Holika Dahan is a tradition of performing Holika Pujan in the evening to start the process of Holi celebrations. The pyre is lit signifying Holika Dahan and symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Days before the festival people start gathering wood and other combustible material for the bonfire in open spaces. On top of the pyre is an effigy to signify Holika who tricked Prahalad into the fire.
The story behind Holika burning is the demon King Hiranyakashyap who demanded everybody in his kingdom to worship him but his pious son, Prahlad became a devotee of Lord Vishnu. King Hiranyakashipu was very angry and upset at his son’s devotion to Vishnu (who he sees as his mortal enemy) rather than the god he claimed to be, so he decides he must kill him.
The demons tried to use their illusionary powers on Prahlad but none of their powers could stand before him. He tried to influence Prahlad against Lord Vishnu but failed and Prahlad was still as devoted as ever to Lord Vishnu. He tried all but failed in all their attempts because Lord Vishnu was protecting his devotee.
As a last hope, the king called his demoness sister, Holika for help. Holika has a distinctive cloak that when worn prevented her from being harmed by fire. By preparing a bonfire Hiranyakashipu asked Holika to sit with his son Prahlad in her lap in the hope that he will become a victim to fire. Without any fear of death, Prahlada started chanting the mantras of Lord Vishnu. As the fire grew, a strong breeze started swaying the cloak. The cloak flew from Holika and covered Prahlad. It was then that she was charred to death and Prahlad remained unharmed. Since then, the night is celebrated as Holika Dahan.
Since that time, people light a bonfire, called Holika on the eve of Holi festival and celebrate the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion to god. Children take special delight in the tradition and this has another legend attached to it. It says that there was once an ogress Dhundhi who used to troubled children in the kingdom of Prithu. She was chased away by children on the day of Holi. Therefore, children are allowed to play pranks at the time of ‘Holika Dahan. Thus Holi gets its name.
Devotees do Pradakshina around the fire and offer prayers, coconut, dates, and dhani (popcorn). Inside homes, people stock up on color pigments, food, party drinks and festive seasonal foods such as gujiya, mathri, malpuas and other regional delicacies.