to demean hindu faith. Also to encourage self-hatred, guilty conscious among Hindu school/college/univ students [who are the main target] because most of the hindus don’t read or know about their own religion,puranans or mythology. Thats why you can get away with ‘branding’ Holika as sc/st when actually she was daughter of a sage/brahmin kasyapa. Similarly many deliberately make ‘Ravana’ as south-Indian sc or st when it is clearly mentioned that Ravana was brahmin and Rama was a kshtriya, ‘technically a lower caste’ than Ravana. You have my best wishes for your future writings but please be factually correct .

    • soham bhaduri says:

      Absolutely right. These younger generations, don’t know facts about our ancient culture, literature and hence miles away, from them. Therefore, they take it some imaginary form in their own way and scribble done some rubbish in their blogs.

  11. Sushant Singh says:

    I would like thank you for writing this wonderful Article and things you have explained those are very essential and need to be understand.
    More power and courage to you. Keep Writing.
    Don’t let yourself effect by any filthy comments. You have our support.
    Jai Bhim.

    • Ramapriya says:

      Dear Sushant Singh, Author knowingly / unknowingly distorted the facts and presented a twisted story. Please go through actual story for Prahalada then you will come to know how Holika died. Bad people are bad people whether they are man/woman. Please ponder.

  12. Arindam says:

    The writer is a Buddhist. They try to spread lies whenever they get opportunity. there are Demons in Greek mythology, Egyptian mythology, Arabian nights, Aladdin story. Thor fought against demons.

    Indian mythology is imaginary.

  13. soham bhaduri says:

    The article is about how Holika died. The narrator here distorted the actual ancient literature with modern socio problem called “sc /st”. I feel these two should not be clubbed. Yes it is true that some people may not like Holi, but it does not mean that whatever he/ she feels, whichever right will just scribble down some bogus in the article. I feel that whatever an author writes, first and foremost is to read about the text on which they are writing. “Feminism” is not at all required here as it has got meaning in some other context. But it has been used here. I could not understand how it got used here.

  14. True Indian says:

    Lately, is has become a trend to distort facts to create division along caste lines. I would ideally have refrained from talking about it, but seeing blatant use of caste to create division – here it is: Hiranyakashipu (and hence by extention, his sister Holika) was a Brahmin son of sage Kashyap – the caste you all hate so much. So it is celebrating burning of a Brahmin woman (who automatically becomes evil by your standards).
    Prahlada was his son, he was trying to kill his own son.
    And by the way, Ravana was brahmin, so was Mahabali, and so on.

  15. dharma19881988 says:

    Holika was the sister of an Asura King ffs!

    Even if we equate Asura with Dalits, even then, the story becomes, Visnu rescues his Dalit devotee from his evil Dalit father and aunt. I see no problem in that.

  16. Pran says:

    The ingratiation from perceived prosecution of one’s own tribe(again imaginary)can be so intense that people who would normally reject the story behind festivals as myth would happily endorse it as if they saw it happening. Foreign funded missionary media helps too. God save India from these millionaire dalits

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