The Holi festival and the vibrant Palash tree have always had a symbiotic relationship
As children our association with Holi was first and foremost with fire and only later with water and this was because preparations for the Holi fire began almost 40 days before Holi, on Basant Panchami to be precise. An Arandi (Castor Oil) tree would be pulled out with all its roots and installed at a prominent and open place in a small hole dug into the earth, or supported with a pile of bricks and loose earth packed tightly to keep it upright.
For the next 40 odd days everybody would spend all their free time scouting for dry branches. Kids like us pooled our resources or raised donations to buy firewood to pile around the Arandi tree that would grow by the day. Donations were raised through a door-to-door campaign while carrying a contraption called a ‘Tesu’ -- a tripod fashioned out of bamboo sticks tied together and topped with a small earthen pot. At each door we would clamour for contributions and continue to create an unearthly racket till some money was given.
The night before Holi, everybody from the mohalla would gather around the pile of wood, doughnut shaped dry lumps of cow-dung strung together with a string would be draped on the pile of wood and the fire lit. Every household would contribute some snacks or sweets to go around, someone will make arrangement for tea, Gujias, salted or sweet snacks and other savouries would to go around while everyone roasted sheaves of wheat and chickpeas on the fire and passed them around. One was to learn much later that offering these grains to fire would have started as a primitive ritual, an offering to the goddess of fire, an attempt to appease her and to beseech her to consume the offered grains and spare the fields containing the harvest-ready crops.
The other association of fire with Holi was the huge brass cauldrons, filled to their brim with water and dry flowers of the Tesu. Huge quantities of the Tesu aka Palash, Dhak, Chhyola or Flame of the Forest, would be boiled to extract a thick yellow colour, the colour that everyone played Holi with and it is this yellow that continues to be the colour of Holi in large parts of north India, excluding of course the cities where chemical colours or terribly expensive natural colours have become more fashionable.
The third association with fire, though fortunately not from our childhood was the collective boiling and grinding of the bhang leaves and cooking powdered dry-fruits in milk to be consumed with bhang.
It was these protracted preparations -- a co-operative enterprise of the entire locality, that made Holi into a festival of the masses, much more than Diwali. It was only after these protracted preparations all involving fire that the dousing came as a great relief.
Increasingly, the communitarian aspects of Holi are decreasing. Not too many fires are lit up. Kids do not any longer go around scouting for dead wood or collecting money to buy it. The entire locality gathering around a common fire and sharing food is a rarity and this despite tall claims that we are rapidly turning into a global village. Holi now is marked increasingly by people standing in their balconies and pouring buckets-full of chemically coloured water on unsuspecting strangers, secure in the knowledge that the victims cannot reach their tormentors.
Incidentally, the oil extracted from the Arandi seeds is being used as bio-diesel now. But it has been used for medicinal purposes not only in India and other parts of the old world stretching from Africa and Greece across the South Asian Peninsula all the way to Myanmar and beyond.
The Tesu or Palash has been celebrated in our classical poetry. The Palash gave its name to the Battle of Plassy because the area had many Palash trees. The leaves of the tree have been used to wrap betel leaves and food for centuries. The pattals (leaf plates) made for feasts use the same Dhaak or Palash leaves. Till recently, the brush that house painters used for white washing or distemper were made by extracting the fibre from the roots of the Palash tree.
The Palash tree is in full bloom now in parts of Delhi, like the Central Delhi Ridge behind the Rashtrapati Bhawan and also a few trees near the Kalkaji Temple, where the Mexican Mesquite has not taken over fully. The Palash needs to be planted systematically all over the Ridge and the invasive Mesquite needs to be phased out.
If the Palash was to be re-established on the Arravalis and elsewhere, we might be able to return to the natural yellow of the Palash, to the huge brass cauldrons to extract the colour and perhaps hopefully retrieve the joy of Holi. This would also bring the mohallas back to preparing their own Tesu colour and bring the kids and the adults down from the balconies to actually play Holi and become friends with their neighbours.