Festivals

 

Pongal Sankranti- Tiruchirapalli and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka

This is a three-day harvest festival and one of the major events in South India. In Tamil Nadu, where it is called Pongal, on the first day, the sun is worshipped, signifying its movement from Cancer to Capricorn. On the next day, Mattu Pongal, cows and bullocks, so essential to the rural world, are part of a thanksgiving ceremony and 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 of 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.

 

Vasanta Panchami- Throughout India

This Hindu festival falling on the fifth of Magha (January-February) is celebrated in honor of Saraswati, he charming and sophisticated goddess of scholars who is reputed to have invented the musical instrument, the veena. Quietly worshipped by her devotees in their homes, the celebrations are more extensive in Bengal where her images are taken in procession and immersed in the river. Books, pens, paint brushes and musical instruments are kept at her shrine. In the north, it is a spring festival when people wear yellow.

 

Republic Day - Delhi and all State capitals

Republic Day is India's greatest national festival, observed throughout the country on January 26. The festivals in the capital culminate in a magnificent parade at which the President of India takes a salute. The color and excitement of well ordered marching columns representing the armed forces are followed by rumbling armored vehicles, and richly decorated mounts which include elephants, camels and floats. The parade ends with a flypast when zooming jets decorate the sky with the colors of the national flag.

 

Floating Festival - Madurai

The birth anniversary of Tirumala Nayak, the 17th century ruler of Madurai, is the day of the great Floating Festival at Madurai, one of the most famous temple towns 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 decorated float illuminated by hundreds of lamps. Music and chanting of hymns accompany the sacred barge.

 

Republic Day - Delhi and all State capitals

Republic Day is India's greatest national festival, observed throughout the country on January 26. The festivals in the capital culminate in a magnificent parade at which the President of India takes a salute. The color and excitement of well ordered marching columns representing the armed forces are followed by rumbling armored vehicles, and richly decorated mounts which include elephants, camels and floats. The parade ends with a flypast when zooming jets decorate the sky with the colors of the national flag.

 

Shivratri - All over India

Celebrated by Hindus all over India, Shivratri is a solemn festival devoted to the worship of the most powerful deities of the Hindu pantheon, Shiva. It is a purely religious festival at which devotees spend the whole night singing his praise. Special celebrations are held at important Shiva temples as at Chidambaram, Kalahasti, Khajuraho and Varanasi.

 

Id-Uz-Zuha (Bakr-Id) - mainly Delhi, Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad

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.

 

Holi - Mathura and throughout northern India

Celebrating the advent of spring, men, women and children revel in throwing colored powder and water on their friends. The most interesting 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 the men of Nandgaon (home of Krishna) to throw color on them. The men reply the next day. In the Punjab, a sect of the Sikh community observes Hola Mohalla a day after the Holi and stages mock battles with ancient weapons.

 

Jamshed Navroz - Maharashtra, Gujarat

This is New Year’s Day for the Parsi followers of the Fasli calendar. The celebrations - which include donning of fine clothes, prayers at temples, greetings, almsgiving and feasting at home - date back to Jamshed, the legendary King of Persia.

 

Gangaur - Udaipur, Jaipur

The festival is held about a fortnight after Holi in honor of Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. 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 you have been blessed with’. The festival ends in rejoicing, with the arrival of Shiva to escort his bride Gauri home, accompanied by horses and elephants. In Bengal, more particularly at Nabadwip and Santipur, and in Orissa, a similar ritual, called Doljatra, is observed by followers of the Vishnu cult.

 

Muhharam - Lucknow, Delhi, Hyberabad

Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. In all cities and towns there are impressive processions of colorfully decorated tazias which are paper and bamboo replicas of the martyr’s tomb at Karbala. The processions are especially impressive at Lucknow where the Imambaras (mausolea) are illuminated. In many parts of south India, tiger dancers—men painted with stripes and wearing tiger masks-lead the procession.

 

Spring Festival - Kashmir

Known as Sonth, it falls in April-May. In Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, the spring festival actually starts in March when the first almond blossoms appear. People flock to the almond orchards near the picturesque Dal Lake, taking with them Kashmiri tea-making vessels which are not unlike samovars. The fresh turf and pink and white almond blossoms add color to the spectacle. On April 13, the Baisakhi festival is celebrated in the Mughal gardens of Kashmir.

 

Baisakhi - Anandpur Sahib, Amritsar

This is the Hindu solar New Year’s Day observed virtually all over northern India and in Tamil Nad. It is a religious festival when people bathe in rivers and go to temples to offer worship. The river Ganga is believed to have descended to earth on this day. For the Sikh community, Baisakhi is of special significance. On this day in 1689, Guru Gobind Singh organized the Sikhs into the ‘Khalsa’. In the Punjab, farmers start harvesting with great jubilation. The vigorous bhangra dance is a common sight in the villages.

 

Pooram - Trichur

The most spectacular temple festival in Kerala begins as twilight descends on the temple of Vadakkunathan (Shiva) atop a hillock near Trichur. Thirty richly decorated elephants carrying ceremonial umbrellas and fanned by whisks stride out through the gopuram (temple gate). The elephant in the center carries the processional image of the temple deity, Vadakkunathan. To the sound of trumpets and pipes, the elephants go around the temple. A spectacular display of fireworks soon after midnight continues until the break of dawn.

 

Meenakshi Kalyanam - 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. This 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 - Puri, Varanasi, Serampore, Jagannathpur

Of the great temple festivals of India, the one held at Puri in Orissa is the most spectacular. The festival, held in honor of Lord 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 elaborately decorated temple cars, resembling a temple structure, are drawn by thousands of pilgrims along Puri’s streets. In each car is seated a different deity - Jagannath (hence the English word ‘Juggernaut’), his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. Similar celebrations, on a much smaller scale, are held at Ramnagar (near Varanasi), Serampore (near Calcutta) and Jagannathpur (near Ranchi).

 

Naag Panchami - Jodhpur

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 (which means 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 colorful fair.

 

Teej - Jaipur

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. Rajasthani women attired in bright green costumes flock to the swings which are hung from trees. Villagers from the surrounding regions come to see the procession of the goddess Parvati through the town with a retinue of elephants, camels and dancers.

 

Onam - Aranmula, Payipad, Kottayam

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

 

Raksha Bandhan - Throughout northern and western India

In the days when Indra (the mythical king of the heavens) warred with demons, his consort tied a rakhi or a silken amulet around his wrist. It is said this helped him win back his celestial abode. On this day, a man considers it a privilege to be chosen as brother by a girl who ties a rakhi on his wrist. He, in return, pledges to give her his protection.

 

Amarnath Pilgrimage - 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 a height of 3,880 meters in the Himalayas. It enshrines a naturally-formed ice lingam (symbol of Lord Shiva) which waxes and wanes with the moon. Hindus believe this is where Lord Shiva explained the secret of salvation to his consort Parvati.

 

Janmashtami - Bombay, Mathura, Agra

The birth anniversary of Lord Krishna, believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu and the author of the Bhagvadgita, is observed all over India. It is celebrated with special enthusiasm at Mathura and Brindavan 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 - Poona, Bombay, Madras

Ganesh, the deity with an elephant’s head, is the God of good omens 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 8 meters high, are finally immersed in the sea or a lake.

 

Dussehra, Ram Lila, Durga Puja - Delhi, Mysore, Kulu, Calcutta

One of the most popular of India’s festivals is Dussehra. Every region observes this 10-day festival in a special way. In North India it is Ram Lila and consists of plays, recitations and music which recall the life of the legendary hero, Rama. In Delhi, many amateur troupes perform plays based on this epic story. On the tenth day, an elaborate procession leads to the Ram Lila grounds where immense cracker-stuffed effigies of the demon Ravana and 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 colorful best, assemble to form processions of local deities while pipes and drums make music. In Mysore, it is celebrated with a pomp and pageantry reminiscent of medieval times. In Bengal and other parts of eastern India, Dussehra is celebrated as Durga Puja. Devotees don new clothes and entertain with music, dance and drama. On the last day, images of the warrior goddess are taken out in procession and immersed in a river or the sea. In the south, the festival is celebrated as Navaratri. Dolls and trinkets are artistically arranged in tiers by young girls. Friends and relatives visit each other’s homes to exchange greetings.

 

Diwali - All over India

Diwali is an occasion for great excitement and rejoicing. In some parts, Diwali marks the start of the Hindu New Year. Every city, town and village is turned into a fairyland with thousands of flickering oil lamps and electric lights illuminating homes and public buildings. On this night, while the rest of India worships Lakshmi, the goddess symbolizing prosperity, eastern India (particularly Bengal) worships Kali, the goddess symbolizing strength. Spectacular images of Kali are installed and worshipped before immersion in the river.

 

Gurpurab - 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 Gobind Singh, the first and the last of the Gurus, are celebrated as festivals. Guru Nanak’s birthday falls in Kartik (October-November), and Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday falls in December-January. The main celebrations are Akhand Path, the recitation of the Guru’s verses and processionals carrying the Grantha (Holy Book).

 

Id-ul-Fitr (Ramzan-Id) - Delhi, Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad

Celebrated to mark the end of Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, it is an occasion for feasting and rejoicing. The faithful gather in mosques to pray; friends and relatives meet to exchange greetings.

 

Christmas - Bombay, Goa

A fine and exhilarating distillation of traditional and local influences, Christmas is observed in much splendor at services in churches and cathedrals, and festivity in carol singing, dances and balls. Among the most joyous and colorful 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 the Cooperage Grounds. In Delhi, in addition to midnight Mass, services are held at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. In Tamil Nadu, Christmas is also the time for music and dance festivals. The other holidays traditionally observed by Christians in India are Good Friday and Easter.

 

Pushkar

The most colorful of fairs is at Pushkar. Races are held in a large arena. Riders on decorated camels show the speed and maneuverability of their mounts. On the last day, prizes are given away and an amusing local variation of musical chairs is played by camel riders.