Kombad Holi of the Worlikar Family, Worli Koliwada

Cultural celebrations promote cultural heritage and foster a sense of belonging. Across India, many festivals are celebrated throughout the year with much enthusiasm and pomp. At almost any point of the year, one can find Indian people busy preparing for one festival or the other. Festivities are a way of merrymaking. An integral aspect of human social life, festivals allow community members to pass down the traditional values and ways of celebration from one generation to the next. Often having a symbolic meaning behind them, festivals offer a glimpse into the cultural beliefs and practices of a community or a region.

One of the most popular festivals in India, Holi is broadly celebrated across the country as a festival of colours and love. Holi falls in the Hindu month of Phalgun. Celebrated a night before the festival of colours is the festival of Holika dahan (burning of Holika). Hairanyakashipu was an Asura King who wished to be immortal. To fulfil his desire, he performed tapas (spiritual meditation) until Brahma granted him a boon. In Brahma’s words, Hiranyakashipu would not die at the hands of any being created by Brahma, he could not be killed inside or outside, during the day or the night, by any weapon on the ground or in the sky, by men, beasts, devas, or asuras. He would be unmatched, and his power would not diminish, making him the sole ruler of the universe. With Hiranyakashipu possessing such might, anyone who challenged his authority was punished and executed. Pralhada, Hiranyakashipu’s son, was a Vaishnava who refused to worship his father as a god. Enraged by this, Hiranyakashipu attempted to kill Pralhada several times. Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, helped kill Pralhada during one such attempt. Holika had received a boon that made her invulnerable to fire. The plan was to make Pralhada sit on Holika’s lap above a burning pyre. However, Pralhada invoked the name of Vishnu when the pyre was lit, protecting him from the fire while Holika was set on fire. Honouring the tale of Pralhada and Holika, a bonfire is lit on this day to celebrate the victory of good over evil. The bonfire of Holika dahan symbolizes the purification of individuals, purging them of sins and negativity. The festival also marks the beginning of spring, indicating rejuvenation and regeneration. The festival typically lasts several days. The thought behind celebrating Holika dahan remains more or less the same throughout the country, although the specifics of the names, customs, and traditions of the festival vary in different regions and communities. Commonly known as Shimga around the western coast of Maharashtra, Holi is a grand 15-day celebration in the districts of Sindhudurg, Ratnagiri, and Raigad.

Mumbai’s coastal community, the Kolis, have their own unique way of celebrating the festival of Holi. While the manner of celebration of the festival has been altered by the course of time and history, the festival of Holi remains an integral part of the cultural celebrations of the Kolis. The Kolis look forward to the celebration of the festival every year. There are Koligeets (Koli folk songs) specially curated for the Holi festival. While most of the country celebrates Holika dahan on the night of Holi Pournima, the celebrations in the Koliwadas begin a day before the general Holika dahan tithi (day of Holika dahan). The Kolis from the Vaarinpada region of the Khardanda Koliwada celebrate Holika dahan on the trayodashi tithi (13th day of the lunar month in the Hindu calendar), two nights prior to the pournima night (15th day marked by the full moon). Legend has it that when the Presidency of Bombay was under British rule, there was one year when there was a scarcity of wood during the time of Holi. Wood being the major component of the bonfire of Holika dahan, it was necessary to procure it. Resultantly, the Kolis from the Vaarinpada region, stole wood for the bonfire from a rahat—a large, wooden waterwheel that is used to draw water from wells. Angered by this act, British officers commanded the Kolis from Vaarinpada to celebrate Holi two days earlier as a punishment. Since then, the Kolis of Varinpaada have celebrated Holi on the trayodashi tithi of Phalgun.[1]

Kombad Holi

Kombad Holi is celebrated in the Koliwadas both at the family and community levels. Some alleys (gallis) and friend groups (mitra mandal) arrange their own celebrations. Kombad Holi or the Mulanchi Holi (children’s Holi) is celebrated a night before the Holika dahan. Vilas Anant Worlikar, a resident of the Worli Koliwada and chairman of the Golfa Devi Mandir says that it is called Kombad Holi because the Kolis dance and celebrate the entire night until the cock (kombda) crows at the break of dawn. When asked about why Holi is celebrated a day prior, Purushottam Worlikar, also a resident of the Worli Koliwada recounts a little story. In the Koliwadas, Patlanchi Holi is celebrated on the day of Holika dahan. The honour of lighting the bonfire of Holi rests with the patil (the village headman). The Patlanchi Holi is also known as the maanachi (respectable/honourable) Holi. Festivals and their celebrations go hand in hand. Dance, singing, dressing up in new and fine clothes, and going out with loved ones all serve as means of celebration. Purushottam Worlikar narrates that during his grandfather’s time, the Kolis used to have a blast (dhammal) during the night of Holika dahan, engaging in dancing and singing. However, the patils disliked the chaos and wanted the Holika dahan to be celebrated in an honourable way without much tumult or ruckus. Thus, the villagers, especially the kids, were asked to celebrate Kombad Holi on the day before travodashi tithi where they can have as much fun as they want.

The tradition of celebrating the Kombad Holi in the Worlikar family was started by Yashwant Koli, Purushottam Worlikar’s brother. This celebration has a history of about 60 years. One might wonder how people with two different surnames could be brothers. Purushottam says that you can find such cases in the Koli families in Worli, even with blood-related brothers. Some use the surname Worlikar because they reside in Worli, Mumbai, while others use the surname Koli as that is the name of the community. According to Yashwant Koli, the surname they use is a matter of individual preference.

Trees and wood are central to the Holika dahan celebration. The provisions of the Maharashtra Tree Conservation and Development Act prohibit tree felling without prior permission from the authorities. Monetary fines, levies, and strict legal actions are taken if one is found guilty of felling trees. Sourcing wood for the celebration thus becomes a significant concern for the Kolis. Keeping such things in mind and to avoid the hassle of procuring trees for the celebration, the Worlikar family decided to plant their own trees in the little space they had at the back of their house. For the past twenty years, they have been using trees from their own backyard and replanting them for future use during Holi. In the Worli Koliwada, various groups and families used different kinds of trees for the celebration. The most commonly used tree was the betel nut palm tree (supari). Some of the Kolis have stated that the wood was sourced from the Vasai region. The Worlikar family plants and uses a tree locally known as the punai cha jhaad.

Before cutting the tree, the Kolis make an offering of flowers, rice, halad (haldi), kunkoo (kumkum) and vida. A vida is made using the betel leaf, betel nut, and lime (chuna). A small pooja is performed, after which the tree is felled. Once the tree is cut, a paste made of gulal (a red-coloured powder) and bhandara (holy turmeric) is generously applied on the tree trunk, and a flag is attached to the top of the tree. Several coins of different denominations are hammered into the lower part of the trunk. (Image 1) Men, women, and children can be observed engaging in this activity with much joy. The Kolis claim that this is an age-old practice, ever since silver coins were in use. However, the Worlikars could not recall the meaning or significance behind the concept. Once the coins are hammered, the tree trunk is placed in a pit that is one or two feet deep. Once the tree trunk is placed upright in the pit, the premises are cleaned, and the tree is decorated with flowers, colourful streamers, and balloons. This upright tree is also referred to as the Holi. The most traditional form of decoration consists of colours and flowers. Such decoration also finds mention in the Koligeet, Aamche Daarashi Haay Shimga (Rangan Rangili Na Phulan Sajvili Havlu Baay Majhi Havlu Baay).[2]

Image 1: Coins being hammered on the lower part of the tree trunk.

Another important tradition is the bomb thokne. People would scream and shout in the name of Holi. During the British times, grand celebrations of festivals and public gatherings were prohibited. As a form of protest against such rules, the Kolis would scream slang and abuse in the name of British officials. The tradition continues even after more than 75 years of independence from the British. Today, instead of the names of British officials, they instead use the names of individuals from the family or family names. The practice is not meant to evoke any negative reaction or result and is followed for the sake of tradition and fun.

The Kolis adoringly refer to Holika as havlu baay, havlay, haul mata, or Holika mata. She is treated as a goddess, and an image of her is decked up like a bride. A saree, ornaments and face mask representing the goddess are used to give the Holi an anthropomorphic look. (Image 2 and 3) Once all the decorations are complete, the area is cleaned thoroughly, and a rangoli is drawn around the representation of Holika. Some places in the Koliwada use instant noodle packets, chips, and snack packets for decoration. (Image 4) The idea behind this was to offer Holika mata the things that the people regularly consume.

Image 2: The mask representing the face of the goddess Holika Mata.
Image 3: Decoration process.
Image 4: Modern day junk food packets used for decoration of a Holi in Worli.

When all the preparations are complete, the family members change into festive clothes and get ready to celebrate. The pooja and aarti of Holika are first done by a woman of the Worlikar Family. An oti is offered to the goddess in a ritual known as oti bharne, symbolizing the womb or lap being filled. In this ritual, a saree, a blouse, bangles, a mangalsutra, uncooked rice, betel leaves, betel nut, and coconut are offered to the goddess. The offerings differ according to the occasion; however, blouses, coconuts, bangles, haldi, kumkum, betel nuts, and rice are common offerings. The Kolis offered a festoon (veni) and bananas along with the other components in an oti to Holika. All the components are placed in a yellow piece of cloth that is then tied to the waist of the Holi. This ritual is only performed by married women as both the giver and receiver of an oti must be married. An oti is symbolic of good wishes for fertility.

Indian celebrations and festivals are incomplete without sweets. The Indian sweet flatbread, puran poli is a special preparation during Holi and is offered to the goddess. Along with puran poli, boiled chickpeas (kabuli chane), lima beans, Indian butter beans (vaal), and watermelons are offered and distributed as prasad. A sakhar maal or batashe is also offered to the Holi.

Holika is treated as a navsachi devi, a deity that grants people’s wishes. The Kolis offer prayers to Holika so that their desires might be fulfilled. Once their wishes and desires are fulfilled, a string of five coconuts is offered to the goddess during Kombad Holi. People from across the Koliwada and outside visit and seek blessings from Holika. There is an influx of people in the Worli Koliwada as several visitors explore the different kinds of decorations and seek blessings from the goddess.

Koligeets and Bollywood songs are played on sound systems, and the Kolis dance to the tunes of the songs all evening and night. Since it is illegal to use loud speakers in public after 10 pm, the Kolis are expected to shut the sound system down around 10 pm. During Holi, the Mumbai police are typically on vigil in the area to ensure that this rule is followed and to prevent any nuisance.

The Worlikar Family, like most other Kolis have a tradition of lighting the Holi bonfire at 12 am. Most of the offerings, except the coconuts are cleared from around the Holi and dried wood and camphor are placed all around. A piece of cloth is tied to a wooden log, which is then used to light the bonfire. Before lighting the fire, the tree trunk is lightly hit five times (paach ghaav maarne) with a kaati (sickle). A couple holding hands goes around the Holi five times while sprinkling water. The Kolis pray to the goddess to remove all the negativity and bad thoughts from their life (ida pida talu de).

Elsewhere in the Koliwada, women carry decorated earthen pots on their heads from one point to another. Purushottam Worlikar mentions that while this practice is not followed by the Worlikar family, it is a practice observed by most Koli women in Koliwadas all across Mumbai. When the Holi pyre is lit, women take five rounds around it and throw the pots into the bonfire.

Once the fire is lit, the Holi rituals are complete. The bonfire keeps burning for the next two to three hours depending the quantity of wood present. Purushottam Worikar says that they did not have the Holika dahan being celebrated at so many places in their Koliwada previously and thatindividuals and groups have started organizing their own celebrations only recently.


Footnotes:

[1] Mumbaikar Folks by Mohit Ramle. रहाटाची ऐतिहासिक होळी/खार दांडा कोळीवाडा/Warin Pada/आमचे दाराशी हाय शिमगा/Historical Khar Danda Holi, YouTube Video

[2] Saregama Music, Aamche Darashi haay shimgha, YouTube Video.

Bibliography:

Purushottam Worlikar (resident of Worli Koliwada), in conversation with the author, March, 2024.

Unnati Worlikar (resident of Worli Koliwada), in conversation with the author, March, 2024.

Madhuri Yashwant Koli (resident of Worli Koliwada), in conversation with the author, March, 2024.

Vilas Anant Worlikar (resident of Worli Koliwada), in conversation with the author, March, 2024.

Ramle, Mohit. “रहाटाची ऐतिहासिक होळी/खार दांडा कोळीवाडा/Warin Pada/आमचे दाराशी हाय शिमगा/Historical Khar Danda Holi.” March 8, 2020. YouTube video, 6:15. https://youtu.be/FXslgS9sUCE?si=ub_-jpedNe9XfjEk

Nakhwa, Ramesh. “Amche Darashi Hai Shimga.” Saregama India, Ltd., August 2, 2022. YouTube video, 4:08. https://youtu.be/UZK6S9jQ1A0?si=pG4iDM3QPY2iO1-P