There are festivals that are built around seasonal and agrarian cycles. Then there are festivals or occasions that are built around the lives of individuals who founded major religions. And there are festivals that revolve around mythological figures of gods and goddesses.
India is one of the few countries in the world, which can boast of observing the most important festivals of major world religions within a span of just 45-60 days!
Consider these fascinating facts: In most years, since Hindu festivals follow the lunar calendar, in end-March or early April, Hindus celebrate the birth of Lord Rama. In the late days of winter, is Muharram. On this day the Shia Muslims especially, mourn the memory of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in the battle for succession following the Prophet’s death. The battle took place at Karbala.
Again, in end-March or early April, the Jains will observe Mahavir Jayanti, or the birth anniversary of the founder of Jainism.
And, come April 13, or Baisakhi, the Sikh community in India will remember the founding of the Khalsa order by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Around the same time, Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. Three days later, they celebrate his coming back to life, or resurrection, on Easter.
What kind of patterns do these festivals create? It is very interesting to see that most religious festivals revolve around prayer, fasting and feasting. The reasons for fasting may be many. Some people believe that by depriving the body of food, you are making it more pure.
But there can be other reasons too behind fasting during religious festivals. For example, there are many fishing communities in Kerala which fast during the time the fish breed. They do not go to sea to catch the fish. By doing this, they are trying to move in balance with nature.
If there is fasting, there is also bound to be feasting. All major festivals in India have both for they mark either the beginning or the end of any human activity.
There are also so many crafts associated with festivals, like the intricate floor patterns made by women all over the country. They are called rangoli and kolam in the north and southern parts of India. Just think, the patterns are made of rice flour paste. Rice is also used in rituals as an offering to the gods. And the same rice is also used to make sweet and savoury goodies!
The goodies are always in tune with the weather. So, in South India, the moment you mention Ram Navami, you think of the sweet drink called panaham, made of jaggery dissolved in water, dry ginger and cinnamon – for the right cooling touch in summer.
If you do not like sweet, there is salty neer mor or extremely thin buttermilk with curry leaves that also cools you down and is a tremendous digestive!
Festivals like Ram Navami also provide an occasion for performances of the Ramlila or the story of Rama in different styles of dance-dramas across the country. Different kinds of spoken languages, different kinds of musical instruments create many Ramayanas at the same time. Just as diyas placed on leaves float majestically down the Ganga in Banaras and create a magical flow of culture that links the elements of nature in such a simple and effective manner.
On occasions like Muharram, there is the need to make the taziya, which is a bamboo and paper replica of the tomb of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussain. Ornamented with gilt and mica, the taziyas are taken out in processions before being symbolically buried.
It, then, becomes an opportunity for craftspeople to express their abilities in working with different material.
And that is what festivals do ultimately. If you see them carefully, they have many layers of connections between people from all walks of life in our society.
If you look carefully, you can see a spreading link as individual ritual becomes part of a group activity and combines ritual, craft and art in the best possible manner.
That is the supreme mark of every culture. And that’s what festivals help us locate.