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Festivals are such an integral part of Indian culture that imagining an India without them is nearly impossible. No matter which form they take — lights, sounds, or colors, we celebrate them with the same vigor everywhere across India all year round.
While we celebrate our festivals with unparalleled enthusiasm, not many of us know or remember the reason we celebrate these festivals. Back in the day, the elders of our families would tell us their significance, but that art of storytelling is now on the wane, and we’re left with trying to scour the web for relevant information.
A festival is a harbinger of love and joy whether you know its significance or not, but learning about the stories behind the festivals helps put things into perspective, and makes the celebrations more inspiring and enjoyable.
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The festival of lights, Diwali marks the start of the Hindu New Year. It’s celebrated in autumn (in spring for those in the northern hemisphere) and involves the lighting of small clay lamps inside and around the house and the bursting of firecrackers. It’s a spectacular sight seeing lamps lit up on rooftops, terraces, and doorsteps, and to see the sky light up for five full days.
Diwali is celebrated in honor of the much-revered mythological character from Ramayana, Lord Rama. As per the myth, after having spent 14 years in exile in a forest, Rama, along with wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, returned to their kingdom on the Diwali day. At the time, to celebrate their return, people dressed up in their best outfits and spread light across the kingdom with lit clay lamps. It’s this tradition that we replicate to this day.
It’s often said that Diwali signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and hope over despair. In the context of this story we can see why, as Rama ushered hope and goodness with his return to the kingdom.
Besides praying to Lord Rama and celebrating his return, people also pray to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha for securing wealth and prosperity and peace and happiness on this auspicious day.
Dashahara or Vijayadashami
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Dashahara is the day for celebrating two very significant victories from ancient mythology, Lord Rama’s victory over the ten-headed demon king Ravana and Goddess Durga’s victory over the demon Mahishasur.
As per the legend, the goddess fought for nine nights and ten days, the tenth day being the day of the victory. This is the reason Dashahara is also called Vijayadashami, translated from Sanskrit as ‘victory on the tenth day’ (Hindu calendar month).
The tenth day corresponds to a date on either September or October on the Gregorian Calendar. Dashahara immediately follows the nine-day festival of Navaratri. As the harvest season begins in India and Nepal at this time, the festival also serves as a way to invoke Mother Goddess for introducing energy and fertility in the soil.
Back in the day, Dashahara used to be celebrated by whole communities of people who would come together, mingle, and enjoy the dances together. While the intensity of celebration has reduced drastically in today’s times, Dashahara is still celebrated with much fanfare across the country.
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The festival of colors, Holi is celebrated on the full-moon day in the month of Phalgun, which as per the Gregorian calendar, is the month of March. People everywhere across the country color each other with a mix of dry powder and water, often using water guns and water-filled balloons.
There are several legends surrounding Holi. The most popular one involves the demon king Hiranyakashyap and his pious son Prahlad. Hiranyakashyap, on knowing that his son was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, wanted his son dead. He asked his sister Holika, who had a boon that made her immune to fire, to take Prahlad on her lap and walk through fire. At this time, Lord Vishnu entered the scene himself to save Prahlad after recognizing the boy’s devotion towards him. Holika was burnt to ashes, as her boon only worked when she moved through fire alone. It’s for this reason that people light a bonfire on the eve of Holi — as a mark of celebration of the victory.
According to another popular legend, Kansa — Lord Krishna’s evil uncle — asked an evil beast, Pootana, to kill infant Krishna by feeding him poisonous milk. However, Krishna realized this and turned the tables to ultimately kill Pootana. This is another reason Holi is celebrated across the country. Some even believe that Pootana represents the winter season, and her death, the end of winter. Holi is celebrated approximately around the time of the start of summer.
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Eid al-Fitr, translated as the festival of breaking of the fast, is celebrated by Muslims across the globe. It marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. On Eid, Muslims don’t fast, as by then they would’ve already spent 29 or 30 days of fasting from dawn to sunset while focusing on purifying themselves and strengthening their faith in God. It also marks day one of the month of Shawwal, which is the tenth month of Islamic lunar calendar. A Salat (Islamic prayer) is offered in an open field or large hall, with a congregation attending the event.
During the festival, Muslims participate in activities that involve Islam’s basic values, like worship, patience, charity, and empathy for the poor. For instance, on the day before Eid, Muslims give donations — called Sadaqah al-Fitr, to the poor in the form of food, like rice, barley, and dates. In doing this, they ensure that the poor and needy also enjoy a holiday meal and participate in the festivities. Anyone who participates in these activities during the Ramadan and Eid experiences spiritual renewal, and that’s the essence of Eid al-Fitr.
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Christmas is an annual festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Although the exact date of birth of Jesus is uncertain, Christmas is celebrated on 25 December every year by people all across the world. Many non-Christians also celebrate this festival culturally, primarily inspired by the lovely festive spirit surrounding the festival.
Christmas celebrations typically involve the exchange of gifts and cards, listening to Christmas music and singing carols, participating in church services, decorating homes and adding Christmas trees, lights, and mistletoe in the mix, and preparing a special meal for the day. Such is the extent of expenditure made on buying things for Christmas that it’s become a key time for business and retail sales around the world.
But perhaps the most special quality of Christmas is that it brings friends and family closer together. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a feud with your loved one — Christmas is simply a great occasion to patch up and come together, as many do on this lovely occasion.
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Durga Puja is a festival marking the celebration and worship of the Hindu goddess Durga. The celebrations continue for ten days, but the last six days, namely Mahalaya, Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Vijayadashami, or Dashahara, are of special importance. Fasting, feasting, and community celebrations are part of the whole ten-day funfair.
The festival also shares the Dashahara theme of the triumph of good over evil. According to legend, Goddess Durga killed several demons, most notably the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura, after a long stint of the demon’s oppression over the heavens. It’s also believed that Lord Rama worshipped Durga or Mahishasura Mardini, as she was called after killing the demon, and offered 108 blue lotuses and lit 108 lamps in her name before he went ahead to battle Ravana and rescue Sita. These two legends primarily represent the reason for celebrating Durga Puja.
Despite the popularity of this myth back in the day, the first grand worship of goddess Durga in recorded history only took place in the 1500s in Bengal. No one knows for sure why it took this long if it did. In any case, it would be safe to say that today the whole of India, and especially the states of Assam, Odisha, Tripura and West Bengal, would be incomplete without the celebration of Durga Puja at least once every year.
Thai Pongal or Makara Sankranti
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Pongal or Makara Sankranti is a major harvest festival in India. While Pongal is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm and delight in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Union Territory of Puducherry, Sri Lanka and by Tamils living in other countries, Makara Sankranti is celebrated almost across the length and breadth of the country.
This harvest festival, called by two different names, carries the same significance. It marks the Sun’s entry into the zodiac constellation of Makara or Capricorn. This is the period when the Sun begins its journey northward towards equinox and is the start of the spring season in India. The festivities are meant in a way to thank the Sun god for the heat and energy it provides for agriculture.
Like few other Indian festivals, Makara Sankranti falls on the same day on the Gregorian Calendar, more or less, every year. It’s celebrated on 14 Jan each year, with exceptions placing it either on 13 or 15 Jan.
The other names of this festival are Bihu (Assam), Bhogi (Andhra Pradesh) and Lori (most of North India). Besides the exchange of delicious foods like laddoos, gur and pongal between friends and family, kite flying is also seen in smaller regions, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
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One of the most loved festivals in India, Ganesh Chaturthi is a ten-day festival celebrated in honor of the elephant-headed god and vignahartaa (obstacle remover), Ganesh — the younger son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati from ancient mythology. His other names are Ganapati and Vinayaka among a total of 108 names.
There are two stories behind the birth of Ganesh. According to the popular myth, Goddess Parvati created Ganesh out of the dirt off her body so he could guard her space till she finished bathing. Shiv, who wasn’t there at the time and didn’t know about Ganesh, started fuming after Ganesh prevented him from entering the space. Shiv is believed to have chopped his head off in anger after a brief conflict. Seeing Parvati enraged, Shiv decided to fix Ganesh and put an elephant’s head on him and brought him back to life.
The other, less popular legend suggests that both Shiv and Parvati together created Ganesh on the demand of other gods so he could be a vignakartaa (obstacle creator) for demons and a vignahartaa for gods.
As part of the celebrations, small clay idols of Ganesh are bought and installed at home. Residents in neighborhoods buy much bigger clay idols and set up temporary shrines on the streets for ten days before these idols are submerged in a nearby lake or pond as is the ritual. Throughout the period, people spend their time eating Modaks — the special sweet prepared during this time — and meet friends and family regularly.
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The primary festival celebrated in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Onam sparks fervent and spirited celebrations across the state. Held in late August or early September, it involves feasting on the delicious Sadhya and enjoying the glorious boat races, in addition to celebrating with song and dance.
Onam is celebrated for remembering and honoring the great king of Kerala, King Mahabali, who was a ruler in the ancient time. Legend has it that King Mahabali, a wise and benevolent ruler, was growing so powerful and influential, not just on Earth but also in the realm of gods, that the mother of gods asked Vishnu to curtail his powers.
Appearing on Earth as a Brahmin dwarf, Lord Vishnu asked King Mahabali for alms. Impressed with the “Brahmin’s” wisdom during the interaction, the king decided to give him a gift. So Lord Vishnu made a request, asking for three paces of land, to which the king agreed. As Vishnu rightfully took his gift, the king realized that the third pace of land would mean the destruction of Earth. So he offered his head instead. This led to the banishment of the king to the netherworld. But not without a wish. Acknowledging the king’s attachment to his kingdom, Lord Vishnu allowed Mahabali to visit his land and people once every year. That is celebrated as Onam every year.
Naturally, the families celebrating the festival spread out flower carpets called Pookalam as a way to welcome their beloved king. A delicious feast called Sadhya follows the rituals and has become a highlight of the festival of Onam over the last few years. Vallamkalli, or the boat races, Kathakali dances, elephants, and blazing fireworks also accompany this warm and glorious festival of the south.