It’s that time of the year when the calendar is full of festivals lined up every few weeks, the wardrobes spilling with new clothes, the kitchens become the epicentre of aromas and dishes, houses getting a facelift with fresh paints and decorations and rangolis. It’s like a surge of energy passing through the entire country, bringing us all together, binding us in invisible bonds of love, joy and celebrations.
And when we’ve to talk about the Indian culture, I had to ask Zephyr from The Cybernag, a fellow blogger, to write a special post for my blog because no one else can do it like Zephyr! Her deep understanding and knowledge about the Indian culture, the rituals and the tales, their significance and their impact, is enviable. Enjoy reading this beautiful article which enlightens us and encapsulates the positive feelings we are all experiencing right now.
The spirit of Indian festivals
To repeat a cliché, India is the land of festivals – each more colourful and grander than the other. Some are celebrated across the country, some in particular states and some in particular regions and communities. They offer a socio-cultural smorgasbord of celebrations, replete with singing, dancing, folk dances and plays and, not to forget – the most delicious of prasadams!
Though the entire year is strewn with colourful festivals, it is from the month of Ashadha (July-Aug) that the major festivals and vrats start. Starting with Ashadi Ekadashi, a period of four months – chaturmas begins, which is dedicated solely to divine worship. Typically, human celebrations, including weddings, do not take place in these four months.
Among the festivals and vrats that fall during this period are, many pan-Indian festivals like Deepavali, Dushera/Navaratri and Sankranti, regional ones like Ganesh Chaturthi, Kartigai, Onam, Holi, Teej, and local festivals specific to particular to local deities and of those communities that worship them. Some important vrats like Satyanarayan Puja, are held by the devout across the country throughout the year.
What is ‘Chaturmas’?
What is Chaturmas? It has to do with the day and night cycle for the devatas. For the devatas, one Earth year is equivalent to one day, with the first six Lunar Months being the day and the next six night. In this cycle, the period of chaturmas is roughly the time of sleep for the Devatas. It starts with Ashadi Ekadashi, also known as Devshayani Ekadashi (Dev+shayani=sleeping of devas) or Harishayani Ekadashi (Hari+shayani=sleeping of Hari) as Sri Vishnu is believed to go into yoganidra in Vaikuntha, for the following four months. He wakes up on the eleventh day after Deepavali, which is celebrated as Devothan Ekadashi, when the devatas are supposed to wake up from their slumber.
All our festivals are closely associated with Nature, which is reflected in the worship of other living beings like trees and plants (peepul, tulsi), cattle, birds even snakes, on designated festivals. The vrats and naivedyams/bhog likewise are season specific with certain items of food omitted or recommended during vrats and festivals, keeping in mind the health of humans.
Big or small, each festival has some legend – sometimes several different versions — behind it, with specific customs and rituals prescribed for them. Even pan-Indian festivals like Navaratri/Dushera or Deepavali, are celebrated in unique and diverse ways in different regions of the country. The religious rituals, social aspects and the naivedyams offered to the Deity can all be as diverse as the regions and the people living there. Talk of unity in diversity!
The festivals are unique yet they are similar in essence
The nine aspects of Shakti as Navadurgas are worshipped on the nine days with rigorous fasting. The Mata di chowkis and Jagrans (all-night bhajans and dancing) in Punjab and Delhi. Ashtami (eighth day) is dedicated to Durga and pre-pubescent girls are invited to homes for kanyapuja called kanjak; Ramleela performances, Ravan dahan and village melas mark the celebrations in Uttar Pradesh and other northern states; the grand Durga Pujas of West Bengal and Assam bring the whole regions alive with pujas and melas; the night-long garba and dandiya performances are the hallmark of Navaratri in Gujarat; the colourful and artistic kolu (golu) of Tamil Nadu and Andhra involve the entire family, with different sweets and sundals as naivedyam. Girls and women deck up in all their finery and visit each other’s houses to exchange haldi-kumkum and gifts; the picturesque Dushera procession of Mysore are world famous for its pomp and pageantry; Jammu has its own colourful Dushera procession too.
Likewise for Deepavali too, there are so many variations in celebrations as well as the legends behind them. In Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the sixth day after Deepavali called Chhath is the most important festival. On this day goddess Chhathi maiyya, as also Suryadev are worshipped on riverbanks.
Three deities – Rama, Lakshmi and Krishna are worshipped on this day in different parts of the country. The three different legends behind the worship of different deities have to do with the yugas they manifested themselves. It was on this day in Satyug that Lakshmi emerged out of sagar manthan (churning of the ocean) and was made the goddess of wealth; it was the day in Tretayug that Rama returned from Lanka after slaying Ravana; it also happened to be the day in Dwapar Yug that Krishna and Satyabhama slayed Narakasura.
Sankranti is another Indian festival celebrated across the country with variations both in the name as well as traditions. It is both a harvest festival and the day marking the beginning of the northward journey of Surya (Uttarayan), as he enters the Tropic of Capricorn. Gujarat has kite-flying – including international kite-flying competitions; bullock-cart races and bullfights are popular in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; exchanging of sesame seed sweets with friends and neighbours is prevalent in Maharashtra, and so on.
A fun ritual called Dahi handi is celebrated the day after Janmashtami in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa. Symbolising Krishna’s childhood exploits of stealing curd and butter from pots hung high from the ceiling, groups of young men and boys break the pots of curd hung at heights of up to 30 feet, by forming human pyramids.
Food and festivals are inseparable
Naivedyam or Bhog, offered to the Deity of the particular festival is an important part of all the festivals and are as varied as the celebrations. It would take several posts to cover them all. The significant thing about them is that they are all instituted with an eye to the season, the produce of the season, and the health of the people.
For instance, til is heat producing, making it a good choice for the winter festival and so we have til laddus and dishes with til added to them. Another common dish made during the Sankranti festivities across the country, is the one made with a medley of vegetables. Though the recipes and ingredients for this dish might be different, (bhogichi bhaji in Maharashtra, vegetable khichdi in the north, avial in the south, and so on), they all use the fresh produce to make them.
To give you another example, the full moon day following Deepavali, is celebrated as Kojagiri or Sharad Purnima in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Assam and Orissa, when people stay awake all night to welcome goddess Lakshmi into their homes. The special offerings on this day are spiced milk and kheer made with rice. Do you know why? This festival comes at the end of the monsoon, during which the pitta in humans is aggravated. And milk is a neutraliser for the acidic tendency of the body!
If you have attended any Satyanarayana puja anywhere in the country, you would know that the prasadam will be sheera/kesari/sooji halwa. Likewise, Ganesh Chaturthi is not complete without modaks and laddus. Janmashtami offers an occasion to display the culinary talents of womenfolk, especially in the south, where a huge number of sweets and savouries are made as naivedyam. In the north, chappan bhog or a thali with 56 offerings is made to Krishna, which includes dry fruits, milk sweets, fruits and other dishes, both sweet and savoury.
Let’s Celebrate ..Together
No matter what the legends behind them, or how different the celebrations are, the common thread running through them is one of exuberance, tinged with devoutness! We do not have any day of mourning or observe fasts to mark a sad event in the lives of our deities as Abrahamic religions do.
Thus, we celebrate Rama’s birth and his return to Ayodhya after slaying Ravana, but do not mark the day he is banished to the forest or when Sita is abducted. We bring home Ganpati with drums and dance, but do not weep while doing visarjan. Instead we lustily cheer, Ganapati bappa Morya! Pudhchya varshi lavkar ya! (Come back soon next year).
Let us all celebrate our upcoming festivals with joy – all of them. If the traditional rituals are daunting, just downsize, customise, and adapt them to suit your convenience – and enjoy!
Happy festivities to all!