Archive for the ‘Festivals’ Category

Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian

Chhath

This is the season of festivals. And one which is strictly regional.

This is a unique festival celebrated in Bihar and Biharis settled elsewhere. The festival is celebrated for 4 consecutive days.

Chhath means six; the festival is called Chhath as it falls on the sixth day after Amavasya This year it comes on the 31st October.

For one night and day, the entire  Bihar practically live on the banks of the river Ganga and make a ritual offering to the Sun God. Since the festival is essentially a prayer to the Sun god, it is also known as ‘Surya Sashti’.

All Indians consider Ganga a sacred river and since it passes through Bihar, the devotees use the river banks to celebrate the Chhath puja. The Festival is celebrated mainly to thank the Sun God for the bounties it has given to the people in this earth. The occasion is also used to make special wishes. It can be compared with the ‘Thanks Giving’ day in America.

The first day of the festival is known ‘Naha Kha’ or bathe and eat. The devotees take a dip in theGanges and use the holy water to prepare ‘satvik’ food like rice porridge, puris, etc. The food is shared by the community.

On the second day, Panchami, the day before Chhath, known as ‘Kharna’, the devotees observe a fast for the whole day, which ends in the evening a little after sunset. After the worship the offerings are distributed among family and friends. From this day onwards, for the next 36 hours they go on a strict fast without even drinking water.

The third day Sashti, is the principal festival, Chhath, and the day is spent in preparing the offerings to the Sun God. In the evening the entire household accompanies the devotees to the river bank to make the offerings to the setting sun.

On the night of day three, a colorful event takes place, known as ‘Kosi’.  Llighted earthen lamps are kept under a canopy of five sugarcane sticks. The five sticks signify the human body made of the five great elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. This is a symbolic ritual in Chhath Puja, performed especially in those families where marriage or childbirth has taken place recently. The lighted lamps signify the solar energy sustaining the human being. The occasion is almost a carnival. Friends and family, and numerous participants and onlookers all are willing to help and receive the blessings of the worshipper. Ritual regional folk songs are sung on this occasion.

Early morning on the 4th day, known as ‘Parna’ (lifting of the fast) the devotees, along with family and friends, go to the riverbank to make the offerings to the rising sun. The festival ends with the breaking of the fast and friends visiting the houses of the devotees to receive the prashad.

Witnessing Chhath being celebrated at the crack of the dawn on a river bank is a beautiful, enriching spiritual experience connecting the modern Indian to his ancient cultural roots.

.

Contributed by Mr. C. I. Sivasubramanian

Skanda Sashti falls on the sixth day of Amavasya in the Tamil month of Eippasi, or Asadha sukla Sashti (Oct 15 – Nov 15). It is celebrated with great pomp and splendour in the temples dedicated to Lord Muruga, the second son of Siva and Parvati. Muruga, or Murugan takes various other names as Subramania, Skanda, Karthikeya, etc. In northIndiahe is better known as Karthikeya. Lord Muruga is an important deity for the Tamils especially.

Skanda Sashti commemorates the destruction of the demon Soorapadman by Murugan. This festival is celebrated in a grand manner at the ‘Aru padai veedugal’ [the six houses of the Lord where temples have been consecrated in His honour viz. Tirupparanmkundram, Tiruchendur, Tiruvavinankudi (more famously known as Palani), Kundruthoradal (commonly known as Tiruttani), Tiruverakam (better known as Swami Malai in Kumbakonam) and Pazhamutircholai, near Madurai], where the ‘Soora samhaaram’ (the defeat of Soorapadman) is enacted. It is an important festival wherever temples have been built for Lord Muruga, including one inDelhi. These temples are usually built over a hill.

In countries likeMalaysia,Singapore, where many Tamils reside for centuries, this is an extremely popular and widely observed festival.

When the ‘devas’ couldn’t contain the evil doings of Soorapadman, they approached Lord Muruga.  The kind Lord went on a war against Soorapadman. The war was waged for six days, at the end of which the Lord vanquished the asura. He threw his weapon at him and Soorapadman was split into two halves. At his own request, one half became a peacock, which He took as His ‘vaahana’ and the other became a cock and transformed into a flag.

Lord Skanda married Deivanai immediately after the defeat of Soorapadman. It is the custom to dramatize this marriage during the Skanda Sashti celebrations.

The ‘devas’ were very happy over this victory and praised the Lord and prayed to him for six days. Devotees usually narrate the Skanda Sashti ‘kavacham’ (a hymn in praise of the Lord), during this period. Whoever fasts for these six days of Skanda Sashti and prays to Lord Muruga steadfastly, it is said that their prayers would be answered. Those who are unable to fast for a whole day for six-day duration are recommended to eat just one meal during this period.

Devotees who want to get over great calamities in their life taka a vow to carry the ‘Kavadi”, a sort of palanquin with two baskets at either end. The baskets contain sacred water and milk. They observe strict celibacy, beg their food and offerings for the Lord and walk barefooted all the way to the famous shrine. After reaching the sanctum sanctorum they ceremonially offer the sacred water and milk to the Lord. It is quite common even for the laymen to take Kavadi.

Like in Kumbakonam, there is a Swami Malai In Delhi, better known as Uttara Swami Malai (popularly known as Malai Mandir) where Lord Muruga resides. Starting from the scratch this temple has grown to great heights and draws thousands of devotees. On Skanda Sashti day almost the whole Tamil population congregates here.

It is worth noting that almost all Hindu festivals celebrate victory of the Lord over the demon, who represents evil, or Good over evil. This is the common refrain of Hindu mythology.

Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian

This is typically an European/American festival. Halloween is a festival celebrated on the 31st October of each year. The festival includes activities such as ‘trick or treat’, costume parties, jack – o’ lanterns, bonfires, telling horror stories etc. It has its origin in Scotland and later transported to Americas when the migrants went over there. It is very popular in the American continent now. As many other customs, this festival is slowly and steadily percolating to India.

Trick or treat is an activity practiced exclusively by children who go from house to house asking for treats like candy. They dress up in special horror costumes in black. The costumes are usually modeled on ghosts, skeletons and sometimes fictional characters; the whole idea is to threaten people – more as a joke.

The phrase trick or treat refers a mild threat that if there is no treat they will perform some mischief on the house owners or their property. Usually the house owners keep a stock of candies to be given away whenever children knock on the door, usually after dark.

The children play several games like trying to eat an apple floating on a basin of water without using hands, or holding a fork in the mouth and trying to take the apple. Another game is to divine one’s future spouse. Unmarried girls are asked to gaze at a mirror on Halloween night when their spouse’s picture is supposed to appear! Also telling of horror stories and viewing of horror films is a common feature.

The holiday comes in the wake of apple harvest and it is customary to treat children with apples dipped in syrup.


Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian

Bhaiyya dhuj (Affection between brothers and sisters)

Since there is a separation of sisters from their parents and brothers after their marriage and may live away from their parents’/brothers’ homes, and may not meet them often, occasions have been created for them to meet and exchange pleasantries. One such occasion is Bhaiyya Dhuj. This day comes immediately after Diwali – the very next day. On this day sisters perform puja for their brothers’ safety and wellbeing. Brothers in return give gifts to their sisters as a token of love.

The Marathi-speaking communities call it ’Bhav—Bij’, the Bengalis as ‘Bhai Phota’ and the Nepalese by the name of ‘Bhai-Tika’.

There is yet another occasion for sisters to show affection to their brothers. It is on Kartika sukla dwitiya day (October-November) and is known as Yamadvitiya. According to an ancient legend, Yama, the god of death and hell, and the river goddess Yamuna, were brother and sister and on this day of Karttika sukla dwitiya, goddess Yamuna is said to have invited her brother Yama to her house and honoured him. Hence this day has become a day of reunion of brothers and sisters.

A similar tradition is followed in the south also. The parents/brothers offer gifts to the married daughters/sisters in the months of Karthigai and Thai (Pongal) (December-January).

On the Sravana Purnima day (August), people especially in northern India, celebrate Raksha bandan. The rakshas or rakhis, prepared out of golden or yellow threads, with amulets, are first worshipped and then tied on the right hand. This tying may be done by priests or by one’s sister or even by sisterly ladies. The brothers are expected to offer the sisters some presents on the occasion. The rakhi is a protective amulet to protect one from evil or evil doers. The Puranas describe how Indira, the king of devas, who has been languishing after a particularly humiliating defeat at the hands of the asuras’ (demons)  was able to regain his sovereignty due to the power of the amulet tied on his hand by his queen, Sacidevi, after some austerities. This is the origin of Rakshabandan festival.

Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian

Diwali, or the festival of lights, is one of most popular festivals for Hindus. It is celebrated all over India and also abroad wherever Hindus have congregated. It comes on Krishna Chathurdasi in the month of ‘Eippasi” in the Tamil calendar, corresponding to Krishna Chathurdasi in Asvayuja month in the Hindi calendar or in the month of October/November in the Gregorian calendar.

Paradoxically  each community has its own way of celebrating the festival and the gods to be propitiated. For example in South India, the day, better known as Deepavali, marks the day of victory of Lord Krishna over Narakasura, an evil demon thus ending his reign of oppression. Before dying Narakasura sought a boon from the Lord that he be remembered by all people in the earth. So the day is remembered as Naraka chathurdasi, or Diwali day. People take an oil bath early in the day before Amavasya begins, put on new clothes and enjoy the sweetmeats prepared at home.   They burst crackers at dawn to remind people that Diwali has come. People visit to greet each other.

In the western part of the country, it is celebrated as Balipadyami or Balipratipada.  Bali Padyami commemorates the victory of Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as Vamana (a dwarf), the fifth incarnation of the dasavatara (ten major incarnations of Vishnu) defeating Bali, a demon king, and pushing him to the netherworld. But Bali was bestowed a boon by Vishnu to return to earth for one day on this day to be honoured and celebrated for his devotion to the Lord and for his noble deeds to his people. The trading community starts the New Year on this day.

The Gujaratis, especially adore Lakshmi, worship their account books, open new account books, invite friends customers and other traders and give them ‘tambula’ and sweets on the Diwali day.

Danteras is an important part of Diwali festival and is celebrated on the third day of the 5-day festival, especially in Gujarat. People worship Lakshmi and purchase gold on this day. A legend goes that a young bride kept vigil over her husband on this day as according to his horoscope he was to die 4 days after his marriage. She lighted diyas all around her husband and placed gold and other ornaments around and was singing in praise of the gods. When Yama came he was dazzled by the lights but sat to listen to the songs of the bride and went away in the morning. Thus she saved the life of her husband. So, diyas and gold purchase have become an integral part of Diwali festival

Balipratipada is also known as Dyutapratipada.  Dyuta means gambling. In the north generally gambling is part and parcel of the festival. They claim to receive sanction from the gods to indulge in this ‘vice’. It seems on this day Parvati defeated Sankara in a game of dice and that she became very happy. It is believed that those who win in gambling on this day will be happy throughout the year. The temptation makes people to gamble recklessly.  At some places the wager goes up to a millions rupees!

In the north it is celebrated as a festival of lights in the evening, as opposed to celebrations in the morning in the south. People use decorative illuminations and use crackers extensively. The skies are rent asunder by the terrific sounds of bursting crackers. The bursting of crackers is a common practice all over the country. Temples and public places are also illuminated.

Diwali ‘melas’ (fairs) are fairly common throughout the country and especially in villages and towns.  Many activities take place at a mela. The shop keepers have a busy time selling all sorts of stuff connected with he festivities. People buy new vessels, clothes, sweetmeats, decorative items, etc. It is a great sight to see performances by jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers and fortune tellers There are a variety of rides at the fair.  Puppet shows are shown throughout the day

In the east, the day is devoted to Kali puja. Kali is an important deity in this part of the world. In some other parts it is celebrated as Lakshmi puja. It is also a significant festival for the Sikh faith. Diwali is particularly important to them because it celebrates the release from prison of their sixth guru, Guru Hargobindji. They also remember the great sacrifice & devotion of martyr Bhai Mani Singhji on this day. .

Diwali is celebrated in other countries as well. In some it has become part of the general local culture. In Nepal, Diwali is known as “Tihar” and celebrated during the October/November period, though they follow different traditions.

In Sri Lanka, this festival is celebrated mainly by the large Tamil community.

In Malaysia, Diwali is known as “Hari Deepavali,” It is a public holiday throughout Malaysia. ‘Open houses’ are held where Hindu Malaysians welcome fellow Malaysians of different races and religions to their house for a sumptuous meal. ‘Rumah terbuka’ or ‘Open house’ is a practice unique to Malaysia People of different faiths exchange greetings and show the goodwill and friendly ties practised by all Malaysians during any festive occasion.

In Singapore also the day is a public holiday though the festival is observed by the minority Indian community. it is best known for fire-walking ceremonies. Many cultural events are organized around the holiday.

There is a sizable Indian population in Trinidad and Tobago, who get together and celebrate the festival. One major celebration that stands out is the Divali Nagar, or Village of the Festival of Lights. It features stage performances by the Indian cultural practitioners, a folk theatre featuring skits and plays, an exhibition on some aspects of Hinduism, displays by various Hindu religious sects and social organizations, nightly worship of Goddess Lakshmi, lighting of deeyas, performances by various schools related to Indian culture, and a food court with Indian and non-Indian vegetarian delicacies. The festival culminates with magnificent fireworks displays ushering in Diwali. Thousands of people participate in an atmosphere devoid of alcohol and in a true family environment.

In Britain, and the United States and generally wherever there is a sizable expatriate Indian community, the festival is celebrated with great gusto. People spring clean and decorate their homes with lamps, give each other sweets. The different communities gather from around the country for a religious ceremony and get-together. It is also an important time to contact family inIndia and exchange gifts through the post, just as in the Christmas festival. It is worth observing that the US Congress has recognized the historic and religious significance of Diwali.

(Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian)

In the Indian society women have been accorded the pride of place, as daughters, mothers, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. To imply their significance, quite a few rituals and festivals are celebrated. Indian Women usually wish that they should live and die as ‘sumangalis’ i.e, they wish to pre-decease their husbands. Hence they pray to Gods in a number of ways to bestow long life to their husbands and observe “Vraths” for that reason. One such “Vrath” is Karva Chauth.

“Vrath”,   or sacred vow, is one of the most commonly used words in the Hindu religious and ritualistic literature. It signifies a set of laws and regulation to which one voluntarily adheres to over a particular period of time, for the duration of which he/she carries out certain rituals in order to propitiate the deity and secure from it what he prays for. The entire procedure must be carried out with a ‘sankalpa’ or steadfastness, on days prescribed in the Hindu religious almanac.

The fast of Karva Chauth is observed around nine days prior to Deepavali. It falls on the fourth day of the Kartik month (not to be confused with the Tamil ‘Karthigai” which comes later) by the Hindu calendar (fourth day of Krishna Paksham or the waning moon or the dark fortnight). This year the ‘“Vrath”’ falls on the 15th October.

Karva Chauth is considered one of the most important fasts observed by the married Hindu women, principally in North India. On this day the women pray for the wellbeing and longevity of their husbands. It is the most significant and difficult fast observed by married Hindu women. It commences prior to dawn and concludes only after prayers are offered to the moon at night. The “Vrath” is of special importance to the newly-wed women.

 

There are quite a lot of legends associated to this festival:

Veeravati was a beautiful girl who lived a long time ago. She was married to a King. She had seven loving brothers. All her brothers showered their love and affection on her because she was their only sister.  On the occurrence of the first Karva Chauth subsequent to her wedding ceremony, she went to her parents’ house. At dawn she observed the fast. However, she could not withstand the severity of fasting and was anxiously waiting for the moon to rise. The seven brothers, who loved her very much, were extremely concerned watching the suffering of their sister and made a decision to conclude her fast by deceiving her. Then the brothers using a mirror created an illusion of moon appearing through Pipal tree leaves. Queen Veeravati, thinking that the moon has risen, ended the fast and took food. However, the instant she had her dinner, news of her husband being seriously ill reached her. Meanwhile, Queen Veeravati also came to know the trick played by her brothers to end her fast. She thought that the King’s illness was because she did not actually observe the fast as it should be. Queen Veeravati pleaded forgiveness to the Goddess. Goddess Parvati pardoned her and granted recovery and good health of her husband on the condition that she completes her fast as per the strict conventions. The queen observed the fast and hence revived the life of her husband.

Another story.  Once Yamraj – the God of Death came to take Satyavan’s life. Savitri, the dedicated wife of Satyavan appealed for her husband’s life which Yamraj declined. Savitri went on a fast and refused to eat or drink. Looking at her commitment, Yamraj felt obligated to bring Satyavan back to life. Ever since then women started observing fast for their husband’s longevity.

Yet another one. Draupadi, too, is said to have observed this fast. On one occasion Arjun went to the hills for penance and the rest of the Pandavas faced a lot of difficulty in his absence. Draupadi, out of extreme worry & anxiety, prayed to Lord Krishna and requested for help. Lord Krishna reminded her that on a previous instance, when Goddess Parvati had required Lord Siva’s help under similar circumstances, she had been advised to observe the fast of Karva Chauth. As advised, Draupadi observed the fast with all its rituals. As a result, the Pandavas were able to conquer their problems. On this day, fasting women totally engrossed when they listen to Karva Chauth legends.

The Karva Chauth Rituals and Festivities:

The pooja arrangements begin a day ahead. There is enormous enthusiasm a day ahead of the festival as women make detailed preparations to dress up gracefully for the festival. They buy bangles, bindis, apply mehndi on their hand and feet.

Early in the morning, on the day of Karva Chauth, they cook and eat prior to sunrise. The morning passes by in other celebratory activities like beautifying the pooja thali and meeting friends and relatives. In the evening, women are attired in special clothes, generally a red or pink sari or ‘lehenga-choli’ with gold woven ‘zari’ designs. New brides often wear their wedding attire. All deck up in jewelry. Decorative ‘bindis’ on the forehead are a must for all women taking part in this celebration. Fasting women from all over the locality congregate in a group and narrate the story of Karva Chauth that emphasizes the importance of this festival. They sing the Karva Chauth song while rotating the thalis (plates) containing Baya (special food prepared on the occasion).

Once the moon rises, the women have a glimpse of the moon’s reflection in a plate of water, or through a dupatta or a sieve. They offer water to the moon and ask for blessings. They pray for the wellbeing, prosperity and longevity of their husbands and sing a Karva Chauth song. The women are then given a piece of sweet and a sip of water by their husbands. They then hand over the Baya to the mother-in-law or any elderly lady of the family and take their blessings. The end of a day long fast is marked by a sumptuous dinner.

 “Vraths” similar to this are observed by other communities, on different occasions. For instance inBengalthe same “Vrath” is known as Savithri Chathurthasi and is observed on Jyeshta Krishna Chathurthasi day, approximately the same day as Jyeshta Purnima day (May-June of the year). It is said that once started the “Vrath” has to be observed for 14 years!

In the south, the equivalent “Vrath” is observed as ‘Karadaiyan Nonmbu’ but in the month of ‘Masi’, corresponding to ‘Pahalguna’ in the North Indian calendar (February-March of the year). Women worship Goddess Gowri and pray for longevity and wellbeing of their husbands. Through this festival women endeavor to emulate Savithri, whose dedication and her love for her husband, Satyavan are legendary.  Her bakhti to Goddess Gowri gave her the power and intelligence to prevail over Yama and bring back her husband to life. On this day, the husbands tie yet another Mangal sutra on their spouses and bless them.

Navaratri

(Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian)

Navaratri means a period of nine nights. Two Navaratris are mentioned in the ‘puranas’ and ‘dharmasastras’ as being highly auspicious for the worship of Sakti or the Divine Mother (Durga/Saraswati/Lakshmi). They are ‘Vasanta Navaratri’ the first nine days in the Vasanta rtu or spring from Citra shukla pratipad up to Navami (corresponding to the month of March) in the English calendar) and the more popular Navaratri which begins from ‘Purattasi Shukla Pratamai (Asvayuja shukla pratipad) to Navami (corresponding to  English month of October).

Navaratri is celebrated all over the country in different forms: In Bengal it is celebrated as Durgotsava; in Punjaband other parts of North, as Ram Lila, in Karnataka as Dussehra and so forth.

In Tamil Nadu, ‘Kolu’, or the exhibition of dolls, is an important part of the festival.  The dolls, mostly of gods and goddesses are placed on an odd number of tiers. It commences with the keeping of a ‘kalasam’ (a brass or silver pot filled with water and adorned with a coconut and mango leaves. Friends and relatives are invited to have a darshan of the Kolu and are given Prasad, the offering given to God that day, kumkum and a bag of gifts usually containing a mirror and a comb.

The guests, usually girls and married women, in their best dresses, visit homes where the Kolu is kept, sing songs in the glory of God, take the prasadam and move on to the next house. Every night ‘arti’ is taken for the dolls.

It is traditional to preserve these dolls to be exhibited in the coming years, add more from time to time and to give away a few of them to the daughters  who get married and go to their husband’s home.

In modern times, the dolls exhibition has been expanded and the dolls and decorations spill over to the floor and the sides with modern themes, illumination, etc. The men folk take greater interest in such decorations.

Temples in Tamil Nadu also celebrate the Navaratri puja. It is the practice to read from the ‘Sundara kandam” chapter in the Ramayana (that deals with the war with the Ravana, his defeat and return of Ram victorious) throughout the Navaratri festival.

Navaratri at Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Navaratri at Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Navaratri at Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Navaratri at Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Navaratri at Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai

The 9th day (Navami) is celebrated as Saraswathi puja day. Special poojas are offered to Goddess Saraswathi – the divine source of wisdom and enlightenment. Books and musical instruments are placed in the puja (you may want to place your software CDstoo!) and worshipped as a source of knowledge. Also tools are placed in the puja – as part of “Ayuda Puja”. Even vehicles are washed and decorated with chandan and kumkum, and pujas are performed for them.

The 10th day – “Vijayadasami” – is the most auspicious day of all. It was the day on which evil was finally destroyed by good. It marks a new and prosperous beginning. New ventures started on this day are believed to flourish and bring prosperity. Kids start tutoring on this day – to have a head start in their education.

In the evening of Vijayadasami, any one doll from the doll exhibition is symbolically put to sleep and the Kalasam is moved a bit towards North to mark the end of that year’s Navaratri – Kolu. Prayers are offered to thank God for the successful completion of that year’s Kolu and with the hope of a successful one the next year. Then the Kolu is dismantled and packed up for the next year!

Dussehra

Over the years, Mysore, in the state of Karnataka and the capital of the erstwhile Mysorestate, has become synonymous with the Dasara (or Dussehra) festival. Dasara is the most extravagant festival of Mysore. This festival has been celebrated in Mysorewith great pomp and show for centuries. This tradition is still carried on, though the scale of the celebrations has been watered down. According to Hindu mythology, the festival celebrates and commemorates the victory of Goddess Chamundeshwari in slaying the demon Mahishasura and the triumph of good over evil. The Dussehra festivities have become an integral part of the culture and life in Mysore.

During the 10 day festivities, the normally clam, slow, peaceful city erupts into life and every street and street corner bustles with activity. Houses, shops and important buildings in the city are decorated and illuminated for the period of the celebrations. Today, Dussehra in Mysore has become the state festival of Karnataka. As part of the celebrations, renowned musicians of Karnataka and from outside perform in front of the illuminated palace. The palace is open to the public and the royal throne is displayed. The State Government arranges music, dance, folk dance performances, doll shows, and wrestling and sports competitions.

A two-month long Dussehra exhibition is held at the ‘Doddakere’ maidan, in which several business and industrial houses take part. Apart from this a Food and Film festival is also organized. During the festivities, special religious ceremonies are held at different temples in Mysore, especially the Chamundeshwari Temple on top of the Chamundi Hills. The high point of the Dussehra celebrations is the Vijayadasami procession held on the tenth day. The finale of the celebrations is the state organized procession consisting of floats, the police and their bands, mounted guards in royal livery and folk artists and musicians.

Some traditional items of the royal family form part of the procession. The main attraction of the procession is the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari kept in the golden howdah on top of a decorated elephant. The procession begins at theMysorePalace and ends at the ‘Banni Mantapa’ grounds, traveling a distance of about 2.5 miles. The procession is followed by a torch light procession in the evening and a stunning display of fireworks.

Durgotsava:

 

The Durga puja is the most important festival inBengal, in particular. It is believed that mother Durga who went to sleep on Asadha sukla astami is still sleeping at the time the Durgotsava is planned to be celebrated. She has to be woken up first. This is called ‘bodhana’ and is done on the evening of Asvayuja sukla sasthi. A ‘ghata’ or ‘kalasa’ is established under a bilva tree, the mantras of bodhana or awakening are uttered and the bilva tree itself is worshipped as Mother Durga. A second ghata is also established there itself.

Next morning, i.e., on the saptami day, a small branch of that bilva tree is cut, placed in the second ghata and ceremonially carried to the hall of worship where the clay image has already been established and kept at its feet. After ‘pranapratistha’, a detailed worship is done to the ghata with sixteen ‘upacharas’, followed by ‘homa’ (sacrifice in a duly consecrated fire).

The story goes that when Durga (or Parvati) came to her mother’s house, it was late evening. So she decided not to disturb her parents and spent the whole night under a bilva tree near the house. The ritual described above is symbolic of this.

The pujas done on the Astami and Navami days are practically identical to the Saptami puja. On all the days, snana or bath is given to the sword or the mirror kept in front of the image reflecting it. Again on all the days, ceremonial recitation of the famous work ‘Devimahatmya’ is arranged at a suitable place in the worship hall. The recitation, especially on such holy days is considered to confer great benefits to those who listen to it.

Part of the Astami puja is the Kumari puja or worship of a girl child in the age group of 2 to 10 years. She is to be worshipped as the embodiment of the Devi or goddess herself.

Another important ritual is the Sandhi puja performed at the junction of the two tithies, Astami and Navami. The Devi, along with the Yoginis (various emanations of the Devi, 64 in all) is to be worshipped then. A ‘bali’ (sacrifice) is also to be given. The animal sacrifice had existed as part of Durga puja for long, but it is no more in practice.

On the early morning of Dasami, the tenth day, the visarjana puja (worship signifying a send-off to the goddess) is done, symbolically withdrawing the deity from the image into one’s own heart. In the evening, after a simple arati, the image is taken in a grand procession and immersed in a tank or a river or the sea. Much revelry is seen during the procession and afterwards in the manner of the festivities of Sabaras (mountain tribes or barbarian tribes). In this Sabarotsava, as it is called, all people irrespective of their social status were expected to join, probably emphasizing that all were equal before the mother of all.

The evening of Vijayadasami, after the immersion of the Durga mage, is an occasion of great joy for the people who meet their friends and relatives and warmly greet them.

Unlike the Navaratri of the south where the festivities are confined to homes, the Durgotsava is largely a public function where people gather to celebrate it in a public place.

Ramlila

 

Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of the Ramayana epic in the form of a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across the whole of northern Indiaduring the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar around the month of October or November. The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani.

This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular story-telling forms in the north of India. This sacred text to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a dialect that is close to Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all. The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting an average of ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last a whole month.

Hundreds of festivals are organized in each settlement, town or village during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile. Ramlila is particularly focused on recalling the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between the gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is constantly invited to sing and take part in the narration. The cycle of plays culminates with Dussehra, the moment when the effigies of Ravana, Kumbakarna and Inderjit are burned, symbolizing the victory of good over evil. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. The play is also characterized by the spontaneity with which all the villagers participate, playing roles or taking part in all kinds of activities involved in the performances, such as making of the masks, costumes, effigies and the make-up, and arranging of the lights, etc.