India is indigenously the most diverse country in the world: religiously, culturally and ethnically. The country boasts solidarity between religious societies and cultures that, most often, live together in harmony. Religion plays a fundamental role in the lives of people here. With so many different languages and faiths, India is constantly in the midst of a festival. While some of these festivals are celebrated throughout the nation, others are region-specific with their own traditions and methods of celebration. Although each of these festivals have different meanings, they all are an absolute spectacle to behold.
Arguably one of the biggest and most important festivals in India is the festival of lights. The term Diwali or Deepavali literally means “a row of lights” and it signifies the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and righteousness over treachery. Diwali takes place in the month of October or November and it celebrates the mythological tale of the return of King Rama to Ayodhya after 14 long years of exile.
Small clay lamps are lit on doorsteps and windowsills, along with beautiful fireworks that mark the start of the celebration. The goddess Lakshmi is worshipped in the evening across most of the country.
Also known as the “festival of colors,” Holi is fast becoming popular across the world. Celebrated in the month of February or March, Holi is a festival of fun, dance, music, and mirth. It also celebrates fertility, love, and the victory of purity over darkness. The festivities are marked by people taking to the streets and smearing each other with colored powder called gulal. The festival celebrates the mythological tale of the slaying of the demoness Holika by Prahlad, the ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. The two-days-long festival is celebrated on a full moon, marking the arrival of spring and the new harvest.
The festival of “nine nights,” as the term Navaratri means in Sanskrit, is celebrated to pay homage to the goddess Durga in all her incarnations. The festival is celebrated through nine nights, with three nights devoted to each of the three goddesses: Durga, the goddess of power; Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; and Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge. The days during this festival are marked by fasting and the nights by feasting and traditional religious dances. Gujratis perform their traditional forms of dances called garba and dandiya in order to celebrate.
A regional celebration, Durga Puja is an extremely important festival for the people of West Bengal. It celebrates the victory of the ten-armed warrior incarnation of the goddess Durga, who slew the evil demon Mahishasura. This five-day-long festival lures tourists from all over the world in order to see the magnificent idols of the goddess and the elaborately-decorated pandals (tents) that take months to create. The festival is marked with cultural events in the evenings and religious rituals throughout the day.
Celebrated on the tenth day after Navaratri, Dussehra is a festival that glorifies the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Dussehra is also known as Vijaya Dashami and marks the end of Durga Puja. This means that it also celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. It is marked with huge effigies of Ravana being burnt to the ground by a man dressed as Rama and it’s celebrated in the month of October or November.
One of the most important Islamic festivals, Eid-Ul-Fitr is celebrated across the world–not just in India. The festival marks the day of completion of 30 long days of fasting for Ramadan. The three-day festivities also have people wearing new clothes, giving each other gifts, and offering children small amounts of money.
Onam, a harvest festival marking King Mahabali’s homecoming, is the biggest festival of Kerala, a state in South India. The ten-days-long festival showcases the splendor of Kerala in all its cultural glory. The festival is marked with traditional feasts of rice served with four different types of curries on banana leaves. Every house is adorned by an intricate Pookalamm (floral design) at the entrance. The festivities also include performances of a traditional dance called Kaikottikali and snake boat races, making Onam an especially unique festival.
The most important festival of Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the birth anniversary of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Durga. This 11-day long festival is a spectacular fiesta where beautifully adorned statues of the lord are installed on podiums in worshippers’ homes. The beloved deity is revered for the wealth and good fortune he can bring when appeased. The festivities include the acknowledgement of the deity for ten days, when a special sweet called a modak is offered to Lord Ganesha. Finally, statues are immersed in a lake, pond, or even the ocean.
Unlike other festivals, this event celebrated in August is a non-religious one. It has a wonderful meaning of celebrating the beautiful and powerful bond between a brother and a sister. The term Rakhshbandhan means a bandhan) (bond) made out of protection (raksha). On this day, brothers take the oath to protect their sisters from all harm and sisters pray for their brothers’ long lives. The festivities are marked by the sisters tying a colorful thread on their brothers’ wrists and in return they receive a personal gift.
Janmashtami celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This festival is usually celebrated in the month of August or September and is marked by overnight fasting. Women make milk-based sweets to honor the mischievous baby Krishna who loved milk, ghee, and butter.
To symbolize baby Krishna stealing butter from an earthen pot hung from the ceiling, a fun tradition called the Dahi-Handi takes place on this day. It involves a few well-practiced people climbing atop each other to form a human pyramid. The person on top breaks open an earthen clay pot filled with curd that is hung high from the terraces of the nearby buildings.
You can read more about festivals around the world in this article.
Header image by Sandra Seitamaa.