Fairs and Festivals of India
The Indian calendar is one long procession of festivals which are as varied in origin as they are large in number. Some celebrate the birthdays of national heroes and some the eternal cycle of the seasons. Others have origin in religion and in the myths and legends of popular faith. For their proper understanding, therefore, it is essential to form a coherent idea of the religious beliefs of the people.
For the proper appreciation of the festivals connected with the various deities, as far as possible the major festivals have been mentioned at the end of the description devoted to that particular deity. For this refer to the section on gods and goddesses.
A Hindu festival is generally characterized by fasting, ablutions, prayer, worship, austerities, vigils, vows, offerings to the gods and holy persons and such other acts of piety and devotion. A Hindu festival is more than a ‘festival’. It is cathartic in nature, and, as a means of purification, strengthens the spirit within. They are a lesson in finding enjoyment through renunciation and self-denial. Fasting is one such means of purification and one of the most popular means of spiritual development and self discipline.
In the details of the festivals given below, no specific dates are given as to when the festivals are held but only the months are mentioned due the difference between the English and the Hindu calendar. The latter is lunar based.
Maha Kumbha Mela (Fair)
This great religious gathering is held four times in twelve years, in January. A legend has it that before the universe took shape, the gods and the demons churned the formless waters as a result of which from the ocean arose Dhanvantan carrying in his hands a kumbha (pot) containing nectar. The gods and demons struggled for the possession of the precious liquid. During this struggle, drops of the nectar fell at twelve places in the world. Four of these, Prayag (Allahabad), Nasik, Hardwar and Ujjain are in India and this fair (mela) is held at each of these places in a twelve year cycle. The Allahabad fair is the most famous and one gets an opportunity to see thousands of yogis, sadhus and holy men who descend from their Himalayan abode once in twelve years to attend the fair.
Mainly a North Indian spring festival, Vasanta Panchami is held in January-February.
The yellow of the flowering mustard fields is the colour of the day. This is reflected in the clothes as well as in the food sprinkled with saffron. In Bengal the goddess of learning, Saraswati, is worshipped on this day. Field sports and kite flying competitions are part of the celebrations.
Click here of more details on Shiva-ratri.
Celebrated in February-March, there are many legends concerning the origin of this gay spring festival. The most popular of these legends concerns Prince Prahlad, son of the evil king Hiranyakashipu. Prahlad did not give up worshipping god Vishnu in spite of persecution by his father and his demon aunt Holika. Ultimately when Holika, who was immune to death by fire, took Prahlad in her arms and entered a blazing furnace built for his destruction, it was the wicked Holika who burnt to ashes by divine intervention, while Prahlad came out unscathed.
Holi is a festival of colour. It marks the end of winter and the advent of spring. Gay crowds fill the streets, squirting coloured water at one another. In the evening preceding the colour festival, bonfires are lit symbolizing the burning of Holika and the destruction of evil. Holi is also associated with the divine love of Radha and Krishna.
Celebrated in March-April, it is the birthday of Vardhamana Mahavira, the twenty-four Tirthankata who was born more than 2,500 years ago. For the Jams it is a day dedicated to his memory. On this day pilgrims from all parts of the country visit the ancient Jam shrines at Girnar and Palitana in Gujarat.
Celebrated in April-May Vaishakhi or Baisakhi is the first day of the month of Vaishakha, the beginning of the Hindu year in some parts of the country. A holy bath in a river or tank is an important feature of the day’s observance. For the Sikhs it was on this clay that Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa. The river Ganga is believed to have descended to earth on this day.
It is celebrated in April-May. Three great events in Buddha’s life on the same day has made Buddha Purnima the most important festival in the Buddhist world. It is celebrated all over the world with great piety, devotion and fervour. Buddha’s images and portraits are taken out in a procession on this day.
It is held in July-August. Naga means snake and Panchami is the fifth day of the lunar fortnight. This festival is associated with the great serpent Adisesha or Ananta (infinite) on whom god Vishnu is believed to recline between the dissolution of one universe and the creation of another. Huge cloth effigies of the serpent are made and worshipped. Stone images of snakes are bathed in milk and live cobras are offered milk and flour paste. In West Bengal, instead of the traditional snake deity, the goddess Manasa is worshipped.
July-August. In the days when the gods warred with the demons, the consort of god Indra tied a rakhi (a silken amulet) on his wrist, by virtue of which, it is said, the god won back his celestial abode from his enemies. On this day sisters tie rakhi on the wrists of their brothers to protect them from evil influences. The person on whose wrist the rakhi is tied is duty bound to offer protection to the girl. There are instances in history when kings or generals, on receiving the rakhi, have led their armies to protect the sender. This is also the day set apart for priests (Brahmins) to change their sacred thread.
Click here of more details on Ganesha Chaturthi
Celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, Janamashtami is held in August-September all over India. Temples are decorated, bells are rung, the conch-shell is blown and Sanskrit hymns sung in His praise. Devotees observe a fast for twenty—four hours which is broken at midnight, the time when Lord Krishna was born. The idol at that time is washed with milk and His name is chanted 108 times. In most l)laces and particularly in Mathura and Brindaban, tableaux (hankis) depicting episodes from Krishna’s life re the highlights of the day. Special sweets are prepared for this festival.
Click here of more details on Dussehra
Click here of more details on Diwali
Click here of more details on Ramanavami
October-November For two days and nights preceding the festival, the Granth sahib is read from beginning to the end. This is called Akhand path. On the day of the festival the holy book is taken out in a procession through the streets. In December-January the birth anniversary of Guru Govind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs is celebrated. It was Guru Govind Singh who welded the Sikhs into a martial community. In 1699, at Anandpur (Punjab) he chose five of the most courageous of the community to form the Khalsa, a militant fraternity of the ‘Pure’. They were called the ‘Panj Pyara’ (the five beloved).
Held in September-October this is the time to pay homage to one’s dead ancestors. The ritual is most effective when performed by a son. The ceremonies performed during this fortnight are a sort of supplement to the funeral ceremonies and are for seeking peace for the soul of the deceased family member. During this period one neither makes any new purchases nor takes part in any celebration.