Holi, the festival of colours across the world is largely associated with Krishna, and people flock to Brijbhoomi (region commonly referred to as Braj which includes town associated with the life of young Lord Krishna) to witness the festivities. Even the songs or paintings that celebrate this colourful festival centre around this playful God. However, in Banaras the festival is closely associated with its most famous resident Lord Shiva with the start of playing of holi few days before the festival, and with the ashes the next day – the famous Rangbhari Ekadashi and Masane ki Holi at Banaras.
In the city of Shiva – Banaras (Kashi or Varanasi), Rangbhari Ekadashi (colour-filled eleventh) – the eleventh day of the waxing moon of the Phalguna month in the Indian lunar calendar, marks the beginning of the festival five days before the Holi. The mythology or tradition celebrates the marriage of Lord Shiva with goddess Parvati on the day of Mahashivratri two weeks before. It is said that Shiva brought her home to his city first time after his marriage on this day. All other Gods joined in the celebration and showered petals and colour from the heavens on the married couple. And his followers which included the motley crowd of ghosts and other animals along with the citizens of the city celebrated their arrival by playing Holi with the couple. Thus, the tradition continues – the Banarasis start the festivities by playing Holi with Shiva-Parvati on this day and the celebrations continue for the next six days in the city.
The ceremony of gauna (the homecoming of the bride post marriage – a tradition followed in UP and Bihar) with all its festivities start few days before the Ekadashi. The groom reaches the house of mahant (the chief priest) of Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple a day before. On the day of the ceremony, the prayers and rudrabhishek (special prayer ceremony for Lord Shiva) is performed before the bride bids adieu to her maternal home. The silver idols of Shiva-Parvati is carried on a palanquin and taken to the main temple few yards away, the narrow lane transforms into a sea of people and colours as the procession makes way. Devotees shower petals and colours from the rooftops as well as on the ground. Amidst the sounds of conchshell, damru (Shiva‘s drum), and the riot of colours, the couple enter the main temple, and is taken to the sanctum sanctorum for special puja and prayers. From this day onwards, Mahadev (the popular name of Shiva in Banaras) gives permission to the residents of Varanasi to start playing holi.
Banaras is also known as the city of Moksha, people believe in the blessing to embrace the death in this city, where the fire burns perennially on the ghats of river Ganga. And a day after Rangbhari Ekadashi Shiva along with his ganas (attendants of Shiva) celebrate the festival of holi as well as his marriage on the burning ghats with the ashes from the funeral pyres. The main cremation ground at Banaras Manikarnika Ghat witnesses this unique tradition where amidst the gloom of cremation pyres the sight of Shiva with his bhuta ganas (ghostly hosts) dancing and celebrating with the ashes can be disconcerting. But the Lord of the cremation ground, dressed in the tiger skin, adorned with mundmala (the garland of skulls) and the last colour of life – the colour of ash, high on bhang (cannabis) is oblivious to his surroundings dances amidst the burning pyres.
Called masan ki holi or shamshan ki holi (holi at the cremation ground) or chita-bhasm ki holi (holi of pyre and ashes), it is a tradition very unique to Banaras. And this celebration is best described by Pandit Chhannulal Mishra in his famous rendition describing this unique celebration. And it is in this eternal city that people celebrate the eternal cycle of life and death side by side on the river ghats.
The combined festivities of Rangbhari Ekadashi and Masane ki Holi at Banaras herald the festival of colours in the city which culminates on the day of Holi.
Images Courtesy: Facebook page of Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple and Google images