Since religion dominates the life of individuals, religious festivals have dominated the cultural life of the people. We can draw a long list of religious festivals associated with various gods and goddesses, regions and traditions. These include festivals such as Holi, Dashehra, Diwali, Christmas, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Zuha, Gur Parab, etc.
Holi, the festival of colours, is celebrated in the Phalguna (February/March) month of the Indian calendar. It marks the end of the Lunar year’s end. This is the end of the cold season and the start of the hot season.
Dashehra or Vijayadashami is one of India largest festivals. This marks the culmination of the Navaratra (nine nights) and is observed on the tenth day. Depending on where one lives in India, Navaratra emphasizes Durga Puja or Ramalila, and sometimes the celebration of both. Durga Puja focuses on the worship of the goddess Durga and her victory of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Ramalila is presented as the drama celebrating Rama’s exploits in the epic Ramayana. The climax on Dashehra depicts Rama’s victory over Ravana. This symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Dashehra often ends with the torching of huge Ravana effigies. Ramalila is very fast emerging as the national drama of India.
Diwali, the festival of light, comes in the month of Kartik (October/November). This is celebrated on the new moon day (amavasya). Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is worshipped on this day. This festival is associated with the cleanliness and lightening of homes, and fireworks.
Ramzan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Muharram, Bakr-Eid, Urs
The festivals of Muslims such as Ramzan (Ramadan), Eid-ul-Fitr, Muharram, Bakr-Eid (the Feast of Sacrifice), etc. are celebrated according to Muslim calendar. The ritual year begins with the month of Muharram. This marks the practice of Muharram festival that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein venerated by Shia Muslims, as the third Imam (leader) of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad. On this occasion, a large procession with Tazia is taken out. The participants cry out Hussein’s name. Some devotees even torture themselves with knives, leashes and chains etc. to feel Hussein’s travail. A small fair is organised. In late afternoon, the Tazia is buried.
The Prophet’s birthday is celebrated in the month of Ramzan (Ramadan). The fast of Ramzan lasts the entire month. Everyone except the very young or infirm observe fast between dawn and sunset. The last day of the fast ends with the sighting of the moon, which marks Eid- ul-Fitr. On this day, besides observing the fast, alms is given to poor and sweets are distributed. The end of Ramzan is also the time of departure for Muslims for the Haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Bakr-Eid or the Feast of sacrifice celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. The goats (bakr or bakra) are sacrificed on this day and meat is shared with friends and the poor.
Urs or the “death anniversary” is an important aspect of the religious faith of the Muslims. These are organised as festivals and pilgrims visit the tombs of saints. Committees are formed to organise Urs. On the anniversary day, the shrine is bathed and the tomb of the saint is decorated. The committee plans readings from the Quran, traditional song sessions, food distributions, and poetry readings. The biggest Urs in India is at the Ajmer shrine of the saint Muin-ud-din Chisti. It is visited by thousand of pilgrims and a big fair is organised.
In Christianity too we have many religious festivals and ceremonies. The popular Christian celebration is that of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Christmas. The name is English in origin, which means “Christ’s Mass” or the mass celebrating the feast of Christ’s nativity. It is observed every year on 25th December. In this, the children wait for the legendary Santa Claus, the popular gift bringer. Other customs of the Christmas season includes the baking of special foods and singing of special songs called carols, which have mass appeal.
Easter is the most important of all Christian feasts. It celebrates the passion, the death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. Easter was fundamentally a nocturnal feast preceded by a fast of at least one day. The celebration took place from Saturday evening until the early morning hours of Sunday. The symbolism of light became a significant feature of this festival. In Northern Europe the use of special lights at Easter coincided with the custom of lighting bonfires on hilltops to celebrate the coming of spring. The main Easter foods include the Easter lamb, which is in many places the main dish of the Easter Sunday meal. Ham is also popular among the Europeans and Americans on the occasion of Easter. This is because the pig was considered a symbol of luck in pre-Christian European culture.
The Parsis (Zoroastrians) of India celebrate Nauroz (Nawruz) as their most popular festival. It is a festival of renewal, hope and happiness. The origins of Nauroz are obscure. According to legends, its institution is associated mostly with Jamshed, the mythical Iranian king. Nevertheless, till today it is observed as the Iranian national festival celebrating the arrival of spring. Zoroaster, the ancient prophet of Iran, probably reconsecrated Nauroz to his religion. Nauroz survived the advent of Islam and continued as the Iranian national festival. The Shia Muslims of Iran came to associate important religious events with Nauroz such as that the prophet Muhammad took his young son-in-law Ali on his shoulders to smash the idols at Mecca and he chose Ali as his rightful successor. The Muslim rulers of Iran, continuing the Sasanid tradition, celebrated this festival with pomp and show. The Parsis of India who left Iran in the 10th century in order to preserve their Zoroastrian faith also continue to celebrate Nauroz (Jamashedi Nauroz) as a major feast. The ceremonies include recitation of religious verses, visiting of relatives and friends, the exchange of gifts, organising music and dance, etc.