India is a country of subcontinental dimensions. It is an ancient civilization and an inheritor to a rich and diverse cultural tradition. The Fairs and Festivals celebrated across the length and breadth of the land present a fascinating pageant and showcase the resplendence of its arts and crafts tradition. Some festivals are of religious nature, others are linked with the lives of the people, change of seasons, and harvesting. There are fairs which in the past played an important role in the commercial life of the people and continue to be celebrated with great gusto.
One of the important festivals of North India, Holi – the festival of colours, is celebrated with gaiety and exuberance. It marks the end of winter and greets the advent of spring. According to legend, Holika was a demoness who was vanquished by Prahlad, her virtuous nephew. The heroic deed is commemorated with a bonfire on the eve of Holi and the next morning, the young and the old take part in boisterous singing, dancing and smearing each other with Abir – coloured powder, or Gulal spraying coloured water. This is a day to forgive and forget and to repair ruptured relationships.
Holi is associated with the romantic frolicking of the cowherd God Krishna. Many exquisite Mughal miniatures depict the celebration of Holi with Radha and Krishna in the leading roles. From folk music and dance of Raas to the austerely classical Dhrupad style of vocal music and the elegant Kathak, Holi continues to inspire artists in different genres.
There is a lot of informal feasting, some people enjoy the heady effect of an almond-flavored milk drink Thandai spiked with Cannabis. The sweetmeat popularly exchanged on this occasion is Gujiya – a half-moon pastry filled with condensed milk, dried fruits, and nuts.
In Punjab Hola-Mohalla is celebrated the day after the Holi. On this day the blue and saffron dressed Nihangs regale the onlookers with a breathtaking display of fencing and archery, acrobatic riding and mock combat.
Diwali, literally a garland of lamps, is an apt description of this festival of lights. Tradition maintains that lamps are lit to keep alive the memory of Prince Rama’s return to Ayodhya after conquering the tyrant Ravana, the ruler of Lanka, who had abducted his consort Sita. The heroic deeds of Rama are recounted in the Hindu epic Ramayan and Diwali symbolizes the victory of virtue over vice. Rama, we are told had gladly accepted an exile in the forest to keep his step-mother happy and save his father from embarassment. He is considered the epitome of a dutiful son and a responsible ruler. Another myth traces the origins of the festival to the annual ‘inspection tours’ of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The faithful believe that on this day Lakshmi goes around visiting her devotees and sets up residence in the house she finds best spruced up and most hospitable. Diwali is an occasion for spring cleaning, painting the walls, decorating the floor with attractive designs wrought in coloured powder or paste made with rice.
The ritual traditionally associated with Diwali is gambling. Friends get together to indulge in games of chance, dice or cards. The ‘addicts’ seek legitimacy for their unusual pastime by referring to the celestial game of dice played by the great lord Shiva with his companion Parvati – a scene superbly sculpted at Kailash temple, Ellora. Others rationalise that this is just to remind oneself of the fickleness of lady luck and to inculcate a sense of balance in our pursuit of material success.
The children can be seen bursting fire crackers and lighting candles or earthen lamps. This is a time of generously exchanging sweets with neighbours and friends. Puffed rice and sugar candy are the favourite fares.
The festival of Dussehra is the principle celebration in many parts of the country. It is celebrated with great fanfare in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Mysore in Karnataka and slightly differently as Durga puja in West Bengal. It is the climax of nine day long festivities during the Navaratri.
The highlight of Dussehra in Kullu is a colourful procession in which idols of local deities are carried round the town to the accompaniment of joyous music. If here the flavour is distinctly rural and rustic, in Mysore this day is reserved for display of resplendent regalia. A caparisoned elephant is the mount of the Goddess Chamunda, the protector deity of Karnataka who rides atop a golden howdah – ornate mount with a seat. The palace in Mysore is so well lit up that it outshines the moon. In Varanasi the burning of huge images of ten-headed Ravana provide the finale of perhaps the most spectacular re-telling of the Rama legend.
Dussehra also commemorates the annihilation of the Buffalo demon Mahishasur by the warrior goddess Durga. In West Bengal, the run-up to the Dussehra is marked by community worship dedicated to the mother goddess – the supreme female principle. Beautifully decorated pandals – stalls – are set up to showcase scenes from mythology and even depict slices of life of contemporary celebrities! Different stalls, vie with one another in providing spellbinding tableaus and mouth watering delicacies. This is a time for leaving all the cares behind and to express the dormant creativity. The whole of province of Bengal is gripped with a cultural fever. Contests of song and dance provide lively entertainment in all localities.
Baisakhi and other Harvest Festivals