Festivals in India

It is well-known that no other country holds so many festivals of antiquity as does India. Each festival brings an episode of some remote past back to the memory with a vengeance! One can aptly call India as the land of festivals. Festivals in India are numerous and one can find people celebrating festivals in one or another part of India. Details about some of the major festivals are being provided, keeping in view the need for understanding their remote background to be able to partake of their spirit. There are numerous other festivals, localized or prevalent over large regions, but mostly originating from a mythical past and going strong in their basic mode.

Kumbh Mela: Speaking of festivals, the first to come to mind — for it is the biggest religious festival in the world — is the Kumbha Mela. It is held every third year at Nasik and Ujjain, and every twelfth year at Prayagraj and Haridwar. The timing of the festival has some astrological significance; but its origin, according to the Puranic legends, is to be traced to an exciting episode that had taken place in the mythical age. That was the time when the gods and the demons were at strife. However, once they came together to achieve an end, to churn the ocean and bring nectar out of it which would make both the warring parties immortal. When the nectar emerged from the ocean, the gods and the demons struggled to take hold of it. It changed hands rapidly, falling alternately into the hands of the gods and the demons. In the chase, splashes of nectar fell off the Kumbha — the jar — at the four aforesaid places. A bewitching damsel, suddenly appearing on the scene, persuaded the contenders to let her dispose of the coveted nectar. They agreed. The damsel, of course, gave the entire stock away to - the gods alone, for it was Vishnu who had taken that bewitching form. The demons realized it a bit too late! The Kumbha Mela celebrates this event arid, what is more, gives a chance to the worldly people, on pilgrimage to the places of festival, to mingle with hermits from the Himalayas and devout pilgrims from all parts of the land.

Diwali: On the Amavasya — the last night of the dark fortnight of the month, Kartik (October-November), millions of lamps adorn the Hindu homes, from the hut to the palace; millions of crackers burst and rockets illumine the clouds. It is the celebration of Diwali, a nationwide festival of lights. Diwali, a short form of Deepavali, literally means many lamps. The Ramayana, one of the two great ancient epics of India, narrates how Rama, on the eve of his coronation, had to decide to go away into the forest for fourteen years in order to honour a commitment unwittingly made by his father. His wife, Sita and younger brother, Lakshmana, accompanied him. The demon- king of Lanka, Ravana, kidnapped Sita. Rama vanquished him in a fiercely fought battle and rescued Sita. According to the most widely accepted of the several legends Diwali, the festival celebrates Rama’s glorious return to Ayodhya.

Alberuni, a native of Khiva who came to India in the early 10th century and travelled and learnt much, wrote about the festival: “First Kartik new moon’s day when the sun marches in Libra is called the Deepawali. Then people dress festively, make presents to each other of betel leaves and areca nuts, visit the temples, give alms, and play with one another till noon. In the night they light a great number of lamps in every place so that the air is perfectly clear.” A contemporary description of the festival would not be much different, except that it has grown much more noisy.

Durga Puja: The festival that marshals behind Diwali a great intensity of emotion is the Dassehra or Durga Puja that generally falls in the month of October. In 1818, the Rev. Harrison wrote in a paper, “Such tumult has no parallel in anything I ever heard or witnessed.” He saw the Durga Puja in Kolkata.

All that can be said is that the Durga Puja has become only more tumultuous. Mother Durga had been worshipped by Rama on the eve of his expedition to Lanka. The festival, according to a legend, commemorates the event. In Bengal the festival has a keen sentimental touch to it. Durga, as Parvati — daughter of the Himalaya— comes down to her parental home, the earth, from her celestial station. Her sojourn amidst the human beings lasts ten days. In the city of Kolkata alone several thousand images of the goddess are worshipped. In olden days the landlords and a few affluent merchants used to organize the Puja. Now, barring a few exceptions, all the Pujas are organized by communities and associations. Nothing else inspires so much cooperation and zeal among the members of a community as does the Puja.

The magnificent earthen images are made by hereditary artisans. Those who provide the city with images live in two compact areas of the city, namely, Kumartoli and Patuapara. It is an experience to see them at work weeks before the festival. The goddess is shown in the process of killing an evil-incarnate, Mahishasura— the buffalo-headed demon. She is on her lion, and is often accompanied by Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Year after year the image, the poignant hymns which invoke her and sing her glory as the annihilator of the wicked, give solace and confidence to the hapless multitudes. On the tenth day the images are taken out in processions and are immersed in the Ganga. The moment of parting brings tears to innumerable eyes.

Holi: A gay abandon, a riot of colour, song and dance, characterize the Holi — the spring festival that is held on the day preceding the full-moon night in Phalgun — March/April. The human instinct to come together finds a free expression on the day. People sprinkle liquid colour and throw colour powder on one another. Crowds swoop down upon crowds, often shouting, as they do in Delhi and all over the north, Burra na mano, Holi hai, Rang birangi, Holi hai— -“Don’t mind, it is the Holi the colourful Holi. ” Those who are not inclined to participate in a festival that demands throwing to the winds a lot of reservations are advised to keep off the roads, for, the course of the Holi might prove unpredictable.

The two legends behind the origin of the Holi are almost equally popular.

The demon-king, Hiranyakashyipu, hated his son, Prahlad, because of the latter’s un-demon-Iike fondness for reciting the name of Vishnu. When every effort of the king to convert, the young prince to the anti-Vishnu stance - natural of the demons - failed, he decided to kill the prince. The king’s sister, Holika, by the virtue of a boon, was immune to fire — provided, of course, she had no mischief in her mind. But she forgot the condition when she agreed to become a party to her brother’s effort to destroy the innocent prince. Holika took the boy in her lap. A sudden blaze was made to engulf her. When the blaze subsided, it was found, that Prahlad sat as fresh as a morning star, muttering the name of Vishnu, while Holika had been reduced to ashes. The end of Holika, which also signified the indestructible quality of a true devotee, is believed to be celebrated as the Holi.

The other legend concerns Krishna. Kansa, the unjust king, knew that he was destined to be killed by Krishna. Krishna was an infant when he commissioned a demoness, Putana, to destroy him. Putana feigned love for the infant and began suckling him. And the divine enfant terrible sucked life out of her. The Holi celebrates this first ever feat of Krishna.

Uttarayan: The Uttarayan or the half-year-long northern sojourn of the sun begins in the middle of January. The day, according to the Hindu astrological calendar is called the Makara Sankranti and that begins the Tamil month, Thai. It also marks the end of the harvest. The people are relaxed. And that is the time of the Pongal festival. While the Pongal falls on the Makara Sankranti, the day preceding it is known as Bhogi, and the day succeeding it is Mat Hi Pongal. The word Pongal is derived from Ponga, meaning to boil. In every household a pot containing rice, milk, dal (pulse) and jaggery (the palm-sugar in its raw stage) are allowed to boil over, signifying plenty.

The Uttarayana is supposed to be auspicious compared with the Dakshinayana or the sun’s sojourn in the southern hemisphere. That explains why Bhishma, the great guardian of both the Kauravas and Pandavas and who fell to Arjuna’s arrows, kept himself alive — lying' on a bed of arrows — till the commencement of the Uttarayana. Several weeks of prayers, collective singing of devotional lyrics, pass as a preparation for the arrival of-the happy Pongal.

On the first day of the festival bonfires are made of worn out things and the dwellings are given an elegant look. The boiling over ceremony is conducted on the main day, the next day. On the third day, cows and bulls are decorated and fed well. At the same time a lot of sport and fun is made with them.

According to a legend, the festival is associated with a feat performed by Krishna. In those days Indra, the god of rain, was regularly worshipped. Once the people of Gopa were perhaps too preoccupied with their Krishna to appease Indra in a fitting manner. The annoyed god’s wrath came down heavily upon the villagers in the form of a terrible downpour. He meant to submerge the people. But Krishna lifted the Mount Govardhan, kept it aloft on the tip of a finger, and the people stood protected under it. Indra realized who Krishna was and he apologized to him. May be, the legend indicates the passing of an old era dominated by an old discipline of gods.

The Pongal is also thought to be a remainder of the tradition of sun-worship that once widely prevailed in India.

Calendar of Festivals:

Though historically, politically and spiritually India is one country, geographically it is a continent. There are numerous regional festivals held in India. In any season of the year the tourist is bound to find himself amidst some festival at one place or the other. The surprise is likely to be pleasant. Some new festivals have been added to the old ones. If one is in Delhi in the last week of January, one ought not to miss the grand parade of the defense services on the 26th of January, India’s Republic Day — along the Rajpath, The country also celebrates the 15th of August; the Independence Day, in a festive manner.

However, we record a few festivals that are observed widely. Their dates vary from year to year, as India follows the lunar calendar.


The New Year Day is looked upon as an auspicious day. Greetings are exchanged.

Sankranti when the sun moves northward the festival is observed in different forms all over the country. In the South this is the time for the Pongal festival.

26th January is India’s Republic Day. All the state capitals grow festive and the ceremonial military parade followed by the cultural pageants from the various States of India in New Delhi can be an unforgettable experience.

February | March

Shivaratri is celebrated with great zeal throughout the country. Devotees remain awake throughout the night. There are fairs around the famous Shiva temples.

The Holi marks the advent of spring. It is celebrated by spraying of colour, riotous songs and gay processions.

March | April

Time for the Mahavira Jayanti— the birth anniversary of Mahavira Jain, the last of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras who was responsible for revival of Jainism.

Ramanavami is the birthday of Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, who is dear to all and whose story constitutes the first great epic of India, the Ramayana.

Good Friday is celebrated all over the country.

May | June

The Buddha Poornima — the sacred full-moon night, that on three different years saw Gautama Buddha’s birth, his achieving enlightenment and his Nirvana. It is a sacred day for the Hindus too, though in the Buddhist shrines there are special festivities.

June | July

The great Car Festival or Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath at Puri, Odisha, commemorating Krishna’s journey from Gopa to Mathura. The festival takes place at several other places too.

July | August

Naga Panchami the festival in honour of the serpent-king Ananta Naga — on whom Vishnu in his passive and immutable aspect rests eternally. The serpent-king is represented by snakes of the physical world who are offered worship.

Fifteenth of August is India’s Independence Day that coincides with the birthday of Shri Aurobindo, the prophet of modern India.

Raksha Bandhan is tying symbols of trust round the wrist of the brothers by the sisters.

August | September

Jamnashtami or Lord Krishna’s birthday is a great nation-wide festival marked by both joy and devotion.

This is followed by Ganesha Chaturthi, the birthday of Lord Ganesha, the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati (a manifestation of the Divine Mother).

Onam festival in Kerala with its highlight of the exciting snake boat race falls in this season.

September | October

Dussehra — the great festival devoted to Mother Durga as well as to celebrate Rama’s victory over Ravana, is held with the widest popular participation. In Delhi the images of Ravana and his two lieutenants are burnt to signify the destruction of evil.

The 2nd of October marks the birthday of Gandhiji, the father of the nation, and is known as the Gandhi Jayanti.

October | November

The worship of Mother Kali and Mother Lakshmi and Diwali, the festival of lights present a joyous time, marked by a spirit of friendliness.

Govardhan Puja is a festival in honour of the cows.

Guru Nanak Jayanti, the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, is celebrated with readings from scriptures and prayers.


Feast of St. Francis Xavier falls on 3rd December. It is followed by the feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. These festivals are held in Goa with a lot of fanfare.

Christmas Day is celebrated all over India.

Muslim Festivals - Ramzan, Id-id-Fitr, Id-ul-Zuha and Muharram are celebrated with serenity. Their dates differ widely from year to year.