Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Festivals of East India

The eastern part of India has five states namely the West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Sikkim and the newly formed state of Jharkhand. The cultures and traditions of these four states have intermingled although Orissa has traces of Andhra and Sikkim of Nepal. The vast Bay of Bengal lies on the eastern coast and the impeccable Himalayas in the north. The eastern side of India is full of surprises and abundant with beauty.

The state of West Bengal which was earlier a big state of Bengal has been split into two after the Independence of India, in 1947. Adorned with Nobel Laureates like Rabindranath Tagore and Mother Teresa, West Bengal, has some or the other festival going throughout the year. People are seen buying sweets and flowers for the festivity. The culturally forward Bengalis, primarily, are the worshippers of Shakti, Goddess Parvati in all her forms. Late February the festival dedicated to the Goddess of learning, Saraswati Puja or Vasant Panchami is celebrated. Students, teachers and artists worship the Goddess of learning and music. As the time is advent of spring, the day is also known as Vasant Panchami. People wear bright yellow and orange colour clothes to welcome the season. A huge celebration takes place in Shantiniketan during this time. Dances and songs are performed and wishes are exchanged. The Dol Purnima popularly known as Holi all around India is celebrated with equal fervor. The New Year of the Bengalis, Noboborsho, falls around mid –April. Bengali delicacies are cooked and people wearing new clothes wish and gift each other. 17th September is the Vishwakarma Puja, God of creation. People working with tools and machines worship their machinery and tools. Businessmen also keep the shops closed to worship the Vishwakarma. 

The next festival is the biggest of all the festivals of West Bengal and celebrated with great enthusiasm in October is, Durga Puja. When the whole country celebrates Navaratri, the last four days are celebrated in West Bengal as Durga Puja. Beautiful Clay models of the Goddess killing the demon Mahishasura are made and installed in huge pandals. Durga’s four children Ganesh, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Sarawati are installed beside her. For all the four days the Goddess is worshipped with all the rituals. Legend says that Mahishasura, the demon received a boon form Brahma of immortality. No one but a woman could kill him. The Gods then created Durga bestowing upon her their divine powers; she ultimately killed the demon and saved the land. The four days celebrated in West Bengal are the days of the war between the Goddess and the demon, in which ultimately good triumphs over evil. The pandals are greatly decorated and people throng to see the decoration in the night. Cultural programmes are organized and the festive spirit continues till the immersion of the idols. It is the season for gifts. New clothes are purchased. Shops overflow with the latest goods. The Grand finale is on the last day, which is called as the Bijoya Dashami. The married women give a tearful send off to the Goddess by smearing sindoor on her. Huge processions with bands of dhakis are taken out and the idols are immersed.

Five days after, on the full moon night comes the Lakshmi Puja. Idols of Lakshmi are installed and worshipped for a day. Offerings mainly of fruits and sweets are made to the Goddess.

Within fifteen days of Durga Puja comes Diwali celebrated all over India and known as Kali Puja in West Bengal. Once again idols of Goddess Kali are made and installed and worshipped. People enjoy eating goodies and burning crackers.The Christians and the Anglo Indians of Calcutta, celebrate Christmas and New Year, with great frevour.

Another prominent state in the eastern part of India is Orissa. Famous for its ancient connections with the Maurya dynasty, Kalinga as it was known then is today known as pilgrim of the east. The major eastern festivals of Durga and Kali Puja along with other common festivals are celebrated here. Magha Sapatami is the most popular and colourful festival of the temple city of Konark.  This is an occasion for a grand congregating of Indian pilgrims who take holy dips in the Chandrabhaga Tirtha near the sea and welcome the rising Sun with prayers. This festival falls around end of February.

Jaggannath Puri is one of the four sacred pilgrimages of India. The Rath Yatra that takes place here every June –July is the most famous religious occasion. The three deities Lord Jaggannath, Balbhadra, his brother and Subhadra, his sister are taken in a chariot procession to their summer temple for a week. Prior to this, the three deities have a ritual boat ride after a refreshing bath in fragrant sandalwood scented water. This is followed by Snana Yatra, literally the festival of bathing in which the main images are bathed ceremoniously. The deities then retire to their garden home and after eight days, they return to the main temple riding their magnificent chariots, drawn by devotees. Hundreds of thousands gather from all over the country to witness this festival. New chariots are made each year. During the festival Puri turns into a sea of People. The idols made of wood are buried in the temple complex and new ones are made every twelve years. All can participate in this festival and actually touch the deity to take the blessings.

Jharkhand, the newly formed state was earlier part of the bigger state of Bihar. Primarily inhabited by tribes, this state is rich in Mines and Minerals, Industries, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Forests. Sarhul is the most famous festival among the tribes. Chaul is another festival celebrated.

The ancient state of Bihar was the main ruling point of the ancient dynasties of India. Places like the Pataliputra, now Patna and Nalanda have been mentioned in the epics and ancient scriptures. One of the most prominent sites of the Buddhist pilgrimage, Bodhgaya, rests in Bihar. Huge celebrations take place in Bodhgaya during Buddha Purnima. The Buddhists believe that Lord Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and also attained nirvana on the same day. Buddhist rituals for celebrating the three-in-one occasion are naturally elaborate. The day falls in the month of May. Bihar is also the birth place of the 24th tirthankar who preached the Jain religion, Lord Mahavir. Mahavir Jayanti is the most pious occasion for the Jain community. On this auspicious day grand chariot procession with the image of Mahavir are taken out, rich ceremonies are held in the temples, fasts and charities are observed, Jain scriptures are read, and at some places grand fairs are set up.

Other Hindu festivals are celebrated with equal vigour and pomp and show. The most famous festivals of all is the Chhath. Chhath falls on the sixth day in the month of Kartik, which is around November just after Diwali. The festival is dedicated to Sun God. Women keep fast and worship the Sun God during sun rise and sun set. The prayers are primarily for the well being of their children. They also take out a procession to honor the Sun God offer Fresh paddy, sweets & fruits. Chhath is a very joyous and colorful festival.

The small state of Sikkim on the foothills of the Himalayas is a beautiful unexplored religious state. Majority of the population here is Buddhist and although Hindu population is also present. Festivity all over India means songs and dance along with gifts and delicacies. But Sikkim’s dances are extraordinary and very much different from rest of India. The Losoong or the Sonam Losar is celebrated as the New Year around February. People rejoice and celebrate their harvest. Youth all over Sikkim have archery competitions and lama dances are held in some of the important monasteries two days prior to Losoong. These dances symbolically exorcize the evil spirits of the past year and welcome the good spirits of the coming year. Pang Lhabsol, celebrated in August is a unique Sikkim festival. The people of Sikkim worship and pray their guardian deity, the mountain of Khangchendzonga. Lamas portray the deity with fiery-red facemasks with a crown of five skulls, riding a snow lion. Tashiding Bumchu is another typically Sikkim festival. The Bumchu is a sacred vessel whose water level foretells the luck of the year ahead. It occurs around January – February and continuous for three days when devotees from different parts of Himalayas come for blessings and celebrations at Tashiding monastery.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Festivals of North - East India

The mystic region of North East India comprises of seven states, popularly known as the seven sisters, which are Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur and Meghalaya. These North East Indian states have always been abundant in nature. The tropical forests are full of vast species of Flora and Fauna. Scarcely populated and mainly full of tribal population, these states always are on a celebration spree.
Assam - A land nestled in myths and mysteries, lore’s and legends. Assam is almost another world, the gateway to the eastern states, the coloured wonderland of India. The most important festival of Assam is the Bihu, the Assamese New Year Celebrations. This major festival of Assam is celebrated in three forms, the Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu in April, Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu in January and Kati Bihu or Kongali Bihu in October/ November. The most colourful is the Spring-Festival, Rongali Bihu, celebrated in mid- April. Essentially a festival mar king the beginning of an agricultural season, the people of Assam enjoy it with dancing and singing. Bhogali Bihu, the harvesting festival is celebrated in mid- January by community feasts.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most sparsely populated States on the eastern tip of India, sharing its borders with China, Bhutan and Myanmar. Known as the land of rising Sun of India, it is a fertile land with five rivers flowing through the State. Mainly inhabited by various tribes, the festivals here are based on nature and agriculture and dance is the soul of all these festivals.

Mizoram is on the southern tip of the North eastern region clamped between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Mizo community is mostly follower of Christianity. Among other festivals, Chapchar Kut or Spring Festival is the most popular festival, celebrated after completion of the most arduous t ask of jungle clearing for jhum operations. On this day, people of all ages, young and old, men and women dressed in their respective colourful costumes and head-gears, assemble and perform various folk dances, sing traditional songs, accompanied by the beating sound of drums, gongs and cymbals.

The predominantly tribal state of Nagaland is blessed with high mountains, deep valleys and rich flora and fauna. Nagaland being inhabited by as many as 16-odd tribes, it is the land of festivals. Some tribe or the other has a celebration throughout the y ear. Every tribe has its own festival. Several festivals are connected with agricultural activities such as reaping, sowing and harvesting. Moastu festival is performed by Ao Naga in the month of May, after the sowing. People worship the deity sacrifice animals and sing, dance and make merry during the festival.

Tripura is one of the tiniest states in the Indian subcontinent. Although there are many tribes settling in this tiny state the dominance of Hinduism is quite prominent. More so because of the immense Bengali population in this state. Many festivals are celebrated in Tripura out of which the Kharchi Puja, worshipping the 14 Gods, near Agartala is its specialty. Held every year in the month of July, it attracts people from all over India. 15 days after the Kharchi Puja is the Ker Puja. A unique festival performed for the welfare of the state and its people. It is performed within a specific boundary and no one is allowed to enter or exit that boundary till the rituals get over. Song and dance is very much essential part of these festivals.

Well known as the Paradise of eastern India, Manipur is where Mother Nature has bestowed her bounty extra generously. All that can fascinate a tourist is what Manipur is all about. The world famous Manipuri Dance has originated from the temples of this exotic state in the North east of India. Celebrated for five days commencing from the full moon day February - March, Yaoshang is the premier festival of Manipur. The Thabal Chongba - a kind of Manipuri folk dance is particularly associated with this festival. Cheiraoba - Manipur New Year is celebrated in the month of April. People clean and decorate their houses and prepare special festive dishes, which are first offered to various deities. A part of the ritual entails villagers climbing the nearest hill tops in belief that it will enable them to rise to greater heights in their worldly life.  This festival is celebrated by all irrespective of any religion. Other Hindu festivals such as the Durga Puja in October and the Jagannath Yatra in July also take place.

Meghalaya means the abode of the clouds and as the name suggests, Meghalaya gets torrents of rain. It is a region of great scenic beauty. The three important tribes of Garos, Khasis and the Jaintias have their own festivals, basically related to agriculture. Among the Garos, the most important festival is the Wangala or the Hundred-drum Festival held from November to December. This is a harvest festival celebrated in honour the Sun God. Nongkrem Dance is held annually for five days by the Khasis. It is a religious festival for thanksgiving to God Almighty for good harvest and to pray for peace and prosperity in the community. It is celebrated in the month of November. Behdienkhlam is the most important dance festival of the Jaintias and is celebrated after the sowing period is over. At Jowai town, this festival is celebrated in July.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Festivals of South India

The southern region of India comprises of four states namely Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and the union territory of Pondicherry. The weather in these regions is mainly hot and pleasant during winters. The coastal areas are pleasant throughout the year with heavy rainfall during the monsoons. South India follows the Dravidian tradition and has different ways to celebrate their own festivals.

Karnataka celebrates all the national festivals and other religious festivals. But the most famous of them all is its special Dushera, popularly known as the Mysore Dushera. The Kannadigas celebrate this festival with pomp and glamour and dedicate the festival to Goddess Chamundeshwari. It is a 10-day long festival which falls in the month of October. On the last day of Vijaya Dashami, a colourful procession of caparisoned elephants carrying the idol of goddess Chamundi is taken through the gaily-decorated streets of the city. The festival was started by the Maharaja of Mysore and is being continued till date. The palace is illuminated every night and on the last day the former Maharaja leads one of India's most colorful processions.  People from all around the world gather to watch the pomp and show exhibited in Mysore. The festival is celebrated in a grand style with scores of cultural performances in the great Durbar Hall of the Maharaja's Palace. Indeed a unique celebration of the common festival of Dushera.

Another unique festival of Karnataka is the Karaga which is celebrated in Bangalore in the honour of the queen of Pandavas, Draupadi. Karaga is celebrated on the full moon day of April, the first month of the Kannada calendar.

Yugadi is the New Year celebration in Karnataka. This falls on the day after the new moon day in April, the month of Chaitra. The formation of the Karnataka State is celebrated on the 1st of November and is a state festival.

The state of Andhra Pradesh lies on the south eastern side of India. The Telgus, as the people of Andhra are called, are religious and celebrate the festivals with great enthusiasm. Hyderabad being the capital of this state, which was ruled by the Nizam, has seen the state celebrating the Id festivals with great fervour. Biryani and Haleem preparations are the specialty of Telgu Muslims during Ramzan.

The festival of Makar Sankranti holds special place in Andhra community. This harvest festival is celebrated for 3 days in Mid January. The first day is Bhogi that is spent with gaiety. The second day is Sakranti. Many families arrange a doll show and invite their friends and give alms to the poor. The third day is Kanuma when they acknowledge their gratitude to the part taking of the animals. They decorate and worship their cattle.
The New Year falling in the month of April is called the Ugadi and celebrated with new clothes and sweets. The birthday of Lord Ganesh, Vinayak Chaturthi, falling in September is celebrated with great enthusiasm. Huge idols are installed and worshipped and on the last day they are immersed in the water.

Kerala, famous as God’s own country, is famous for its back waters and boat races. This small state has nearly equal population of Hindus, Muslims and Christians staying and celebrating their festivals in harmony. Vishu is the New Year of the Malayali people, which falls every year on 14th of April. The Keralites believe that they should see the best things when they wake up in the morning. Huge flower decorations and other goodies are kept in front of the deities and worshipped. Sweet meats are prepared out of jaggery, rice and coconut.
Another important festival is the Onam. Onam falls in August – September. This day is celebrated in the honour of the King Mahabali who once ruled Kerala. His period is believed a have been the golden age in the history of Kerala. He was a threat to the Gods and so they got him killed. But since he had proved to be a good king he was allowed to return to his country once a year. Onam is that day of the year and the people of Kerala rejoice the homecoming of their King. Elaborate flower motifs are made in front of their houses to welcome him and a fully vegetarian feast is cooked to satisfy the Kings palate. The Malayalis wear their traditional dresses, laden with gold ornaments and exchange gifts.

Trichur Pooram is celebrated in the sweltering heat of the summer season at the Vadakkunathan Temple in Trichur. It is believed that on this day the respective deities of other temples visit Vadakkunathan temple. Nine Deities from the neighbouring temples pay homage to Lord Shiva at the Temple. Processions of beautifully caparisoned elephants provide a magnificent spectacle. The festival is rounded off at night by dazzling firework displays. It is only on the day of Trichur Pooram that the non-Hindus are allowed to enter the ancient temple of Vadakkunathan.

The southern most state on the eastern coast of India is Tamil Nadu. This southern state is popularly known as the temple state of India. The main local festival celebrated here is the Pongal. Pongal is the harvest festival celebrated for three days in Tamil Nadu. Bhogi is celebrated on January 13, Pongal on January 14 and Mattu Pongal on January 15 every year. During this time people wear new clothes and draw beautiful motifs in front of their houses with rice flour. The cattle too is decorated and rested during this time. Sweet made of the first rice is cooked, which is known as the Pongal.

Commonly known as the Float Festival, this magnificent festival is celebrated in Madurai. On the night of the full moon in January, ornamented icons of goddess Meenakshi and her consort are taken out in a colourful procession to the huge Mariamman Teppakulam. The icons are floated in the tank on a raft decked with flowers and flickering lamps. The Meenakshi Kalyanam is a ten day festival, which takes place in April – May at Madurai. On this day the Goddess Meenakshi is wedded to Lord Shiva. The deities are taken out in the decorated chariots and the festival is celebrated with lot of pomp and show.

The Karthigai Deepam festival can be termed as an extension of Diwali in Tamil Nadu as it falls just after the main festival of Diwali. It is the festival dedicated to the immortal light created by lord Shiva. Many houses add one lamp for the day from Diwali and by this day the houses are full of Lamps. The lamps are worshipped and they burn day and night also on the streets.

Situated on the Coromandel Coast, about 160 km south of Chennai, lies the Union Territory of Pondicherry. The French ruled this territory for 300 years, and today, it stands as a living monument of the French culture in India. Festivals are organized nearly every month in Pondicherry. With the still persistent French influence, the festivals although similar, have a slight difference from the rest of India. Pongal of Tamil Nadu is celebrated with equal fervour in Pondicherry. The Masimagam festival in mid March is a huge celebration when deities of around 50 odd temples from nearby reach Pondicherry. A sanctimonious sea bath is then held on the beach. Thousands come to witness and participate in this festival.  The Veerampattinam and the Villianur Car Festival are held in July and May respectively. The deities of these temples are taken out on carriages, which are drawn by devotees. Masquerade, held in March - April, is a popular mask festival, during which brilliantly costumed and masked people of Pondicherry, dance down the streets to the music of trumpets and accordions. During the Eve of the Bastille Day in July, retired soldiers parade the streets in war finery, singing the French and Indian National Anthem.