Monday, January 24, 2011

Ajanta Caves

A two and half hour drive from Aurangabad takes you to the world heritage site of Ajanta. Although it is nearer to the cities of Jalgaon and Buldhana, Ajanta caves are better approached from Aurangabad. The caves are built in a horseshoe shaped curve of the steep rocky gorge that rises above the river Waghore. These rock hew caves, still glowing in their own natural colors, are the finest achievements of the Buddhist monks who arrived here in 2nd century B.C. and reflect the zenith of ancient Indian art and architecture. Though most were carved in the first 400 years span, but the work continued till 7th century A.D. The caves were suddenly abandoned, most probably to the nearby Ellora caves. They remained unknown and forgotten for centuries, until, in 1819, soldiers from a British hunting party found them, accidentally.

The exquisite paintings on the walls of the caves and some sculptures depict the development in Buddhism, over the span of eight centuries. The central theme of the frescoes remain the life and times of Buddha. Then there are descriptive Jataka tales, when Buddha assumed forms of animals on the earth in his previous births. There are lions, elephants, monkeys, peacocks and geese with human forms of 'Yakshas', 'Kinneras' (half human and half bird) 'Gandharvas' (divine musicians), 'Apsaras' (heavenly dancers), which were of concern to the people of that time. All of them decorated with intricacy. Their half-closed eyes giving an air of meditation.

The most important and better preserved caves are cave numbers 1, 2, 16, 17 and 19.

Cave 1:

The doorway has the most seen Ajanta frescoes of Padmapani and Vajrapani; celestial figures holding Lotus and Thunder bolt respectively in their hands. A court scene, from the Mahajanaka Jataka is depicted here. The Ummaga Jataka and the Champeya Jataka are shown in this cave. Interesting in these frescoes is the head gear of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara and the ornaments, clothes hairstyles and the purses carried by the womenfolk. They are drawn and coloured with minute intricacy showing the caliber of the artisans.

Cave 2:

In cave number 2 Buddhist icons were sculpted according to a set of codified rules that used symbolic hand gestures and motifs such as the wheel, the deer, the throne and sacred Bodhi tree. Each represents a stage of Buddha's life. The ceiling and wall paintings illustrate events associated with Buddha's birth including Maya, Buddha's mother. There are many paintings in this cave where the human figures are dressed differently than those of the others. Others are the tales from the Vidhurpandita Jataka.

Cave 16:

In between cave number 2 and 16 are many caves depicting the miracle of Sravasti. A special painting known as the "dying princess" adorns one wall of the cave. This shows Sundari, the wife of Buddha's half-brother, dying when she is told that her husband was going to become a monk. There are many female attendants besides her, one being a nurse. Astonishingly enough, the nurse is shown wearing the same uniform as of today.

Cave 17:

Stories from the Vishvantara Jataka and the Hamsa Jataka can be found here. One fresco shows Buddha preaching, with his right hand raised and palm facing the viewer, in posture of blessing. Buddha is shown seated in Padmasana- the lotus pose of meditation and is often shown with his hair tied in a topknot surrounded by a halo of light, representing nirvana or enlightenment. Another touching fresco is depicted in this cave when Buddha came back to Kapilavastu after enlightenment. He is shown with his wife Yashodhara and son Rahul. Here the figure of Buddha is tall and his wife and son look like dwarfs in from him, depicting his knowledge and prominence.

Cave 19:

Just like the caves in Ellora, all the caves in Ajanta are Monolithic and carved from top to bottom. This cave carries huge Stupa structure with Buddha seated in it and celestial figures flying over it.

Cave 26:

Last of the caves which is intricately decorated and carved. The main sculpture here is that of the sleeping Buddha. It is the legend of his Mahanirvana; i.e. his death. While normal humans are seen mourning below, the celestial figures in the heaven are seen rejoicing.

Ajanta is being restored with the same natural colours that were used, where they have been faded.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cultural Festivals of India

India is a vast country with rich and varied cultural heritage. Folk dance and music is the core of the Indian tradition and culture. Some local festivities have today gained so much importance that people from all over the world flock to see them. The Indian government has enhanced the tradition by holding dance and music festivals in world heritage sites.

January is the coldest month in India with a pleasant climate in the southern parts of India. A number of important cultural festivals take place in the month of January every year. South India hosts many festivals during this pleasant climate. The first and the unique festival is that of the Elephant March. While caparisoned elephants go out in procession, boat races on the backwaters and cultural events lend colour to the festivities. The festival takes place in some of Kerala's major towns – Thrissur, Alleppey and Thiruvananthapuram
The Mamallapuram Dance Festival, held in the ancient port city of the Pallavas of Tamil Nadu, has performances by exponent dancers who perform Bharat Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak and Kathakali against the magnificent backdrop of the Pallava rock sculptures. Another delicately carved temple of Pattadakkal, in the southern state of Karnataka, the ancient capital of the Chalukyas, hosts an annual Pattadakkal dance festival, to celebrate the marvelous heritage. The classical dances performed with the backdrop of the elegantly carved temples gives the performances an aura of worship, rather than jus an art form.

Rajasthan pays tribute to the local animal, the ship of the desert in the month of January. In Bikaner the camels are bedecked and taken up in processions and even a few competitions are held. The festival, known as the Bikaner festival draws huge crowds.

The month of February is the perhaps the best of the months in the whole year, throughout India, in the terms of weather. As a result a number of cultural festivals are organized throughout the country during this time of the year. The crisp chilly winters are gone and the advent and smell of spring is in the air. Naturally all over the country the spirits are high during this time of the year and hence many festivals are organized in this month.
Although nearly every state has some or the other cultural extravaganza coming up during this time, there are some which attract tourists from the world over.

The month begins with a 15 day affair with the Surajkund Fair. The Surajkund crafts Mela as it is known all over India is significant due to the place where it is held. Surajkund is in Faridabad near Delhi. It was an ancient city associated with the great epic Mahabharata. Artisans from all around the country come her to display their handicrafts. The open air fair is based on a theme state every year. The ambiance is picturesque rural bazaar of India. Along with a vast choice to shop there are cultural shows arranged pertaining to the local art of the theme state. Cuisines form all corners of India are offered here.

The International Yoga Week held in Rishikesh, a small town in the Uttaranchal state, is to promote the age old tradition of Yoga. This week long event is held at the foothills of the great Himalayas on the banks of River Ganga. Detailed lectures and demonstrations of various forms and arts of Yoga by prominent Yoga masters are held during this week. 

Two cities of Rajasthan come alive and bustle with life in February with the fairs they are host to. The golden city of Jaisalmer is the host to a three cultural extravaganza called the Desert Festival. Fire dancers swaying to traditional tunes, a turban-tying competition and a Mr. Desert contest are part of the fun of the occasion. Camel rides and folk dances at the sand dunes are an added attraction.

The Nagaur Cattle Fair is equally interesting. This annual cattle fair is believed to be the largest cattle fair in the world. Games and races of animals are the part of this festival.

The much awaited event in India, at the most coveted historical monument and epitome of Love, is the Taj Mahotsav. During this festival at Agra, the city of Taj Mahal, the best of the Indian cultural aspects are on display. Indian handicrafts travel from all the corners along with their cuisines for this festival. Great performers come from all over India to perform with the majestic backdrop of the Taj. Being a part of the Taj Mahotsav is a unique and unforgettable experience.

During this part of the year the nature is in full bloom. Various types of flowers with vibrant colors are on bloom. The Garden Festival of Delhi is just that. It is a magnificent display if exotic flowers and plants. Definitely a horticulturists’ delight. Rose Show of Chandigarh is also held in the same lines with only roses on display and the magnitude is much larger that of Delhi. Held in the Rose Gardens of Chandigarh, this is the biggest Rose show in the country.

Far in the North east festivals welcoming the spring are celebrated by various tribes of the region.
Down South one of the most famous cultural festivals organized during this time of the year is the Elephanta Festival. The Elephanta festival is a week long odyssey of classical dances, vocal and instrumental recitals and small skits and plays that are performed at the Elephanta Islands near Mumbai. The performers perform with the backdrop of the beautiful rock cut images, artistically developed centuries ago. The audience seats it self under the open sky on the ground. All this builds a perfect ambience for the cultural extravaganza. To reach the place is fascinating as well. Placed on an island, one can reach here only by traveling through the sea.
Near Mumbai the only one of its kind festival is celebrated at the coveted destination of Goa; the Goa Carnival. The exuberant Goa Carnival is the most famous annual feature of Goa which has been celebrated since the 18th century. Held in mid- February, just before Lent, the three day event is a time for feasting and drinking with lively processions, floats, the strumming of guitars and graceful dances. The great finale is with the famous Red-and-Black dance held by the Clube Nacional in Panaji.

Another recently started important festival organized further down south is the Deccan Festival, held in the Nizam’s city of Hyderabad. This annual affair celebrates the soul of the city with the local folk arts of the city. Mushairas are held and qawwalis and ghazals are sung. The pearls and bangles, the local specialties are put on display and so is the ethnic cuisine of Hyderabad.

The Andaman and the Nicobar Islands are the last tips of the vast Indian Subcontinent. The capital of Port Blair celebrates the arrival of spring by organizing a big cultural festival comprising of songs, dances and dramas known as the Island Tourism Festival.

The month of March has some of the most exotic cultural festivals taking place at the equally exotic locations. The Khajuraho Festival is a week long affair held at the erotic temples of Khajuraho. People from all over the world come to watch eminent artists perform under the aegis of the ancient wonderful temples. The sculptures and the stones magnify the performances. The Chandela Kings built the temples as an ode to life and living, the performances are an ode to the beauty within. The cultural festival is an enthralling experience with the ancient stone sculptures forming the background. An annual affair every March, it is a must visit event and a lifetime experience.

The other cultural festival that Madhya Pradesh hosts is the Tansen Music festival at Gwalior. The Gwalior Gharana has always been one of the most prominent styles of the Hindustani classical music. The lineage that Madhya Pradesh and especially Gwalior has provided to the Hindustani classical music under the patronage of various Kings is well known. The patriarch of the Hindustani Classical music and one of the nine jewels of the Emperor Akbar’s court, Ustad Tansen lays buried in Gwalior. This place comes alive with distinguished artists’ performances when the place becomes the venue for the annual music festival. What other better way to pay homage to the great singer but performing on his tomb, under his blessings.

The second important festival is the Ellora Festival that takes place at the ancient world heritage site of Ellora in Maharashtra. These intricately carved caves into the sides of a basaltic hill of the Sahyadri Mountain are the best examples of rock – cut caves in the whole world. It is the meeting point of three faiths, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu and nearly 1500 years old. The cultural programme of Dance and music is performed at the main Kailash Cave which is a lavishly carved cave cut from one rock and is world’s largest monolithic cave.

The Shivaratri Natyanjali Festival celebrated at the Chidambaram temple as a part of worship to the lord during the religious festival of Shivaratri, is a unique mode of worship. Dances and Songs are performed in front of the main deity as a form of worship and this festival goes on for five days.

The Pink city of Jaipur hosts the Elephant Festival in March. The elephants are decked up to their best and brought here. Various games between the elephants are held during this time.

The Hoysala Mahotsav held in the ancient temples of Belur and Halebid is the reminders of the glory of the Hoysala dynasty which promoted and encouraged dance and music during their rule.

The colourful Mewar Festival in Rajasthan is celebrated to welcome the spring in the romantic city of Udaipur. Dances, songs and colours are the essential factors of this festival celebrated in the Mewar region.
Similar festivals which show and encourage the folk culture of the place are held in various places during March. The Pataliputra Mahotsav of Patna in Bihar and the Jhansi Mahotsav of Jhansi belong to the same category.

The beginning of summer season in India is what the month of April brings in. While it becomes scorching hot in the western and southern parts of India, the northern and the north eastern parts still experience a pleasant weather. Normally it is the time when various regions celebrate their New Years according to their own calendars falling tentatively in the month of April. Thus hardly any cultural festivals take place in April. But the month of May which is the vacation time for educational institutes hence  major cultural fairs and festivals take place in May.

The Urs of Ajmer, though a religious festival has become a fair of great attraction. Urs means Fair and this fair is held at the dargah of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti commemorating his union with God. People from all over the world gather here and pay homage to the great saint. Qawwalis and Ghazals are performed in praise of the saint by various artists. People tie threads to the intricately carved windows to fulfill their wishes. 

The Northern and the North eastern states come alive with flowers and lush greenery during this time. Gangtok capital of Sikkim hosts the International Flower Festival during this time. A great variety of exotic Orchids and rare flowers are on display in April. This spectacular event comes with added attractions of mountaineering, Yak Safari and trekking.

Mostly all the hill stations come up with Summer Festivals in April to attract the visitors. Summer Festivals are held at various hill stations like the Mount Abu, Ooty, Shimla and many more. Various cultural programmes promoting the destination are held during this time of the year.

The month of June is the beginning of the rainy season for the southern part of India. Hardly any cultural festivals take place during the month of June due to rains and the heat in the northern parts of India. The only attraction of June is the Hemis Festival of Leh – Ladakh. Hemis is celebrated in the cold desert of Leh and Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Hemis is the celebration of Birthday of Guru Padmasambhava celebrated in the monastery of the same name. Masked dances are performed and a huge fair is associated with this festival of the northern tip of India.

The month of July is the full humidity and rains. But one unique festival the Delhi International Mango Festival is organized in the month of July. As the name suggests the festival is dedicated to mangoes and there are innumerous varieties of mangoes present here. Mangoes from all over the world are on display and also on sale. Various products made of Mangoes are also on sale and various competitions such as the mango eating and the cooking various dishes out of mango are held during the week long festival. It is a mango mania throughout!!!

The Champukulam Boat Race of Kerala is another unique celebration of life and devotion. It is less known than the other boat races also held in the district of Alappuzha; it is the most ancient and celebrated boat races of Kerala. Its association with a legend related to Lord Krishna has made the race all the more important for the local people of the area.

Come the month of August and the most auspicious month in the Hindu calendar has arrived. The month of Shravan that falls in August, is dotted with festivals big and small throughout the month. There are so many religious festivals that hardly any cultural occasion takes place during the month of August. The most important cultural event of this month however is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. This race held in the Alappuzha district of Kerala is an enthralling experience. About hundred men sit in the huge snake boat and row it in the same rhythm and pace to win the coveted Nehru Trophy. It is an amazing sight and tourists from all around the world are attracted to watch the rhythm of the men while one of them stands and coaxes them to follow the rhythm and win the race.

The month of September brings the famous Ganapati festival of Maharashtra. To add more attraction to the Festival, the cultural capital of Maharashtra arranges Pune Festival during the same time. The Pune festival is the cultural festival where artists from far and wide come to perform. The festival is full of various classical dances, music and theatre and goes on for 10 days in a row in front of the Lord Ganesh with his blessings. People from all around the world come to attend this festival. 

October brings in pleasant weather and festivals galore. People are busy preparing for a host of festivals those come up during the month of October. It is the Marwar Festival celebrated in Jodhpur Rajasthan that celebrates the Marwar folk lore on the full moon night that falls in October. The folklore of the kings and their valour are sung and hummed in the Maand style of music, specialty of this region during this festival. Another important cultural festival held during the month of October is the celebrated in the small village of Rajgir in Bihar known as the Rajgir Mahotsav. It is a colourful festival of dance and music which is celebrated at once the capital of the Sakya dynasty and the birth place of Lord Buddha.

The month of November brings in a pleasant climate and high spirits for the people. Many religious as well as cultural festivals take place during the month of November. One of the most famous local festivals which also has a religious association is the Pushkar Mela or the Pushkar Fair. Pushkar in Rajasthan is a small village which comes alive during the fair in the month of November. It has Starting from the full moon in November this fair goes on for nearly 12 days. The Brahma temple that is found in Pushkar is full of devotees. Trading of cattle, their races and everything related to camels along with several handicraft items is the major attraction of this fair.

Around the same time the world’s largest cattle fair is held in Sonepur village on the bank of the River Ganga in the sate of Bihar known as the Sonepur Cattle Fair. This month long affair is great display of bedecked cattle from all over the country.

Reminder of the Nawab era of Awadh is brought alive during the Lucknow Festival. Celebrated in the capital city of Uttar Pradesh this festival celebrates Lucknow's living culture. This ten day long event witnesses colourful processions, traditional dramas, Kathak along with ghazals, qawwalis and thumri. Other exciting events like the ekka races, kite flying, cock fighting and other traditional village games recreate an atmosphere of the by gone era.

Hampi Festival celebrated in the southern state of Karnataka in the ruined temples of Hampi is a unique experience. The dance and the music recitals fill the air to form an ambiguous environment and fascinates all those who come to watch the festival.

December is the coldest month of the year in India. The southern states are pleasant and the northern states face crisp chilly winters. Along with Christmas and the New Year celebrations December brings in a host of cultural festivals and the most prominent amongst them is the Konark Dance Festival. India is a fascinating country with innumerous Gods and their innumerous temples. But the Sun temple of Konark is a unique temple with ancient legacy and surrounded by myth and legends. When these ancient temples form a backdrop to the dance performances, they actually come to be a form of worship or prayers by the dancers to the Lord of the temple. The Vishnupur Festival in West Bengal’s Vishnupur district celebrates the terracotta temples and the silk sarees that it is famous for during this festival.

These are the prime cultural festivals those are held annually in India. Other than these there is the International Book Fair of Calcutta and Delhi and Crafts Fair of Udaipur and Hyderabad. Nearly every state and the small temples or even the churches and the mosques complete the worship by arranging a huge fair for the occasion. India truly is a land of festivals and a land of cultural extravaganza.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Festivals of West India

The colourful states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the exotic Goa with the rugged Maharashtra with the union territories of Daman and Diu, form the western part of India. Along with the colorfulness, the songs and dances make a prominent impact in the festivals all over India. Western side is no exception with typical food items prepared for particular festival.

The Desert State of Rajasthan is famous for its vibrant celebration of festivals. The Gangaur festival is very much similar to that of the one celebrated in Madhya Pradesh. In Rajasthan too it is celebrated around March when the ladies bring home the Gauri, wife of Shiva and worship her and then on last day immerse the idol. The ladies throughout the festival sing songs and dance. They decorate themselves with henna on their palms and wear all the traditional jewelery. The Mewar festival takes place in the lake city of Udaipur during this time. An exhilarating welcome to spring, this festival is a visual feast with Rajasthani songs, dances, processions, devotional music and firework displays. An unusual procession of boats on the lake offers a fitting finale to this splendid celebration.

The Urs held every year in the scorching month of May, at the dargah of Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer commemorates his symbolic union with God. Pilgrims from all over the world gather here to pay homage. Qawalis and poems are presented in the saint’s honour. At the huge fair that springs up at this time, religious objects, books, rosaries, embroidered carpets and silver ornaments are on sale.

Celebrated in the month of February in Dungarpur, the colorful Baneshwar Fair is considered to be a tribal fair. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Lingam is bathed with milk and applied saffron. On this day the Lord gets offerings of wheat flour, pulses, rice, jaggery, ghee and even salt and chillies, with coconut and cash. The main attraction of this festival are the Bhils attending Baneshwar Fair singing traditional folk songs in high pitched voices sitting around a bonfire every night.

Teej is the festival of swings celebrated in August. Dedicated to the Goddess Parvati, it marks the advent of the monsoon. Swings are hung from trees and decorated with flowers. Young girls and women dressed in green clothes sing songs in celebration of the advent of the monsoon. Goddess Parvati is worshipped by seekers of conjugal bliss and happiness. An elaborate procession is taken out on the streets of Jaipur for two consecutive days on the festive occasion.

Down south of Rajasthan is Gujarat. One of the prehistoric states of India, Gujarat’s history goes back to the Jurassic age. Also famous for the Indus Valley civilization, this state is unique in its geographical features as well. A vast sea coast, jungles with ferocious lions and always welcoming people, Gujarat, the land of Gurjars, is a truly vibrant state. Dwarka once supposed to be the capital of Lord Krishna, is in Gujarat. Gujarat celebrates approximately 2000 festivals in year out of which most are regional based fairs and festivals dedicated to the deity. Some of the famous are The Kite festival. It is an international kite festival held during the Makar Sankranti in January. People from the world come to participate in this internationally acclaimed festival for a display of their kites.

The Dang Darbar coinciding with Holi in March is another big event in Gujarat. Held in the Ahwa region and Dang district it is a unique celebration of Holi by the tribes. Countless tribal people from the adjoining districts participate in the fair dressed in colourful traditional outfits dancing to the beats of drums. The huge Janmashtami celebrations held in Dwarka, the abode of Krishna is a delightful sight. The most important festival celebrated by the Gujaratis is the Navaratri in October, before Dushera.

Navaratri is an auspicious occasion that commemorates the worship of Divine Mother Goddess and her numerous manifestations. The nine-day cultural extravaganza wraps the entire Gujarat. During Navratri, a pot with attractive designs is ceremoniously placed a light is placed inside. Religious texts are read out and people fast and later cook Gujarati delicacies to eat. The main feature of the Navaratri of Gujarat is its typical dance called the Garba raas. Mostly all the Gujarati ladies can dance the Garba, a rhythmic dance, danced in a circle with clapping hands and traditional songs to accompany with. The rhythm which is initially slow grows faster and the dancers match their footsteps along with that fast rhythm. Another Dance form performed during Navaratri in every nook and corner of Gujarat is the Dandiya. The concept is the same, only here men too can participate and the dancers use small sticks to give a rhythm. Every street in Gujarat is decorated and people come in their fineries to participate in the dance. The mood, the attire and the music are so upbeat and vibrant that every year, the festival attracts tourists from India and abroad.

Diwali celebrated all over India in October is celebrated with equal vibrancy in Gujarat as well. It has a particular significance for the Gujaratis as the third day of Diwali is the New Year of the Gujaratis and is celebrated with much pomp and show all over Gujarat. People start their new businesses and wear new clothes and do all that is good on this day.

The rugged state of Maharashtra has a vast coast line starting from Gujarat and extending till Goa. Peaceful co existence of various religions is Maharashtra’s highlight, and is seen ff and on through the celebrations of various festivals. The Gudhi Padava or the Marathi New Year celebrated in April begins the year full of festivity in Maharashtra. The Marathis place a long decorated stick in front of their houses calling it Gudhi to welcome the New Year. They worship the Gudhi and start new ventures on this day.

Nagpanchami comes with onset of Shravan month falling in August. This festival brings in a list of festivities that go on till January. Nagpanchami is dedicated to Snake God. The ladies worship the snake and request him to leave the fields for some time so that the men folk can begin sowing and ploughing.

The Parsi New Year of Pateti is celebrated within the Parsi community of Mumbai, Maharashtra with much gaiety and fun. The Parsis visit the Agyaris and later spend the time with families and friends dancing, singing and eating good meals.

The coastal Maharashtra celebrates the Narali Purnima, worshipping the Sea God and offering Him coconut, on the full moon day falling in August. This day is also celebrated as the Raksha Bandhan day. Sweets made of coconut are prepared and distributed. Fifteen days after comes the festival dedicated to the cattle especially the bulls and the Oxen. Maharashtra being agriculture oriented state, Oxen carry immense importance in the lives of the farmers who earlier used to plough their lands with the help of these Bullocks. On the day of Pola, the farmer decorates his cattle, worships it and feeds them with goodies. It is a rest day for the Oxen and the cows and no farmer works on this day.

Within a week of Pola, in September comes the most famous and most lavishly celebrated festival of Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi. Lord Ganesh, the patron deity of Maharashtra, is the God of wisdom. The festival is an eleven day festivity is the largest of its kind celebrated in India, with worshipping of idols and their immersion for ten continuous days. Dedicated to Elephant god Ganesh or Ganapati the festival celebrates the birth of the God. The whole of Maharashtra is in festive mood during this time. Idols are brought home and worshipped for ten days and immersed on the last day with people shouting, Ganapati Bappa Morya, pudhchya warshi Lawakar ya!! The Marathis also have the community celebration when huge Pandals are put up and huge idols of the Lord are installed for ten days and worshiped. Immersion too is a huge procession and the Marathis bid a tearful farewell to the God and wait for the next year to come. For ten days various cultural programmes are arranged like music concerts, orchestra, plays and skits. Some social activities are also undertaken like blood donation, scholarships for the needy or donation to the people suffering from any kind of natural calamity. In between these ten days, Gauri, Ganapati’s mother too arrives. She too is worshipped and prayed for three days and later immersed. The Dushera and Diwali are celebrated with equal fervor as that of the rest of India.

Come December and the preparations for Christmas begin in Mumbai, the hub of Christian community in Maharashtra. Churches and streets are decorated; the Christians hang stars in front of their houses. Bakeries overflow with goodies. A small replica of the scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ is made in front of houses and Churches. Carols are sung on streets and Santa Clause can be seen in stores. Midnight and morning masses are held and attended even by Hindus. The air of festivity continues till the New Year arrives. On the New Year eve, streets are decorated and people stay awake the whole night welcoming the New Year.

The small state of Goa is perpetually in a festive mood all through the year with some or the other fair in the state. The Christians call it feasts, the Hindus call it jatra and the Muslims call it Urus. Three names but one sentiment… celebration. It means worshipping and praying the deity, eating goodies, drinking, dancing, singing, buying and selling and basically merry making. Although each religion has their own festivals all of them carry the typical Goan flavour. All the festivals and Jatras are celebrated with great fervour and enthusiasm by one and all. People from all walks of life, rich or poor, old or young, Hindu or Christians celebrate the festivals together making it a Goan festival.

The Hindu festivals of Goa are similar to that of State of Maharashtra. The other unusual festivities of Goa are the festivals dedicated to local deities which later get converted into fairs. One such example is the Vasco Saptah. A week long festivity dedicated to Lord Damaodar, who according to legends once cured the on going epidemic after the worshiping, started. Held before the Chovoth, or the Ganesh Puja, similar to Maharashtra, this festival is held only in the town of Vasco. Apart from Easter, Good Friday and Christmas, there are end numbers of typical Goan Feasts celebrated by the Christians of Goa. Touxeachem Feast is held in the magnificent Church of St Anne also known as the Santana Church. It is dedicated to St Anne and the feast is celebrated on July 29. Touxeachem Fest (in Konkani) literally translates as the Cucumber Feast in English. The procession of Saints is the only of its kind taking place in India when the sleepy village of Goa Velha hosts this renowned and honoured Procession of the Saints on the first Monday of Easter week. The Feast of St. Francis Xavier is when Ceremonies to honour the death of St Francis Xavier who lies in a silver casket in the Church of Bom Jesus in Goa take place. The celebrations take place on December 3, the day he was buried. This day takes the shape of a great fair in the area.

The small union territories of Daman Diu and Dadra Nagar Haveli, being near to Gujarat, celebrate the same festivals that of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Being under the Portuguese rule, though they still carry the Portuguese impression and the Christian festivals like the Christmas are celebrated in their own unique way.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Festivals of Central India:

The central part of India, till recently comprised of the biggest states of India, Madhya Pradesh. Now it has been split in to two with Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

A predominantly tribal state, with about 35 big and small tribes spread all over, Chhattisgarh is perhaps the most economically strong region of the country, and is endowed with rich mineral and forest wealth. It has a potential of becoming an important industrial centre.

Dominated by he tribals, other than the major Indian festivals, all the tribes have their own respective festivals with their own culinary and dancing affairs. Cherchera celebrated after the harvest is the unique festival of the people of Chhattisgarh, when they go asking for rice, the staple crop. The rice then is cooked and eaten; a traditional way of distributing what one reaps. Chhattisgarh has its own dance styles, cuisine, music & traditional folk songs in which Sohar songs, Bihav songs & Pathoni songs are very famous. For the tribes, the Bhils and the Gonds, every festival is followed by some sort of animal sacrifice. The tribals of Bastar often complement their economy by community hunts like Pandum and Parad. 

Situated in the center, Madhya Pradesh was once the largest state in India. A visit to this land, in the very heart of India gives unexpected and delightful experiences. Madhya Pradesh has had a glorious past with various empires ruling the state. It has centuries-old culture of warriors and Builders, of Poets and Musicians, of Saints and Philosophers.

The Gana Gour festival is celebrated with much gaiety in Madhya Pradesh. The people believe that Gour, wife of Shiva, was married to Shiva and they stayed in Rajasthan. She could come home only once a year. This coming back is celebrated by these people here. They make small idols of the Gour and worship her along with her husband. The Gordhan festival celebrated after Diwali has its history in the legend of Krishna, who saved his village from drowning by holding the mighty Govardhan Mountain. Gordhan is celebrated as the festival of cows and cattle. The cattle is decorated and fed goodies on this day.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Festivals of North India

Jammu Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and the newly formed Uttarnachal state are the six states, which make the North part of India. The traditions and cultures of celebrating a particular festival differs not only from state to state but also from the hilly region to the plains. Festivity brings alive the spirit of the people staying in the northern part of India.

The all time fertile land of five rivers is Punjab. The land of the dare devil Sikh community. The religion was born to save the motherland and the Sikhs and the Punjabis, ready to take any risk, accepted it. India has been represented by the Sikh community venturing out for business to far fledged lands, more than anyone else from India.

Baisakhi is the New Year day, falling in Mid April, of the Punjabis. They sing, dance and make merry on this particular day. It is also a harvest festival, when the golden wheat ripens and fills the heart with Joy. It was on this day nearly 450 years back that the Sikh Guru started the custom close to baptism to Sikhism. People visit temples and Gurudwaras to worship. They gather and the men folk dance the famous Bhangra on the tune of huge drums and the women start the Giddha to accompany them. Preparing and eating goodies and singing is also part of the celebrations.

An annual festival held at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, Hola Mohalla was started by the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, as a gathering of Sikhs for military exercises and mock battles on the day following the festival of Holi. The word hola is adapted from halla, meaning attack, while mohalla means the place of attack. On this three-day festival mock battles are held followed by music and poetry competitions. 

The martial tradition with mock battles and displays of swordsmanship and horse riding is the highlight if this festival held in March. Gurupurab is another important festival for the Sikhs and the Punjabis. Birthdays of reverend Sikh Gurus, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh and the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur and Arjun Dev is remembered on these days. The first full moon night falling after Diwali is the birthday of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. The festival is celebrated with great exuberance. They burn crackers and decorate their houses with lights.

The state is full of surprises and is known as the paradise of India. Jammu and Kashmir are actually the crown of India, the northern most state. The mystic Leh, the beautiful valleys of Kashmir and the huge Shrines of Jammu, comprise a treat for the traveler. Followers of Islam, Buddhism and the Hindus, all stay in peace in this state blessed with natural abundance. The great Himalayan mountain range forms a superb background to this unique state.

All the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist festivals are celebrated here with all the enthusiasm and vibrancy. Vaitha-Vatur-Truvah which literally means thirteenth day of source of River Jhelum.  It is held at an ancient temple at Verinag, the source of the Jhelum. Hindus and Muslims participate in this festival.

The Urs (or Ziarats) is a typical Kashmiri festival. It is held annually at the shrines of Muslim saints on their death anniversaries. Urs of Meesha Sahib, Urs of Batamol Sahib and Urs of Bahauddin are particularly famous. These Urs are popular despite the rigorous weather. Celebrated in different parts of Srinagar, not only Muslims but Hindus and Sikhs also take the blessings. Sindhu darshan festival is another important festival when the Kashmiris come from all over the state to worship the source of the River in Leh. There are many Buddhist Monasteries in the part of Leh as the major population of Leh and Ladakh practices Buddhism. Few typical Leh Buddhist festivals such as the Yuru Kabgyat celebrated in July. Dances with masks are performed and the masks worn by the lamas during the dances represent guardian divinities. Doscmoche is another ancient festival, still celebrated every year in February with great pomp and fervour. 

The courtyard of the chapel below the gates of the Leh of the Leh Palace comes alive with the music of drums and the thumping steps of the masked Lamas from different monasteries performing the sacred dance-drama. The Lamas prepare, consecrate and eventually destroy the sacrificial offerings as the climax.

Himachal Pradesh, known as the abode of Gods is another picturesque region of Northern India. The people of this region based on the foothills of Himalayas are religious and celebrate their festivals with gaiety and pomp. The Phulaich festival celebrated in the Kinnaur district in month of September is unique in tradition. This four day festival is celebrated as the flower festival by the people of Himachal. The Rajputs of the village go to pluck flowers from a specified mountain and return only the next day. The night is spent singing and dancing. On the third day, the village deity is taken out and bedecked with all the finery along with the numerous flowers. A procession is taken out and the rests only the next day when an animal is sacrificed. Although this is a beautiful festival, the more famous and promoted is the Dushera of Kullu. Dushera is celebrated all around India, but not like that in Kullu. The celebrations start in Kullu when the celebrations of India for Dushera finish. The presiding deity of Kullu, Raghunathji is taken out on this day and around 600 deities of Himachal come to pay respect to this deity. Huge colourful processions mark the occasion and by the end of the festival the Lord is bathed in the Beas River and then taken back to its main temple. Singing and Dancing and worshipping is the core of this festival celebrated with pomp and show.

The state of Haryana is full of greenery and the places in Haryana are ancient having a mention in the Mahabharata. Due to the proximity to Delhi, some places in Haryana like Gurgaon and Faridabad have recently gained extreme importance as the satellite towns of Delhi and have been added to the list of the National Capital Region. All the common festivals like Holi, Diwali and Dushera are celebrated in the state. But the Haryanavis celebrate two important festivals with great fervour. Teej festival is celebrated during the month of July – August, to welcome the month of Sawan, bringing rains. Mainly ladies and girls enjoy this festival more than the men folk. The dupattas in bright red or pink with beautiful motifs of golden thread are worn, swings are hung on trees to play with and henna is applied on palms. A colourful festival, where the girls and the married ladies worship Lord Shiva and Parvati. Sanjhi is another important festival celebrated and worshipped as the mother goddess by unmarried girls of Haryana. They make the image of Sanjhi with mud using various shapes. These shapes include stars, moon, sun, face of the goddess and are then coloured. The festival takes place in early October or late September and the art associated with the festival is unique and very na├»ve. Gangore is celebrated around March -April. Idols of Ishar and Gangore are taken out in procession and songs in their praise are sung till they are immersed into water. This spring festival is held in honor of Gauri, the goddess of abundance.

Uttar Pradesh – the most populous states of India is also one of the most ancient cradles of Indian culture. Two great Rivers along with one mythological river that of Saraswati flow through this state. Abundant with natural wealth and resources, Uttar Pradesh ahs given India most of its Prime Ministers. The common Hindu festivals of Diwali, Dushera and Muslim festivals like the Ids are celebrated with vigour over here. The state wears a vibrant colour throughout the festivities. Some unique festivals to Uttar Pradesh includes the most famous, Lathmar Holi. 

48 km. from Mathura at Barsana, is celebrated the famous Lathmar Holi of Braj. Tradition has it that Krishna from Nandgaon use to come to Barsana to play Holi with Radha along with his Gopi friends. The Gopis after merriment chased them away by beating them with lathis or big bamboo sticks. Hence the name. To this day, the village women beat up the men from Nandgaon and chase them away.

The month long Kumbh Mela of Allahabad is one of the largest fairs of the world and is attended by millions of pilgrims from all over India as well as the devout from the world over. This religious occasion takes place in the months of January-February, on the banks of the holy confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. It is believed that a holy dip on this occasion washes all the sins. There is annual Kumbh, six yearly and the most important is the one that comes every twelve years.

The beautiful Kartik Purnima festival or the Dev Deepawali celebrated in Varanasi or Benaras, is a visual delight. Varanasi is the land of festivals. The full moon night after Diwali falling in November – December is the sacred day for all the people. The ghats of Varanasi come alive with thousands of brightly lit earthen lamps. The lamps then are gently left on the River. Visitors throng in large numbers to watch this spectacular event.

Other important festivals celebrated in the Uttar Pradesh are the Ramnavami at the birth place of Ram, in Ayodhya and Janmashtami, at the place of Krishna in Mathura. These festivals are celebrated with great pomp and show in these two places as compared to other places in India.

The land of celestial beauty that is what the new state of Uttaranchal is all about. Blessed with magnificent glaciers, majestic snow-clad mountains, gigantic and ecstatic peaks, valley of flowers, skiing slopes and dense forests, Uttaranchal is traveler delight and also a pilgrimage site for the Hindus, nestling the four most sacred places of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri in its mighty mountains and deep valleys. The Mata Murti Ka Mela held in the Champavat region in September is the unique festival. On this day the mother of Badrinath is worshipped, and a large fair held at the Badrinath Temple. Among the four sacred places of India where the Kumbh is held, one of them is Haridwar in Uttaranchal. The Magh Mela during Sankranti in the Kumaon region is another important festival.