A dozen festivities packed in these 2 months of March and April, averaging an incredible one every 5 days, creating a period of non-stop excitement for Indians. Makes the country look more like an excited household hosting an elaborate traditional Indian wedding with a function being performed every day for a whole week! Each of these festivals has an incredible story to tell, placed side by side in these 2 months, weave together a rich tapestry that makes up India. So join me as we take a glimpse at the history and mythology accompanying each of the festival taking place in March and April and on a journey that promises to leave you breathless….
The month begins with joyous gaiety marked by festival of colours – Holi. It’s in striking contrast with Diwali, the other major festival of India. Diwali is celebrated at night, while Holi is for the day. Diwali is about dressing to your traditional best, while Holi is when you wear worn out clothes that you don’t mind getting spoilt. Diwali is about remembering traditional values that Rama upheld as he returns 14 years of penance, Holi is about Krishna wanton delight as he applied colours to all the gopis. However Holi is also about serious stuff –like the story about King Hiranyakshyap and Prahalad. Legend has it that that evil king Hiranyakashyap was so powerful that he considered himself God. To his ire, his own son, Prahalad refused to obey him and instead prayed to Lord Vishnu. To get rid of his son, Hiranyakshyap asked his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap, as she had a boon to enter fire unscathed. It is said that Prahalad was saved due to his extreme devotion for the lord while Holika paid a price for her sinister desire.
I remember sitting next to the bonfire, called Holikadahan, and wonder if it is ever true that intensity of single minded devotion can save any one from fire. I got the answer in affirmative as I watched the fire walking during the Kavadi festival just a few days later. The Festival makes the street colourful as the Kavadi bearers walk bare footed to the temple so he could offer his Kavadi to Lord Muruga. Kavadi, in essence contains a couple of baskets containing rice, milk or other articles that the devotee has vowed to offer to Lord Muruga. The Kavadi is then decorated with flowers, peacock feathers and palanquins. They all have bells, to help announce the arrival of Kavadi bearers in the street, since he himself is in deep meditative silence.
There are other types of Kavadi (burden) he carries as well in his walk that includes spear-piercing through cheeks, piercing hooks through devotees’ backs and of course walking on fire . The same fire, that Prahalad survived with his single minded devotion. The devotee gets into a trance in which they don’t bleed or feel the pain. If Holi is a festival that is loud and brash, Kavadi in contrast is about silence of the devotee silence as he walks the street in deep meditation. All happening in a span of a few days during this period every year!
It’s also a period of God’s own birthdays. Lord Ram’s birthday is celebrated with Ramnavami festival on 1st April, while Lord Hanuman’s birth day is celebrated on 6th as Hanuman Jayanti. They say Rama is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, who takes birth by His own will on earth to restore “Dharma”. Lord Hanuman, on the other hand, is the venerated monkey God of Hindus. He is regarded as the incarnation of Lord Shiva known for his fierce devotion to Lord Rama and phenomenal strength as evidenced by carrying a whole mountain in his hand to bring the magical “sanjeevni” herb in service of Lord Rama. Then we have Good Friday and Easter and the story of crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is well known to all. The Muslims also have Id-e-Miladunabi, to honour Prophet Muhammad who introduced Islam and revolutionized the religious scene in the Middle East in the following years. Next only to the Gods, birthday of Mahavir, one of the greatest prophets of peace and social reformation of India, known as Mahavir Jayanti, who created Jainism, will be celebrated on 5th April this year.
Another example of India’s cultural diversity is evident during March & April which hosts more than half a dozen different New Year celebrations! So you could have a New Year celebration almost every week!! Each has their own unique way of celebration and its own story about its origin. For example, Tamils celebrate their new year on 13th or 14th April on a day they believe Brahma created the world as per Hindu mythology. So do Telugu’s when they celebrate their new year known as Ugadi. They believe, the great Indian mathematician Bhaskaracharya also proclaimed Ugadi day as start of New Year. It’s the onset of spring also marking beginning of life and verdant fields, meadows full of colourful blossom signifying growth, prosperity and well being. Baisakhi , celebrated on April 13 – 14 , is the Sikh new year. It was always a harvesting festival in Punjab before the Sikh community was created on this day.
The story of Baisakhi is an interesting one. Briefly, it goes like this. In 1699, Sikhs from all over the Punjab gathered together to celebrate the local harvest festival of Baisakhi. Guru Gobind Singh came out of a tent carrying a sword and requested that anyone prepared to give his life for his religion come forward. A young Sikh came forward and disappeared into the tent with the Guru. Then the Guru reappeared alone with his sword covered in blood and asked for another volunteer. This was repeated another four times until a total of five Sikhs had gone into the tent with him. Everyone present was very worried until eventually all five emerged from the tent alive, with Guru Gobind Singh, and wearing turbans. The five became known as the Panj Piare, or ‘Beloved Five’. The men were then baptised by the Guru to become first members of the Sikh community also known as Khalsa.
Vishu – the New Year celebration is also a harvesting festival in Kerala. An auspicious first sight (known as kani) at dawn on the Vishu day is believed to bring good luck for the entire year. Hence a panorama of auspicious items, including flowers, fruits, vegetables, clothes and gold coins is used to decorate the prayer room by the eldest lady of the house all by herself. Every other member of the household opens his eyes viewing this glittering sight. In Assam, this day is called Bihu. Bihu – being the Sanskrit name for “Vishu” also a harvesting festival is celebrated over a period of several days, starting with a day to wash cows and buffaloes with accompanying songs. It’s also about presenting a new ‘Gamosa’ ( a traditional Assamese hand-woven cotton towel with red designs with a white background) and Japi (the traditional Bamboo hat). These forms an integral part of the Bohaag Bihu celebrations and are worn all thru the year.
Amazingly, in Bengali New Year or Poyela Boishakh we find a Muslim influence on what is primarily a Hindu festival. The Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered a reform of the calendar in Bengal to allow his tax collection to coincide with the harvest. Poyela Boishakh is considered to be an auspicious time for marriages. Young ladies clad in white saris with red bordersand men clad in dhoti and kurta take part in processions early in the morning to welcome the first day of the year. This day being auspicious, new businesses and new ventures are started. The Mahurat is performed, marking the beginning of new ventures.
Near the end of April (24th April) comes Akashay Trithiya – the festival of gold. It is considered a very auspicious . It has its own basket of legends with one being that on this day Lord Krishna gave Pandavas “Akshay Patra” – a container that supplies unlimited food or the Mother Ganges descended on earth on this day or Ved Vyasa started writing “Mahabharat “ this day. Whatever the legends people consider buying gold on this day especially auspicious. So the whole country goes on shopping spree to buying upto 20 tonnes of gold on this day!
I hope I have covered all important festivities during these two months. The hope is to interest the reader to delve more into these festivals. In this year of Olympic , how we wish there was an Olympic of festivals. With a doubt, India will win hands down!
By Mohan Nair