Long ago in ancient times, there lived a demon king named Hiranyakashipu. He was very angry because Lord Vishnu had killed his brother and he wanted revenge. The king spent many years praying and performing pujas, so that he could become strong in his spirit. The god Brahma noticed his devotion and agreed to grant him a boon. King Hiranyakashipu was granted a special wish—he could not be killed during the day or at night, not on the earth nor in the sky, not by a human nor an animal, not inside nor outside. After this, the king felt very strong and believed he was invincible. He ordered everyone in his kingdom to worship him instead of god.
The demon king had a son named Prahlad who was a very religious boy. He prayed to Lord Vishnu every day. This made the king very angry. One day he asked his son, “Who is greater, me or Lord Vishnu?” Prahlad replied that Vishnu was greater because after all, the king was just a man, not a god. This made the king even angrier.
King Hiranyakashipu went to his sister Holika for help. Many years ago Holika had been granted a boon by the gods. She could not be destroyed by fire. Together the king and his sister hatched a plan to kill Prahlad.
The next afternoon Holika was sitting in the yard of the compound when Prahlad cam out to play. “Come, Prahlad,” she called. “Come sit in my lap.” Prahlad, being a good boy, ran to his aunty and jumped into her lap. Holika grabbed him tight in her arms. At that moment, the king struck a match and set fire to the boy and his aunty.
King Hiranyakashipu laughed as he watched the flames grow around his son. But suddenly his sister Holika started to scream. She was on fire! Both Holika and the king had forgotten that she was only allowed to enter the fire alone or else she would perish. The flames diminished and the king was horrified to see his son was still alive, sitting on a pile of Holika’s ashes. The king’s screams rattled the kingdom.
Prahlad, spared because of his devotion to Vishnu, looked at his father calmly and said, “You cannot destroy god because god is everywhere.” The king shouted, “If god is everywhere then he must also be in this pillar.” He threw his arm to the side and smashed the pillar next to him. The pillar crumbled, revealing a strange creature within. Standing next to the king was a beast with a human body and the head and paws of a lion. The beast snatched the king in his giant paws and dragged him toward the house.
The beast sat in the doorway and threw the king onto his lap. The last thing the king saw was the final sliver of the setting sun. It was here on the lap of the beast (not on the earth nor in the sky) in the doorway of the house (neither inside nor outside) at dusk (neither day nor night) that the king met his demise. The great beast—neither fully human nor animal—slashed the king’s belly, spilling his red blood over the earth.
When the people of the kingdom heard the news of the king’s death, they began to rejoice. They had grown so fearful of the king over the years, and at last they were free. They prepared a great feast and decorated every home and building with bright-colored flowers and thousands of lights. That is why, to this day, we celebrate Holi by burning bonfires and throwing colors in celebration.