The Bonfire of Modern Demons: On Original Ways of Celebrating India’s Holi


When the joy of the Hindu spring festival of Holi swept through India recently, some residents of Mumbai burned an effigy of Modi… no, no, not the prime minister. The effigy represented Nirav Modi, a businessman who had recently fled India and is suspected of committing fraud at a massive level.

While throwing colored powder at each other may be the most easily recognizable image associated with Holi worldwide, within India it is the ritual of Holika Dahan (“burning Holika”), held a day before the proper Holi, that carries more religious importance and social symbolism. There is more than one mythological explanation to the origins of this rite. One of them says that Holika was a daughter of the wicked and powerful demon Hiranyakashipu. While Hiranyakashipu defied Vishnu’s authority (and was eventually killed by him), his son Prahlad in turn defied his own father and continued to worship the deity. At one point, Hiranyakashipu schemed to have Prahlad killed in a pyre but Holika, Prahlad’s sister, saved her brother and burned to death in his place.

Today, burning an effigy named holika is not only a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, but is believed by some to bring about a cleansing effect on the community. It is as if all the bad deeds of the community, all the misfortunes that befall it throughout the year, are collected and form a part of the holika, to be burned in a ritual bonfire.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Apart from the more traditional effigies, one occasionally reads about more innovative, specific and modern ones. This Holika Dahan, inhabitants of one Mumbai neighborhood prepared an imitation of a man named Nirav Modi, and gave the effigy to the flames. Nirav Modi – a name which is now on everybody’s lips in India – is a businessman who fled the country in January, and is accused of a major scam. Nirav Modi’s predecessor in the pyre was another fraud-accused businessman, Vijay Mallya: his effigy was burned as a holika last year in Mumbai. Mallya was the owner of the fallen Kingfisher airlines; he fled India not long ago and has not been yet brought to court.

I am by no means suggesting that including modern symbols or people in the effigy burning during Holika Dahan is a general or wide phenomenon. Yet, even if very limited, I find it interesting at the social level. Just like with the original Holika Dahan, there is a need within society to figuratively destroy the evils we are faced with, to symbolically deal with our troubles and worries. Another neighborhood in Mumbai has been constructing and burning effigies representing social evils for years. In 2017, for instance, after the controversial demonetization (which started in November 2016), the people of the area attached the old, and now useless, 500 and 1,000 rupee notes to an effigy before proceeding to set it on fire.

There are, of course, countless other occasions on which effigies are burned in India for political, economic and social reasons during protests – but I am not considering these here. Maybe in some psychological way the burning of an effigy during a religious festival and during a political protest may have the same roots, or maybe historically the first inspired the second. Here, however, I am concerned only with cases when a traditionally religious celebration acquires certain economic or social aspects. In some instances, however, the line between the same act during a religious celebration and a political protest can be hard to trace, fuzzy, or nonexistent, even in the light of the blazing pyre. In March 2017, for instance, the members of the Jat caste in the state of Haryana continued their protests demanding certain social privileges from the state government. As Holi dawned, the leaders of the agitation threatened to celebrate the festival as, in their words, “Black Holi” and immolate effigies symbolizing the government.

A need for a similar symbolical burning, religious or secular, can be found in some other modern societies. The British Guy Fawkes Night has, of course, completely different historical roots and is celebrated differently from Holi, but there is a little bit of similarity in the act of setting an effigy alight. Throughout the rite, figures of both Guy Fawkes and Holika are no longer “themselves”; they have become symbols of something bigger and more general – and hence interpreted in more than one way. Also in this case some of the celebrations innovatively introduce modern elements. At the Kent Bonfire Night of 2017, the Guy Fawkes effigy was shaped in the form of Harvey Weinstein, the baron of Hollywood accused of countless cases of sexual misbehavior. The effigy had a clapperboard with the aptly worded phrase “final cut” attached to its thighs. In another case the English town of Lewes, like the already mentioned neighborhood of Mumbai, has established a longer tradition of interweaving modern symbols into the Guy Fawkes Night tradition. In 2016 effigies of “Guy Fawkes” included representations of Donald Trump and Theresa May.

In a very limited way Guy Fawkes Night and Holika Dahan could have been compared to the Polish tradition of drowning Marzanna. This pre-Christian celebration still occurs in Poland, although it seems to have lost a lot of its popularity. In March every year, the effigy of a woman called Marzanna is taken out in processions and drowned, symbolizing the end of winter (thus, like Holi, the rite of drowning Marzanna announces the beginning of spring). While this is probably an even more marginal example, on some occasions the traditional effigy of Marzanna has been reshaped to give it modern touches and references to real-life people. In March 2009, Polish nationalists prepared an effigy representing Erika Steinbach (a German revisionist politician who strives to reclaim land for Germans in Poland), and threw it into the river.

That occasional shift from the more religious burning of evil by good toward the effigies of modern people makes symbolic sense. After all, corrupt politicians, absconding rapists, and greedy, law-avoiding businessmen are some of the demons of our times.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief