India is the second most populous country in the world, has more than a billion residents and is governed as a complex mix of states and territories. About three quarters of the population speaks an Indo-Aryan language (with 11 subgroups) and another quarter speaks a Dravidian language (with four subgroups). Hindi is the language of the government but the country has no official language. Hinduism is practiced by 80 percent of the population but Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism are all well represented. With such a diverse population and more than 4,500 years of history, it comes as no surprise that India is the land of festivals.
Celebrated during the autumn, the festival of lights is an ancient Hindu event that celebrates the symbolic triumph of good over evil, hope over despair, knowledge over ignorance and light over dark. The festival and accompanying rituals take place over five days and are timed to the new moon in the Hindu month of Kartika. Diwali is one of the more important festivals for Hindus and subsequently one of the largest events in India.
This is a time of jubilation throughout the Hindu world and although the details vary across the country, every region celebrates of a god of light over an evil adversary. Everywhere people prepare by cleaning and renovating their homes and choosing new clothes when possible. Shopping sprees usually precede the holiday as people seek to fill their lives with as many new things as possible. On the first night of the festival, family prayers are offered to the goddess of prosperity and fireworks usually follow a family feast.
Although Jainism and Sikhism are very different religions from Hinduism, they also celebrate the victory of light over darkness although the stories that describe the victories are different. Different ethnic groups in the region also celebrate New Year’s around the same and the result is almost a week of fairs, feasts and festivals.
Twenty days before Diwali, Hindus celebrate Lord Rama’s defeat of Ravana, the demon king and is known as Dussehra or Durga Puja in different areas of the country.. The festival is also a celebration of light and nearly as important as Diwali. The first nine days of the Hindu month of Ashwin are marked as Maha Navrati and may include plays about the defeat, parades, fairs, and burning effigies of the demon.
Celebrations of Vijayadashami are more closely related to harvest and growth and many Hindus begin their formal education on this day. It’s also an auspicious time to begin a trade, start a business or buy a home. Agricultural areas may have harvest fairs, and regions that depend on the water for their living have a boat festival. Even in the cities buses and taxis are often decorated to respect the tools that give life to their users. Gifts of leaves are common and marigolds feature prominently in decorations in some parts of the country.
Honoring the elephant-headed god Ganesh, the festival takes place during the Hindu month Bhaadrapada which tends to fall between August and September in the Gregorian calendar. For eleven days, brightly decorated statues of the god are placed in shrines built around the cities as well as in honored places in peoples’ homes. People bring gifts of herbal leaves and plants to leave at the shrines and at the end of the festival the statues are taken to the river or lake to be submerged. The addition of the herbal plants and leaves is said to purify the water, making it safe to drink.
The clay images are made months before the event and are brightly coloured works of art depicting Ganesh in multiple poses. Additional decorations of flowers, coconuts, grass and lights are added when the statue is installed in the pandal to be displayed. The entire event is often done under the watchful eye of a priest who will chant mantras, drawing on the statue of Ganesh for energy.
Celebrated in the spring, Holi is a festival of colours and gaiety, honoring the end of winter and welcoming in the spring. Different legends are associated with the event but center on the theme of a good person or god accidently perishing in flame and being resurrected in some form.
The party begins the night before with a Holika bonfire symbolising the destruction of all things impure. The following day is filled with fun, games, bright colours and even colour-filled water balloons. Travelling musicians serenade as the walk and everyone is out visiting with family and friends. Holi is the day to leave errors and conflicts behind, starting everything again fresh. Many people try to pay off debts (or forgive them) and simply begin a new year with no unhappiness.