Like all Indian and Hindu festivals, Holi is inextricably linked to mythical tales. There are at least three legends that are directly associated with the festival of colors: the Holika-Hiranyakashipu-Prahlad episode, Lord Shiva's killing of Kamadeva, and the story of the ogress Dhundhi.
The Holika-Prahlad Episode
The evolution of the term Holi makes an interesting study in itself. Legend has it that it derives its name from Holika, the sister of the mythical megalomaniac king Hiranyakashipu who commanded everyone to worship him. But his little son Prahlad refused to do so. Instead he became a devotee of Vishnu, the Hindu God.
Hiranyakashipu ordered his sister Holika to kill Prahlad and she, possessing the power to walk through fire unharmed, picked up the child and walked into a fire with him. Prahlad, however, chanted the names of God and was saved from the fire. Holika perished because she did not know that her powers were only effective if she entered the fire alone.
This myth has a strong association with the festival of Holi, and even today there is a practice of hurling cow dung into the fire and shouting obscenities at it, as if at Holika.
The Story of Dhundhi
It was also on this day that an ogress called Dhundhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Prthu was chased away by the shouts and pranks of village youngsters. Although this female monster had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, shouts, abuses and pranks of boys was a chink in the armor for Dhundi, owing to a curse from Lord Shiva.
The Kamadeva Myth
It is often believed that it was on this day that Lord Shiva opened his third eye and incinerated Kamadeva, the god of love, to death. So, many people worship Kamadeva on Holi-day, with the simple offering of a mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste.
Holi is also celebrated in memory of the immortal love of Lord Krishna and Radha. The young Krishna would complain to his mother Yashoda about why Radha was so fair and he so dark. Yashoda advised him to apply colour on Radha's face and see how her complexion would change. In the legends of Krishna as a youth he is depicted playing all sorts of pranks with the gopis or cowgirls. One prank was to throw colored powder all over them. So at Holi, images of Krishna and his consort Radha are often carried through the streets. Holi is celebrated with eclat in the villages around Mathura, the birth-place of Krishna.