Sunday, August 10, 2014

Major and Important Festivals of India - A Journey through Joy of Life

The Indian calendar is a long and colourful procession of festivals. A spectacle always awaits. Something new is always anticipated. The air always cups its hands to hold a voice singing that the harvest is golden, two lovers are dead and are immortal, a great prophet lives on… A selected list of Indian festivals helps in measuring the joys of life and goes along the Accent / on Truer Lights.

PONGAL SANKRANTI January 

Tiruchirapalli and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka

This is a three-day harvest festival and one of the most colourful events in south India. In Tamil Nadu where it is called Pongal, on the first day of the festival, the Sun is worshipped – signifying its movements from cancer to capricon. On the next day, Mattu Pongal, cows and bullocks, so essential to the rural world, become a part of a thanks giving ceremony. They are fed on freshly harvested rice. In Karnataka, the festival is called Sankranti. Cows and bullocks are painted and decorated and fed on ‘Pongal’ – a sweet preparation of rice. In the evening, the cattle in each village are led out in procession to the beat of drums and music. In some towns in the South, the festival is climaxed by a kind of bull-fight in which young men try to wrest bundles of currency notes from the horns of a ferocious bull. In Andhra Pradesh every household displays its collection of dolls for three days.

REPUBLIC DAY January 26 

Delhi and all State Capitals

Republic Day is India’s greatest national festival, observed throughout the country on 26 January. The festival in the capital culminates in a magnificent parade at which the President of India takes the salute. Watched by a vast concourse, the parade wends a glittering route through the heart of the city. The colour and excitement of well ordered marching columns representing the armed forces are followed by rumbling armoured vehicles, richly caparisoned mounts which include elephant and camels, tableaux and floats. The parade ends with a fly past when zooming jets decorate the sky with the colours of the national flag. This is followed by a colourful folk dance festival in Delhi on 27 and 28 January. In the state capitals military parades are held at which the governors take the salute.

BASANT PANCHAMI January/February

Throughout India

This Hindu festival is celebrated in honour of Saraswati, the charming and sophisticated goddess of learning and knowledge, who is also reputed to have invented the musical instrument Veena. Quietly worshipped by her devotees in their homes, the celebration is more extensive in Bengal and Bihar where her images are taken in musical processions and immersed in the rivers. Books, pens, paints, brushes and musical instruments are kept at her shrine. In the North, it is a spring festival when people wear yellow garments and fly kites. 

NAUKA-VIHAR January/February 

Madurai

The birth anniversary of Tirumalai Nayak, the 17th century ruler of Madurai, is observed as Nauka Vihar, the great Floating Festival at Madurai which is the most famous temple town of South India. Temple deities, clothed in silk and decked with jewels and flowers, are taken in a grand procession to a large pool known as Mariamman Teppakulam. The deities are placed in a gaily decorated float illuminated by hundreds of lamps. Music and chanting of hymns accompany the sacred barge. 

SHIVRATRI February/March 

All over India

Celebrated by the Hindus all over India, Shivratri is a solemn festival devoted to the worship of the most powerful deity of the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiva. It is purely religious festival in which devotees spend the whole night singing Shiva’s praise. Special celebrations are organized at all important Shiva temples at Chidambram, Kalashti, Khajuraho and Varanasi, besides each village in India keeps fast and holds mela on Shivratri Day.

HOLI February/March 

All over India (Specially in the North) 

Celebrating the advent of spring men, women, and children revel in throwing coloured water and powder on their friends. The most interest Holi celebration is the Lathmar Holi at Barsana near Mathura, the legendary home-town of Radha, consort of Lord Krishna. The women of Barsana challenge men of Nandgaon, home of Krishna, to throw colour on them.

The men reply the next day. It is a form of moral and physical challenge played by women and men whose Goddess Radha and God Krishna were lovers of great merit. The style speaks of a raw strength of the people. In the Punjab, particularly at Anandpur Sahib, a sect of the sikh community observes Holla Mohalla, a day after Holi, and stages mock battles with ancient weapons.

JAMSHED NAVROZ March 

Maharashtra, Gujarat

New Year’s day for the Parsi followers of the Fasli calendar. The celebrations, which include donning fine clothes, prayers at temples, greetings, alms-giving and feasting at home, date back to Jamshed, the legendary king of Persia.

GANGAUR March/April 

Rajasthan 

The festival is held about a fortnight after Holi in honour of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. Gaily attired young girls, gracefully balancing brass pitchers on their heads, wend their way to the temple of Gauri (Parvati) for the ceremonial bath of the deity who is then bedecked with flowers. In their invocation to Gauri, they ask for husbands such as the one Parvati was blessed with. The festival ends in rejoicing, with the arrival of Shiva to escort his bride Gauri home, accompanied by caparisoned horses and elephants. In Bengal, more particularly in Nabadwip and Santipur, and in Orissa, a similar ritual, called Doljatra, is observed by followers of the Vishnu cult.

MAHAVIR JAYANTI March/April 

All over India

This festival is dedicated to Mahavira, the 24th  Tirthankara of the Jains, who has a large following in Gujarat and other parts of India.

EASTER March/April

All over India

Good Friday and Easter Sunday conform to the same pattern of alternate reverence and gaiety that exist in the West.

ID-UL-Zuha (BAKRID) April/May

Throughout India

Bakr-Id commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Prayers are offered at mosques during the day. Celebrants wear new clothes and there is feasting and rejoicing. 

SPRING FESTIVAL April/May

Kashmir 

In Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, the spring festival starts in March, when the first almond blossoms appear. People flock to the almond orchards near the picturesque Dal Lake. They take with them Kashmiri vessels like samovars and make tea under blooming almond. The pink and white almond blossoms add colour to the gay spectacle. There is much happy singing of folk songs. On 13th April, the Baishakhi festival is celebrated in the Mughal gardens of Kashmir.

BAISHAKHI April/May

North India

This is the Hindu solar new year observed virtually all over northern India and in Tamil Nadu. It is religious festival when people bathe in rivers and go to temples to worship. The river Ganga is believed to have descended on earth on this day. For the Sikh community, Baishakhi is of special significance. On this day in 1689, Guru Gobind Singh organized the Sikhs into the Khalsa or the pure one. In Punjab, farmers start harvesting with great jubilation. The vigorous Bhangra dance is common sight in the villages.

POORAM April/May

Kerala 

The most spectacular temple festival in Kerala begins as twilight descends on the temple of Vadakkunathan atop a hillock near Trichur. Thirty richly caparisoned elephants carrying ceremonial umbrellas and fanned by whisks stride out through the gopuram (temple gate). The elephant in the centre carries the processional image of the temple deity, Vadakkunathan. To the sound of trumpets and pipes, the elephants go round the temple. A spectacular display of the fire works, soon after the mid-night, continues till the break of dawn.

ID-UL-FITR (RAMZAN-ID) April/May

All over India 

Celebrated to mark the end of Ramazan, the Muslim month of fasting. Idul-Fitr is an occasion for feasting and rejoicing. The faithfuls gather in mosques to pray, and friends and relatives meet to exchange greetings.

MEENAKSHI KALYANAM April/May

Madurai 

The annual solemnization of the marriage of Meenakshi with Lord Shiva is one of the most spectacular temple festivals at Madurai’s famous Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu. The mythical wedding is the culmination of a ten-day festival in the month of Chaitra (April/May). The deities are taken out in a resplendent chariot to the accompaniment of traditional devotional music. 

RATH YATRA July

Varanasi, Serampore and Puri

Of the great temple festivals of India, the one held in Puri in Orissa is the most spectacular. The festival, held in honour of Jagannath (Lord of the Universe), attracts thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the country. The most impressive part of the festival is the chariot procession. Three profusely decorated temple cars, resembling a temple structure, are drawn by thousands of pilgrim along Puri’s streets. In each car is seated a different deity – Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. Similar celebrations, on much smaller scale, are held at Ramnagar (near Varanasi), Serampore (near Calcutta) and Jaganathpur (near Ranchi).

NAAG PANCHAMI July/August

Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and North India

Reverence for the cobra (Naag) is shown by people all over the country during Naag Panchami, usually in late July or early August. This day is dedicated to the great thousand-headed mythical serpent called Sesha or Anant meaning ‘infinite’. Vishnu, the Hindu God of preservation reclined on him in contemplation during the interval between the dissolution of one aeon and the creation of another, At Jodhpur in Rajasthan, huge cloth effigies of the mythical serpent are displayed at a colourful fair. 

TEEJ July/August

Rajasthan, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, North India

Teej is an important festival in Rajasthan. It welcomes the monsoon and is essentially a women’s festival. The presiding deity is the goddess Parvati who, in the form of a bride, leaves her parents’ home for her husband’s. Women of all ages attired in bright green costumes flock to the swing which are hung from trees. Villagers from the surrounding region turn up to see the procession of the goddess Parvati with the retinue of elephants, camels and dancers.

RAKSHA BANDHAN July/August

Throughout northern and western India

In the days of Indra, the mythical king of the heavens, warred with demons, his consort tied a Rakhi or a silken amulet, around his wrist. This, it is said, helped him win his celestial abode. 

On this day a man considers his privilege to be chosen as brother by a girl who ties a Rakhi on his wrist. He, in return, pledges to give her protection. Celebrated mainly in northern and western India, colourful stalls spring up everywhere offering an astonishing variety of glittering amulets for sale.

AMARNATH YATRA July/August

Kashmir

Each year, in the month of shravan (July/August), when the moon is full, thousands of devout Hindus gather at the Amarnath cave in the Lidder Valley in Kashmir to offer their prayers to Lord Shiva. The cave can be reached from Srinagar via Pahalgam by a picturesque road. The cave is at the height of 3880 meters in the Himalayas. It enshrines a naturally formed ice lingam which waxes and wanes with the moon. This is where, Hindus believe, Lord Shiva explained the secret of salvation to his consort Parvati.

ONAM August/September

Kerala

Kerala’s greatest festival is Onam, celebrated with tremendous enthusiasm. It is primarily a harvest festival observed not only in home but also in the open against the background of lush green tropical vegetation in which the region abounds. The most exciting features of the festival are the snake boat races held at several places in palm fringed lagoons. Various kinds of boats, beak shaped, take part in these thrilling contests.

JANMASHTAMI August/September

Throughout India

The birth anniversary of Lord Krishna, believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu and the author of the Bhagavat Gita, is observed all over India. It is celebrated with special enthusiasm at Mathura and Vrindaban where Lord Krishna spent his childhood. Night long prayers are held and religious hymns are sung in temples. In Bombay, Delhi, Mathura and Agra, children enact scenes from his early life. 

GANESH CHATURTHI August/September

Maharashtra 

Ganesh, the deity with an elephant’s head, is the god of good omen and is worshipped by most Hindus. In Maharashtra, particularly in and around Bombay, the festival of Ganesh is celebrated with tremendous enthusiasm. Clay models of the deity are worshipped and taken out in grand procession accompanied by the sound of cymbals and drums. The images, sometimes as much as eight metres high, are finally immersed in a sea or a lake.

DUSSEHRA, RAM LILA, DURGA PUJA September/October

All over India

The most popular of India’s festivals is Dussehra. Every region observes this festival lasting for ten days. It is celebrated in a special way. In north India, it is Ram Lila and consists of plays, recitations and music which recall the life of legendry hero, Rama. All over, amateur troupes perform plays based on the epic story of Rama. On the tenth day, an elaborate procession is taken to Ram Lila grounds where immense effigies of the demon Ravana, his brother and son explode to the, cheers of thousands of spectators. In Kulu the celebrations have a different flavor. Against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains, villagers dressed in their colourful best assemble to take out procession of local deities while pipes and drums make music.

In Bengal and other parts of eastern India, Dussehra is celebrated as Durga Puja. Devotees don new clothes and entertain themselves with music, dance and drams. On the last day, images of the warrior goddess Durga are taken out in procession and immersed in a sea or a river. 

In Mysore, Dussehra is celebrated with pomp and pageantry reminiscent of grandeur of medieval India. In other parts of south India, the festival is celebrated as Navaratri. Dolls and trinkets are artistically arranged in tiers by young girls. Friends and relatives visit each other’s home to exchange greetings. 

DIWALI October/November

All over India

The gayest of all Indian festivals, Diwali is an occasion for great excitement and rejoicing. In some parts, Diwali marks the start as the Hindu New Year. Every city, down and village is turned into fairyland with thousands of flickering oil lamps and electric light illuminating homes and public buildings.

On this night, a great part of India worship Lakshmi, the goddess symbolizing prosperity. In eastern India, particularly in Bengal, is worshipped Kali, the goddess symbolizing strength. Spectacular images of Kali are installed and worshipped before immersion in holy water. 

GURPURAV October/November

Mainly in north India

The birth anniversaries of the ten gurus, spiritual teachers or preceptors of Sikhism are observed as holy days; but those of Guru Nanak and Guru Govind Singh, the first and the last Gurus, are celebrated as festivals. Guru Nanak’s Birth day falls in Kartik (October/November) and Guru Govind Singh’s birth day falls in December/January. The main celebrations are Akhand Path, the recitation of the Guru’s verses and processions carrying the Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book of the Sikhs.

MUHARRAM November

All over India 

Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grand son of prophet Mohammed. In all cities and towns in India there are impressive processions of colourfully decorated tazias which are made of paper and bamboo and are replicas of martyr’s tomb at Karbala.

The processions are specially impressive at Lucknow where the Imam Baras (mausolea) are illuminated. In many parts of south India, tiger- dancers (men painted all over with stripes and wearing tiger masks) lead the procession.

CHRISTMAS December 25

Bombay, Goa, Delhi, Calcutta 

A fine and exhilarating distillation of traditional and local influence. Christmas is observed in much splendour at services in churches and cathedrals. Carol singing, dancing and balls are the high water-marks. Among the most joyous and colourful celebrations are the festivities at Goa which retain the pageantry of the Latin temper brought to a brilliant culmination under an Indian sun.

In Bombay, a pontifical High Mass is held at midnight in the open air at Cooperage Grounds. In Delhi, in addition to the Mid-Night Mass, services are held at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. In Tamil Nadu, Christmas is also the time for music and dance.

FAIRS

GOA CARNIVAL February

Goa 

In the south-west of India, in February, as the rigours and fasting of Lent approach, the residents of Goa, specially of Panaji, give vent to an exuberance and zest for life in a carnival that lasts for a week. Goa with its sandy beaches, clear blue skies, and perfect weather is an ideal backdrop for the carnival.

In keeping with the festive spirit comes the music which Goans love most. Its rhythms are woven into the nights and days of the carnival as hundred of guitars are strummed. 

This carnival rivals the best in the world. Bright colourful costumes, masks, and flitrations favour the revelers. Processions follow processions. Geniously made floats ply down the picturesque roads. And for an unforgettable week exuberance and joy find a home amids the sandy beaches and beauty of Goa.

URS April/May

Ajmer Sharif

New clothes and feasts at home for friends, acquaintances and strangers. At the fair, the wonderland of saints, fakirs and pilgrims. The endless voices in qawalising the praise of Hazrat Khwaza Moinuddin Chishti, helper of the poor. Such an environment welcomes visitors at the Urs of Ajmer Sharif.

Ajmer, for six days, turns in a fairy land, a great centre for religious, cultural and commercial activity for people from all over India and the world.

The shops in the fair are rented by merchants from Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and, of course, Ajmer. The fair, like all fairs in India, is just not a commercial venture. It is a great out-pouring of culture. All night-long, qawals, regardless of religion, sing in the mehfil, and poets sprout amids the shop, above the hubbub in the streets. Strands of poetry and art, trade and religion are interwoven for days to make Ajmer fair one of the most unusual and unforgettable in India. 

KULU MELA September/October

Himachal Pradesh 

To the north, Dussehra, brings with it, a fair in Kula valley. It is time for gods and goddesses to forsake their temples and adore the fields amidst the sun. Each village has its god. They are led in a noisy procession by musicians and minstels from their various high perches in the hills to the fields of Kulu below. There they shall be one of the main attractions of the week long fair. Their final processions on the seventh day marks the end of the fair as well. A plethora of stalls, a riotous throng, and the laughter and excitement of children marks the Kulu affairs. During the high point of the fair a buffalo is sacrificed in front of the jostling crowd. At the end of the Mela, the long ascent of the god begins to reign over their particular shrine till the next Kulu mela, yet a year off.

PUSHKAR MELA October/November

Rajasthan 

The journey to the banks of lake Pushkar begins days in advance through the sandy wastes of Rajasthan. The vehicles are as myriad as the participants themselves – horses, bullock carts, camels, cars and jeeps in their thousands.

For men, it is time to buy and sell cattle, camels and horses, etc., Leather predominates in embroidered animal covers. 

For ladies, it is a chance to wonder at the bangles, the clothes, the pots and pans and other utensils of brass. Necklaces of glass beads from Nagpur, ivory work from Morta, printed cloth from Jodhpur and Ajmer, prized goods from far and near.

The participants in this fair are Rajputs, pround legates of a history of chivalry and valour. The fair thrives once again at high point of the horse and camel races. 

An important function of the fair is the trading of the cattle. Spirited bidding accompanies the auction. And the Pushkar ends as it begins, in an endless stream of bullock carts, camels and jeeps, wending a weary, but well satisfied way, homewards.

SONEPUR FAIR November

Bihar 

The largest cattle fair in the world takes place on the banks of the Ganga near Patna. The fair lasts for a month and cattle brought from all over the country are bought and sold. The blowing of counch shells, the sonorous trumpeting of elephants as they wade into the river, and the constant moving of bulls and cows, along with their tinkling bells, is an enthralling backdrop for this fair. The cattle are decorated and painted in crimson, orange, pink and purple to facilitate identification. Some have horns gilled with silver. Their great dignity seems to proclaim that they know they are the greatest draw at the fair.

KUMBHA MELA January-February

Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh

Further to the east and south, in the heart of India, KUMBH, the greatest and the most important of the Indian fairs, takes place once every three years, at one of the four places - Nasik in Maharashtra. Ujjaini in Madhya Pradesh, Prayag (Allahabad) and Hardwar in Uttar Pradesh. Hindus from all over the country come in their millions for a holy dip. Sadhus of every sect, pilgrims in search of salvation, showmen of every sort, magicians, fakirs and teachers descend in huge hordes to these holy places, in an unprecedented exhibition of religious and commercial fervour. 

Originally the fair served the purpose of meeting of religious heads of various sects in Hinduism, and gave an opportunity for theological debate and discourse on the grandest scale. For close unto a fortnight, while the fair lasts, it is time of frolic and spirited bargaining. A time for dharma and a time for fun.

In addition to these major fairs these are many other fairs that are as colourful and exuberant. The Barman Mela in Hoshangabad district takes place in January, climaxed by Til Sankranti. The Charak Mela on the last day of Chaitya (usually in April), is a festival of rural Bengal. The Paus Mela (December) held at Shantiniketan, founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, is also another widely attended festival where song and dance prevail. The Kansa Mela, specially celebrated in Mathura and Fatehpur Sikri recalls the destruction of Kansa, the cruel ruler, who tried to destroy Lord Krishna. In Bandra, a suburb of Bombay, there is a yearly fair in early September in honour of Virgin Mary. These are occasional fair as well that take place at intervals. The solar eclipse is an occasion for Hindus to bathe in rivers – preferably at Kurushetra, Allahabad, Varanasi or Hardwar. Little known local customs have their own charm. In Agra, just before Diwali, children in their best finery carry a clay image of Tisu Maharaj. (probably a local hero) from place to place. People, on the way, give them sweets or money.

A common feature of Indian rural life is the bazaar day or the hat as it is called in north India, or sandy in the south. In the villages, this is not only a social but an economic necessity sometimes having a religious slant. People from adjoining villages assemble in one place to buy what they need and sell what they produce. Usually, the fair breaks after the barter, but sometimes when an important festival comes, other attractions add to the importance of the meeting.

Some of the larger ones arrange a giant wheel, a merry-go-round or even a visit from a travelling circus, apart from all the traditional characters like the medicine-men with their colourful patter, who are to be found at all fairs. These occasions, apart from being diversions in their own way, are also an insight into Indian rural value system.

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