The Indian calendar is one long procession of festivals. These are as varied in origin as they are large in number. There are innumerable national, regional, local, religious, seasonal and social festivities. This is not surprising considering the fact that India is the land of gods, goddesses, saints, gurus and prophets.
Festivals here are characterised by colour, gaiety, enthusiasm, feasts and a variety of prayers and rituals. Travellers are struck by the scale and multiplicity of the festivities that populate the cultural scene of this land. Some of the well known and widely celebrated festivals of India are:
Deepawali or Diwali, the most pan-Indian of all Hindu festivals, is a festival of lights symbolising the victory of righteousness and the lifting of spiritual darkness. The word 'Deepawali' literally means rows of diyas (clay lamps). A family festival, it is celebrated 20 days after Dussehra, on the 13th day of the dark fortnight of the month of Asvin (October-November)
Continuing the story of Rama, this festival commemorates Lord Rama's return to his kingdom Ayodhya after completing his 14-year exile. Twinkling oil lamps or diyas light up every home and firework displays are common all across the country. The Goddess Lakshmi (consort of Vishnu), who is the symbol of wealth and prosperity, is also worshipped on this day.
This festive occasion also marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year and Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, the symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom, is also worshipped in most Hindu homes on this day.
Another view is that Deepawali is meant to celebrate the destruction of the arrogant tyrant Bali at the hands of Vishnu when the latter appeared in his Vamana (dwarf) avatar. The occasion of Deepawali sees the spring-cleaning and whitewashing of houses; decorative designs or rangolis are painted on floors and walls. New clothes are bought and family members and relatives gather together to offer prayers, distribute sweets and to light up their homes. In West Bengal, the Deepawali festival is celebrated as Kali Puja and Kali, Shiva's consort, is worshipped on this day.
Dussehra (tenth day) is one of the significant Hindu festivals, celebrated with much joie de vivre in the entire country. The occasion marks the triumph of Lord Rama over the demon king, Ravana, the victory of good over evil. Brilliantly decorated tableaux and processions depicting various facets of Rama's life are taken out. On the tenth day, the Vijayadasmi day, colossal effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhkarna and son Meghnad are placed in vast open spaces. Rama, accompanied by his consort Sita and his brother Lakshmana, arrive and shoot arrows of fire at these effigies, which are stuffed with explosive material. The result is a deafening blast, enhanced by the shouts of merriment and triumph from the spectators.
It is significant that the Lord invoked the blessings of the divine mother, Goddess Durga, before actually going out to battle. In burning the effigies, people are asked to burn the evil within them, and thus follow the path of virtue and goodness, bearing in mind the instance of Ravana, who despite all his might and majesty was destroyed for his evil ways. It must be remembered that Ravana was a great scholar and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, but the very powers that were bestowed on him for his steadfast devotion proved to be his undoing, due to his gross misuse of the same.
The festival is also celebrated with intense fervour and zest in West Bengal and by the Bengalis nationwide in the form of Durga Puja. The festivities commence on the first night in the month of Ashwin (September-October). The vibrant festivities last for ten days, of which nine nights are spent in worship, 'Navaratri'. The tenth day is devoted to the worship of Goddess Durga, who occupies a special position in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. She is 'Shakti', the cosmic energy that animates all beings. Beautiful idols of the Mother Goddess are worshipped in elaborate pandals for nine days, and on the tenth day, these are carried out in procession for immersion (visarjan) in a river or pond.
According to a Puranic legend attached to this day, the mighty demon Mahisasur vanquished the gods and their king, Indra, who subsequently fled, leaving behind their kingdoms. They then approached the Holy Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who decided to destroy the megalomaniac demon, and thus prayed to the divine mother Durga to do the needful. Equipped with lethal weapons, riding a ferocious lion, the Goddess in all her awesome majesty, vanquished the evil one without much ado. This day, thus, also celebrates the magnificence and omnipotence of Goddess Durga.
In Tamil Nadu, the first three days are dedicated to the worship of Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, the next three days to Saraswati, Goddess of learning and arts, and the last three days to Shakti (Durga). In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, families arrange dolls (Bommai Kolu) on artificially constructed steps and prepare an elaborate spread of lamps and flowers. Women traditionally exchange gifts of coconuts, clothes and sweets. Scenes culled from various stories in the epics and puranas are displayed. Traditionally, women and children, and now men too, visit their friends and acquaintances during these ten days. They sing songs, tell stories that the dolls might depict and eat a dish made out of chickpeas (chana dal). The whole set up is put up on the very first day of Navaratri. After the Saraswati Puja on the ninth day, the whole set up is taken down on Vijayadasmi. Vijayadasmi is an auspicious occasion for children to commence their education in classical dance and music, and to pay homage to their teachers.
In Punjab, Navaratri is taken as a period of fasting. In Gujarat, the evenings and nights are occasions for the fascinating Garba dance. The women dance around an earthen lamp while singing devotional songs accompanied by rhythmic clapping of hands.
In northern India, the festival wears the colourful garb of Ramlila wherein various incidents from Rama's life are enacted, as is the destruction of Ravana and Bharat Milap, that is the reunion of Ram and his estranged brother Bharat, on the former's return to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile. In the Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, the hill folk celebrate Dussehra with a grand mass ceremony wherein village deities are taken out in elaborate processions. The Dussehra of Mysore is also quite famous where caparisoned elephants lead a colourful procession through the gaily dressed streets of the city.
Like other festivals in the country, Dussehra/Durga Puja is an occasion for festivities on a grand scale, which emanate a genuine feeling of bonhomie and warmth.
It is spring time in India, flowers and fields are in bloom and the country goes wild with people running on the streets and smearing each other with brightly hued powders and coloured water. This is the festival of Holi, celebrated on the day after the full moon in early March every year.
Originally Holi is a festival to celebrate good harvests and fertility of the land. There are many legends concerning the origin of this spring festival. The most popular among these concerns Prince Prahlad, the god-fearing son of the evil King Hiranyakasipu. Prahlad did not give up worshipping the god Vishnu in spite of fearful persecution by his father and his demon aunt Holika, who was deputed by her brother to kill young Prahlad. Ultimately, when Holika, who was immune to death by fire, took Prahlad and entered a blazing furnace built for his destruction, it was the wicked Holika who was burnt to ashes by divine intervention, while Prahlad came out unscathed. Before she died, she realised her follies and begged the boy's forgiveness. As his gesture of forgiveness, Prahlad deemed that her name would be remembered at least one day in the year.
Holi commemorates this event from mythology, and huge bonfires are burnt on the eve of Holi as its symbolic representation.
This exuberant festival is also associated with the immortal love of 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. Holi is celebrated with particular eclat in the villages around Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna.
Down the ages, civilisation has advanced leaps and bounds, but the spirit of Holi remains the same. Each year, without fail, the old and the young alike gather into groups and indulge in a riot of colours. One could get away with almost anything on this day; squirting coloured water on passers-by and dunking friends in the mud pool saying "bura na mano, Holi hai" (don't feel offended, it's Holi). Apart from this usual fun with coloured powder and water, Holi is marked by vibrant processions, which are accompanied by folk songs, dances and a general sense of abandoned vitality.
Lord Vishnu is invoked in his human incarnation as Krishna on his birth anniversary in the festival of Janmashtami. The temples of Vrindavan witness an extravagant and colourful celebration on this occasion. Raslila is performed to recreate incidents from the life of Krishna and to commemorate his love for Radha. The image of the infant Krishna is bathed at midnight and is placed in a cradle. Devotional songs and dances mark the celebration of this festive occasion all over Northern India.
In Maharashtra, Janmashtami witnesses the exuberant enactment of the god's childhood endeavours to steal butter and curd from earthen pots beyond his reach. A matka or pot containing these is suspended high above the ground and groups of young men and children form human pyramids to try and reach the pot and eventually break it.
Besides Hinduism, India is also the home of innumerable other faiths and the religious and cultural diversity of this nation is manifested in the large number of non-Hindu festivals
The sizeable Muslim communities have their Ids in common with Muslims across the world. Id-ul-Fitr, Id-ul-Zuha and Id-i-Milad are the three festive occasions widely celebrated by Muslims in India.
Id is celebrated with great enthusiasm all over the country, and one can see Muslims of all age groups and from all stratas of society attired in new clothes, visiting mosques to offer namaaz.
The tombs of many Sufi saints attract devotees of all religious persuasions, especially during the urs or death anniversaries. The best known urs are centred at tombs in towns like Ajmer, Delhi, Manakpur, Nagore and Dongri.
Id-ul-Fitr (Ramzan Id)
Coming with the new moon, this festival marks the end of Ramzan, the ninth month of the Muslim year. It was during this month that the holy Koran was revealed. Muslims keep a fast every day during this month and on the completion of the period, which is decided by the appearance of the new moon, Id-ul-Fitr is celebrated with great eclat. Prayers are offered in mosques and Idgahs and elaborate festivities are held.
Id-ul-Azha or Id-ul-Zuha (Bakr-Id)
The Id-ul-Azha commemorates the ordeal of Hazrat Ibrahim, who had been put to a terrible test by God when he was asked to sacrifice whatever was dearest to him and he decided to sacrifice the life of his son. As he was on the point of applying the sword to his son's throat, it was revealed to him that this was meant only to test his faith, and it was enough, if instead he sacrifices only a ram in the name of Allah. This is celebrated on the tenth day of Zilhijja, when the Haj celebrations at Mecca are rounded off by the sacrifice of goats or camels. In India, too, goats and sheep are sacrificed all over the country and prayers are offered.
The Prophet was born on the twelfth day of Rabi-ul-Awwal, the third month of the Muslim year. His death anniversary also falls on the same day, the word 'barah' standing for the twelve days of the Prophet's sickness. During these days, sermons are delivered in mosques by learned men, focusing on the life and noble deeds of the Prophet.
In some parts of the country, a ceremony known as sandal rite is performed over the symbolic footprints of the Prophet engraved in stone. A representation of 'buraq', a horse on which the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven, is kept near the footprints and anointed with sandal paste or scented powder, and the house and casket containing these are elaborately decorated. Elegies or 'marsiyas' are sung in memory of the last days of the Prophet. The 12th day or the Urs proper is observed quietly, in prayers and alms giving.
Christians in India celebrate their festivals broadly on the pattern adopted worldwide. However, some influence of local Indian tradition is evident among Syrian Christians who use elephants, umbrellas and traditional music as accessories to their festivities and celebrations. Christmas is a major event in all Indian Christian households and one can see Catholic Goa come to life at this time of the year.
The Carnival, preceding lent, is the most important event at Goa. Similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it is an extravagantly colourful occasion. A carnival parade, full of colour and zest, it is virtually a celebration of life itself.
Onam, the principal festival of Kerala, is celebrated against a setting of lush green vegetation. This picturesque harvest festival brings with it ten days of colour, feasting, boat races, song and dance to the state.
According to legend, the state's most colourful festival, Onam celebrates the golden age of King Mahabali, the mythical ruler of Kerala. The festival is celebrated to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali, and to assure him that his people are happy and wish him well. Onam (Thiruonam) is considered to be the day when King Mahabali comes from exile to visit his beloved people.
The festivity begins ten days before Thiruonam, by putting floral decorations (Pookkalam) on every home. At Trichur (Thrissur), caparisoned elephants take part in a spectacular procession. A magnificent display of fireworks marks the end of the festivities here. At Cheruthuruthy, appreciative crowds gather on the green, where the Kathakali dancers, resplendent in their brilliant costumes, re-enact the well-loved stories of the epic heroes and virtuous women. Pulikali, also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight during Onam season. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the beats of instruments like udukku and thakil.
The Vallamkali (boat race) is one of the main attractions of Onam, and is best seen at Aranmulai and Kottayam. About a hundred oarsmen row huge and graceful odee (boats). Oars dip and flash to the rhythm of drums and cymbals in each boat. The songs are generally typical in character and concern people well known in Malabar. Above each boat gleam scarlet silk umbrellas: their number denoting the affluence of the family owning the boat. Gold coins and tassels hang from these umbrellas.
In the evening girls perform the Kaikottikkali (Thiruvathirakkali) in the open, dancing around the traditional brass lamp.
Beyond the sylvan valley of Kashmir lies the enigmatic land of Ladakh. Leh, a fabled city, looms as a sentinel on the ancient silk route from Sinkiang to West Asia and to the plains of India. In AD 400, the great Chinese traveller Fa-Hien visited the city and was amazed by its natural grandeur. Ladakh presents a mesmerising blend of Buddhist and Muslim cultures.
In the month of September, the 'moonland' of Ladakh comes alive with a magic of its own. The people, fabulously bedecked with gold and silver ornaments and turquoise headgears, throng the streets. Monks in their ritual regalia, wearing colourful masks, dance to the entrancing rhythm of cymbals, flutes and trumpets. The Yak, Lion and Tashishpa dances depict the many legends and fables of Ladakh, the hermit kingdom. Ancient monasteries sporting flags in a riot of colours, display of 'tankhas', archery competitions, a mock marriage, horse polo, and an array of sumptuous Ladakh cuisine are the highlights of this festival.
A range of exquisite handicrafts and quaint antiques populate the lanes and bazaars of the region. Guests are served chang, a delightful barley concoction that lends a touch of abandon to the aura of religiosity. For those with a more adventurous bent of mind, rafting on the Sindh, Sutlej and Zanskar rivers, paragliding, and trekking are some of the activities offered during the festival.
Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati is widely worshipped as the munificent god of wisdom. Ganesha Chaturthi is a festival in his honour and is celebrated in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Started by Chhattrapati Shivaji, the great Maratha ruler, to disseminate culture and nationalism, the festival was given a new impetus by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak to spread the message of freedom struggle and to defy the British who had banned public assemblies. The festival infused the Indians with a sense of unity and revived their patriotic spirit.
To appreciate this occasion, one must go to Mumbai where preparations begin months in advance. Images of Ganesha are installed within homes as well as in places of assembly. Elaborate arrangements are made for lighting and decoration and Ganesha is fervently worshipped for about seven to ten days. On the day of the Chaturthi, the last of the days dedicated to the elephant-headed god, thousands of processions converge on the beaches of Mumbai to immerse the holy idols in the sea. This immersion is accompanied by drumbeats, devotional songs and dancing.
Every year, the largest Ganesha idol is installed at Khairatabad in Hyderabad, which is more than 30 ft tall.
Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the Buddha, is widely celebrated, on a full moon night in April/May. The Buddha was born on the full-moon day in the month of Vaisakh in 563 BC. He achieved enlightenment as well as nirvana on the same date.
It is also believed that Yashodara, the Buddha's wife, his charioteer Channa and even his horse Kantaka were born on the same day. On this day, Buddhists offer prayers in their temples. Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh and Bodh Gaya in Bihar are the main centres of celebration
At the temple town of Puri in Orissa, the image of the Lord Krishna (known as Jagannath in the State) is taken out with great ceremony in June-July each year. Images of the god and his brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra are placed in giant yellow chariots or raths, which are then drawn by pilgrims. The chariots are 45 feet high and have six wheels. The procession or rath yatra draws huge crowds from all over the country. An atmosphere of almost hysterical devotion prevails on this day. In earlier years, devotees were known to have thrown themselves under the wheels of the rath in the hope of obtaining instant salvation.