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Most Popular Festivals of India
India has many religions and hundreds of customs and festivals. Many of these festivals are shared by communities across the country, albeit with variation on their history, theme and method of celebration. Here are some of the biggest festivals of India, that celebrate the history, culture, traditions and different religions across the subcontinent. Not only the festivals of its own heritage, India is also known to adapt and accept the festivals of other religions and regions, as will be evident from the list. If it is a matter of celebration, India does so with all its colours and music and food in tow!
Easily one of the biggest festivals of India, Diwali or the Festival of Lights is usually celebrated in October or November. It is a five day Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil. In North India, Diwali is celebrated to commemorate the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. In South India it is a celebration of the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakasura.
Hindu households begin preparing for Diwali nearly two weeks in advance. Homes are cleaned thoroughly, oil lamps and electric lights are bought, the prayer room is set up and mithai (indian sweets) and flowers are stocked up. On the actual days of Diwali, India lights up with the collective celebrations of millions of devout homes all over. Lights are kept on the whole night, and doors are kept open for as long as possible to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) who is said to visit people's homes on Diwali, bringing with her prosperity and financial luck for the New Year. Very often, people draw little feet outside their homes, as a way of showing the path to their homes to the Goddess. After prayers, firecrackers ring loudly into the night, lighting up the sky.
Holi is the festival of colours usually celebrated in March. During Holi, people light bonfires, burn effigies of the evil Holika, smear each other with coloured powders and drench each other with water and water balloons!
The mythological origins of this festival, like Diwali, vary from North to South. In the south, this festival is a depiction of the fate of Kama Deva - the God of Love and Lust. It is believed that he had once aimed an arrow at his wife Rati, but missed and ended up hitting Lord Shiva instead. Lord Shiva was enraged, and his third eye opened, burning Kama to ashes on the spot. Rati was grief-stricken, and Lord Shiva, feeling guilty for having widowed her, granted her the ability to see her husband, albeit never again in the flesh.
In the North on the other hand, Holi celebrates the victory of devotion and purity over wickedness and ego. There was believed to be a King who ordered that every man in his land worship him as God. All complied but his son. The king was so incensed that he kept trying to kill his son, but to no avail, as the Lord Vishnu, who the son had accepted as his ultimate master, had granted him protection against his father's evil designs. It is believed that one day, the King's sister Holika, who herself had been granted a boon that made her fire-proof, offered to take the prince onto her lap and set herself ablaze. However when she did that, she burnt to death on the spot and the prince was saved, as her boon only protected her and not her evil designs. And so, on the day before Holi, effigies of Holika are burnt amidst much jeering and celebrations!
There is a legend about a time when the Asuras (demons) and the Gods joined hands to churn out Amrut (the nectar of life) from the depths of the ocean, using a mountain and a snake as a rope. Among the things that came out, was a pot of poison. This poison was so potent that it had the power to destroy the whole universe. When they realized what they had done, all the Gods and Demons ran in different directions to save themselves as none among them had the power to stop the spreading poison. On the request of the Gods, Lord Shiva went to the spot and drank the poison. Shocked, his wife Goddess Parvati tightened a noose over the neck of the Lord and managed to stop the poison from entering his body below the neck. However, the poison was so potent that it changed the colour of his face and neck to blue.
Shivaratri literally means the great night of Shiva or the night of Shiva. Devotees flock to shiv temples by the thousands and offer Bael or Bilva/Vilvam leaves to Lord Shiva. While some Hindus abstain from food for the whole day, others allow themselves one meal. People cluster around Shiva temples and after bathing, smear their bodies with holy ashes and keep reciting prayers to Lord Shiva. Extensive singing and dancing takes place to enable people to stay awake all night. Bhang (cannabis) is also consumed as part of the celebrations.
Ramadan / Eid-ul-fitr
Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting, during which Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during daylight hours. Ramadan is intended to teach Muslims about patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. Muslims fast as a tribute to God and offer more prayer than usual. Compared to the solar calendar, the dates of Ramadan vary, moving backwards by about eleven days each year depending on the moon. Thus, fascinatingly, a person will have fasted every day of the Gregorian calendar year in 34 years' time. Muslims believe Ramadan to be an auspicious month as it is believed to be the month in which the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. During the Ramadan month, the evenings are filled with feasting and festivities. The roads in Muslim localities get lined with vendors of eatables of all kinds and the feasting continues late into the night with entire families coming out to partake in the festivities.
Eid marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. "Eid" means "festivity" while Fitr means "breaking the fast". Eid celebrates the conclusion of the 29 or 30 days of dawn-to-sunset fasting during the entire month of Ramadan. On Eid, Muslims wish each other Eid Mubarak, wear their best clothes and perfumes, eat some sweet food, and then rush off to offer prayers.
Raksha Bandhan celebrates the bond of affection between brothers and sisters. The name 'Raksha Bandhan' refers to 'a bond of protection'. On this day, brothers make a promise to their sisters to protect them from all harm and sisters pray to God to protect their brother from all evil. This one day festival generally falls in the month of August. Sisters do a small puja for their brothers, and tie a colourful and often ornately decorated thread called a Rakhi on their wrist. Brothers on their part must pledge to look after their sisters till their dying breath and sweeten the deal with a gift of some kind!
Navratri, the festival of nights, lasts for 9 days with three days each devoted to worship of Ma Durga, the Goddess of Valor, Ma Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Ma Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. During the nine days of Navratari, feasting and fasting take precedence over all normal daily activities amongst the Hindus. Evenings give rise to the religious dances in order to worhip Goddess Durga Maa. Gujaratis perform their traditional dances 'Garba' & 'Dandiya-Raas' during Navratri. The women-folk dance in a circle, singing 'Garbas' or traditional songs. Young men-women wear colourful traditional dresses and play Garba with great enthusiasm. The mood of Navratri is very colourful & unique.
Dussehra is a Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. It also symbolizes the victory of Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Thus, it is basically a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. Dussehra is celebrated on the tenth day of the Hindu autumn lunar month of Ashvin, which falls in September or October of the Western calendar. The first nine days are celebrated as Navratri. The entire ten day period is marked with much fasting, feasting, singing and dancing. Dusshera also marks the unofficial end of the summer season and the onset of the winter season.
The birth of Lord Krishna (a re-incarnation of Lord Vishnu) is celebrated on the eighth day of a lunar fortnight in August-September, hence the name Janmashtami (birth + eighth day). Lord Krishna was said to be a mischievous child who loved milk, butter and ghee, and so women fast and make milk based sweets of all kinds and offer it to the Lord. They also visit temples or set up prayer rooms at home and pray to Lord Krishna.
One custom of Janmashtami is Dahi Handi. This is celebrated with enormous zeal and enthusiasm. A clay pot filled with buttermilk is hung very high above the ground. A human pyramid of men, who have trained for weeks prior to this event, then attempts to reach the height of the pot. The topmost person on the human pyramid attempts to break the handi by hitting it with a blunt object. When that happens, coconut water or buttermilk is spilled over the entire group, symbolizing their achievement through unity. Handis are set up around the city, and groups "Govinda Pathaks", travel around in trucks trying to break as many handis as possible during the day in order to reap the rich rewards that come with successfully breaking the highest handis!
Ganesha Chaturthi is celebrated to mark the birthday of Lord Ganesha. Lord Ganesha or Ganpati is one of the most popular deities in the Hindu religion. He is worshiped by both Shiva worshippers and Vishnu worshippers as he is considered to be an avatar of both Shiva and Vishnu. Even Buddhists and Jains have faith in Ganpati. In the run up to this festival, a large number of idols are made of clay or metal in all possible sizes; sometimes even up to twenty feet in height. People buy these idols of Lord Ganesha and install them in their houses. They then worship the idol for anything up to eleven days, after which the idols are taken out in extravagant ceremonial processions, through the streets of the town/city (mostly in the state of Maharashtra) and immersed into the river, sea or well. In recent years, pandals vie for the title of best pandal, by trying to outdo each other in terms on the size of the idol, the amount of money and jewelry offered to it and the number of devotees they can attract!
Baisakhi is an ancient harvest festival celebrated across the northern Indian subcontinent, especially in the state of Punjab. It is also celebrated as the Sikh New Year and the founding of the Khalsa Panth.
The history of Baisakhi celebrations can be traced back to 1699. Guru Gobind Singh, the then Guru of the Sikhs, called on the historic Baisakhi Day congregation of Sikhs at Keshgarh Sahib near Anandpur on March 30, 1699. Thousands of people had assembled seeking their Guru's blessings. Guru Gobind Singh came out of the tent carrying an unsheathed sword. After a powerful speech meant to infuse courage among the congregated masses, he said that every great deed was preceded by a great sacrifice and called upon people who were prepared to give their lives. On the Guru's third call, a young man offered himself. The Guru took the man inside his tent and reappeared alone with a bloodied sword. He then asked for another volunteer. This was repeated another four times until a total of five Sikhs had gone into the tent and the Guru had come out without them each time. Everyone present was stunned at the thought that their guru had killed five innocent Sikhs. At this point, the Guru presented all the five men before the people. Every one present was surprised to see all five men alive and wearing turbans and saffron-coloured garments. These five men were called Panj Piara or 'Beloved Five' by the Guru. That day ended on a celebratory note, and the tradition is carried forth to this day.
Makar Sankrati / Uttarayan / Lohri
Makar Sankrati, literally meaning the turning of the sun into Capricorn (Makar) in the sky, also signifies the time of harvest in most of North India. While the residents of Gujarat, M.P., Maharashtra and even Rajasthan celebrate it as Uttarayan (sun's journey to north) by flying kites in the newly active wind currents, the people of Punjab and Haryana commemorate their first harvest by celebrating the festival of Lohri with dhol and bhangra dances and folk songs of Lohri. Hence, in essence, this festival is observed by a wide range of religions; from Hindus to Sikhs and even Jain Gujaratis, in a number of different regions.
Makar Sankrati / Uttarayan / Lohri falls usually on the same English date each year, that of 14th or 15th of January. While Gujarat skies are filled with coloured kites, Ahmedabad hosts a month long kite flying festival on the Sabarmati Waterfront. Elsewhere, in other cities and neighbouring states too people climb on their terraces, munch on chikki (candied dry-fruit crunches) and Undhiyu-Puri (Gujarat) or Pooran poli (Maharashtra).
The Indian festival of spring, Basant Panchami translates to the fifth day that welcomes spring. It usually falls in late January or early-February, and marks a beautiful day in different regions of the country, depending on their own culture and traditions. While in parts of Eastern India like Assam, Bihar and West Bengal the day is dedicated to Saraswati Pooja to praise and worship the Goddess of Knowledge and Arts, in Uttarakhand and Rajasthan people worship Shiv and Gauri. In the Vaishnav communities all over the country, Basant Panchami signifies the beginning of Holi festival, where in Shrinathji Temple of Nathdwara and all Bhakti Marg Krishna temples in Mathura, Vrindavan and the rest of the country, the Lord is sprayed with gulal and abir daily for 40 days; until it is legitimately the day of Holi.
Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest, or probably THE biggest religious gathering in the world, held every 3 years at one of the following cities - Ujjain, Allahabad, Varanasi and Haridwar. Hindus consider Kumbh Mela the greatest boon-giver of this lifetime, and flock down to the city it is held in from all over the world to bathe in the holy river flowing past. It is a spiritual experience that beats all, as hermits and sages who never venture out of their Himalayan caves come out in nothing but mated hair and loin cloths to pray and dip in the river. Aghoris abound, the greatest astrologers of India meet, and many other religious organisations come together. After every 12 years, the Mahakumbh Mela is held at the same spots and here, the pilgrims are more than even Kumbh; crossing 30 million mark every day.
Losar or the Tibetian New Year is a festival celebrated in the Northeast and North corners of the country, especially in the state of Ladakh, at the end of the month of January. With rituals and ancient chants as well as customs, Losar symbolises the beautiful dramas and dances with animal and dragon costumes. In the Metho ceremony that follows, the people carry lit torches through the streets of Ladakh chanting old hymns and praying for the prosperity of the new coming year, as well as to ward off any evil around them.
The Rath Yatra, or chariot festival, is one of the biggest festival parades of South India. It is held in Puri, where Lord Jagannath, who is a form of Lord Krishna, is seated in a grand chariot along with brother Balram and sister Subhadra, and taken through the town amid great fanfare, song and dance. Tourists and pilgrims come here from far and wide to experience the grandeur. The number of chariot pullers and devotees cross lakhs every year and the procession is broadcast live on local, national as well as international T.V. networks.
Rath Yatra usually falls in the month of July, but it depends on the Vikram Samvat calendar.
The harvest festival of South India, in particular Kerala, is known as Onam. It also celebrates and worships the Vaaman avatar of Lord Vishnu, the one that came as a dwarf brahmin and tested the devotion of King Mahabali. Onam marks the homecoming of the king, after succeeding in sacrificing all of his land, the netherworlds, the skies, and at last his own head to Vaaman.
Homes are decorated with rangoli and women of the house wear beautiful white sarees, sweets and feasts are made and people of Kerala celebrate with pomp.
Dev Diwali, also known as Dev Prabodhini Ekadashi or Dev-Utthapan, is the time of celebration just after the new moon night of Diwali. It is considered a continuation of Diwali celebration in many parts of India including Gujarat, U.P., Rajasthan and M.P.
While in Gujarat, Dev Diwali means celebrating Diwali all over again and bursting crackers, in Varanasi, the people celebrate it as Kartik Poornima. Houses all around are still decorated, lights not taken down after diwali. Diyas are lit on Dev Diwali too. In Vaishnavite and Jain households, Dev Diwali also means to symbolise the day when Lord Krishna married Devi Tulsi. So temples and home temples celebrate this day by performing Tulsi vivah, i.e. marrying the form of Lord Krishna to a tulsi shrub.
Christmas & Western New Year
Christmas in India is big, not only because of the Western hegemony and the cultural influence that we have through shows and movies, but also because it was a country colonised by a kingdom that sent intense misionaries. Cities like Goa, Pondicherry, Kerala, Kolkata etc light up like any other western city during the festival of Christmas. The streets are decked in fairy lights, Christmas trees are erected on corners, children sing carols outside churches and there is a sweet festive vibe around. Mumbai also partakes in the cheer and Bandra becomes the hub of all Christmas activity, from shopping to night mass to revelry.
Come New Year and parties break out everywhere. There are home parties and expensive hotel parties, VIP passes to fancy DJs as well as beach parties. Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai... you name it. Every small and big city comes together to shout 'happy new year!' at midnight and gift its own congratulations to the rest of the world celebrating.
Hemis is a two day long Buddhist festival, mainly celebrated in the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh. The fest attracts a lot of pilgrims, but more tourists, who come for the festival and club it with the famous Chadar trek. The celebration here includes Cham dance with percussion and folk drums, trumpets and cymbals in the background, played by trained monks. The otherwise celibate and recluse Buddhist monks shed their simple robes to wear colourful costumes and masks and dance with the locals to present a grand show. Hemis is hence celebrated with pomp, commemorating the birth anniversary of Padmasambhava, who was Tibet Tantric Buddhism's founder.
The festival usually falls in the month of June or July.
One of the most significant and widely celebrated Rajasthani festivals, finding its roots in Gan and Gaur, i.e. Shiv and Gauri. This is a festival celebrated by women, young maidens and married ones alike, of all ages. They worship this heavenly couple as the ideal of love and married life, as well as fertility, while praying for a husband of their hearts. Dressed to the nines in traditional Rajasthani poshak, bor tikas, sheesh pattis, bajuband, chuddlas and payals, women carve the Gan and Gaur idols out of clay, paint them, adorn them with fine clothes and jewellery, offer them specially made feasts and then with all fanfare and procession, lead them to the ghat of a lake or pond to immerse them.
The festival is best enjoyed in Mewadi cities like Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Jaipur etc and falls in the Chaitra paksh or the months of March/April. The festival is just a couple of days after holi, so you can club your visit to Rajasthan for both these festivals.