Mahashivratri

Mahashivratri

The only one of its kind, Mahashivratri, meaning “The Great Night of Shiva” is a unique festival of deep spiritual emotion. Shivratri literally means “the Night of Shiva”. It occurs every lunar month on the 13th night of the waning moon, the longest night of the month. However, the Mahashivratri is special because it is the Shivratri that occurs in month of February-March, a period with the most spiritual significance. Though several legendary stories are associated with this festival, scientifically, the northern hemisphere of the planet is positioned in such a way that there is a natural upsurge of energy in a human being on this particular night. This is therefore a day when nature is pushing each individual towards his spiritual peak on the condition that the individual keeps his spine upright throughout the night. The best way to profit from this yearly spiritual opportunity is to stay awake the whole night, keeping the spine vertical at all times.

 MAHASHIVRATRI IN THE NORTH OF INDIA

Varanasi, the abode of Lord Shiva, is no doubt the place to be to celebrate the Mahashivratri. This is because the rhythm of the city will plunge any devotee into his inner spiritual world without any extra effort from their part. The chanting of mantras, the smell of camphor, the majestic aartis at various Ghats, the performance of sitar players, sarod players, table players and discussions on the nuances of various ragas etc. can be found around the city from dawn to dusk. Classical music echoes everywhere. The sarangi, the tabla, the shenai, the tanpura, the sitar, the sarod, the santoor and the flute all form a part of Kashi’s legacy.

A blissful experience which no Hindustani music lover should miss is the Dhrupad Mela held every year during the Mahashivratri celebrations. Started in the year 1975, this Mela aims at preserving the musical tradition of the vocal genre of Dhrupad, the oldest and purest Hindustani style of music. The musicians who participate in this festival consider their performances as a form of vipassana (meditation) done out of love. It is a spiritual dialogue between them and the audience done out of pure generosity for no monetary profit.

MAHASHIVRATRI IN THE SOUTH OF INDIA

While the north of India is filled with music and spirituality, the south of India celebrates this occasion with dance and spirituality. Though the Shiva temples are filled with different activities of the performing arts, Bharathanatyam is the queen of all arts. It is believed that Lord Shiva himself performed this dance in Chidambaram, the birth place of the Nataraja, his aspect of the divine dancer. Lord Shiva called this dance the cosmic dance of creation. A five day program called Natyanjalia tribute to the God of dance – is organized every year by the temple authorities, which attracts dance lovers to this city.

Like in the north of India – whole night vigils, night long pujas, the distribution of prasad etc. is followed in south India. South India though is a much calmer and subtle version as compared to north.

The Mahashivratri is a unique festival worth planning for. It is the synergy of spirituality and music at Kashi.


Margazhi-Paavai Nombu

Margazhi-Paavai Nombu

Does the loud Goshti Gana  or drum beating at 4.00 AM disturb you? Do you see huge Kolams at the threshold of most houses? Are you wondering if this event goes on for days? Then you are in Tamil Nadu during the month of  “MARGAZHI” . This tamil month falls between mid December and mid January.  Despite being the coldest month of the year, the ritual of Paavai Nombu is observed by most of the Tamil people especially in the rural areas. However, the urban dwellers find themselves with lots to do as well during this month. This is the month when most of the Classic Music concerts take place all over Tamil Nadu at venues like Music Academies, Gana Sabhas and in almost all the major temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.

The tradition of the original Paavai Nombu dates back to 160 BC, around 2000 years ago. The aim of this Nombu was originally to create a natural environment which would determine the amount of rainfall in the forthcoming season. Yes, technically it was believed that the more “keech keech” one heard at the banks of the river, the more plentiful woul be the rainfall. Such sounds were created by young ummarried girls while playing with sand and water known as “Pani neeraadal” along with the sounds of other living things around the river beds. In addtition to this, it was believed that the river bed would get warmed-up by their movements. In the past, all of the above were believed to be very important for the coming of rainfall in the next season.

With the rise of Vaishnavism and Shaivism in the early 7th century, the Paavai Nombu was observed by singing the songs of Thirupaavai and Thirvempavai dedicated to each sect respecitively. The Thirupaavai was written by Andal at Srivilliputhur in praise of Lord Vishnu, while the Thriruvempavai was written by Manikavasagar at Tiruvannamalai in praise of Lord Shiva. The poems or Pasasurams in Thirupaavai aim at getting the blessing of the Lord in the form of a good husband like Lord Krishna, while the Thiruvempavai  culminates with the experience of Shiva in oneself.

The aim of the Nombu may vary, but the month of Margazhi is ultimately dedicated to spiritual awakening and the abstenance of earthly enjoyment. The focus is given to the performing arts, particularly music  which helps people stay focused on their spiritual journey.


Diwali

Diwali

When the sound of crackers, the pleasant smell of agarbathis and aartis, the colorfully and extravagantly dressed people, the mouthwatering sweets and savories all come together in India, you know Diwali, the king of all festivals is near. Diwali refers to Deepon ka Aavali (in North India) or Deepa Oli (in South India), which means rows of lamps and light of lamps respectively. Similar to Navratri and other major festivals, Diwali also has significant variations in the ways and reasons of its celebration and rituals according to the regional practices. But whatever the differences, there is no doubt that Diwali is the maharaja of all the festivals celebrated in the country.

Celebrations in north India include a five day festival

  • The first day being Dhanteras, which involves cleaning and decorating the house and business centers. It is considered highly auspicious to shop for new gold and kitchen utensils on this day.
  • The second day is the Naraka Chaturdasi, the day in which the demon Narakasur was killed by Lord Krishna.
  • The third day is the actual Diwali festival, when the auspicious Lakshmi Pooja is done marking the beginning of the new financial year amongst major businessmen in north India.
  • The fourth day is celebrated as Diwali Padva. Wives customarily put a tilak on the foreheads of their husbands, garland him and perform an Aarthi with a prayer for his long life. In return for this care and love, husbands gift them with costly gifts, a day dedicated therefore to husband-wife relationships.
  • The final and fifth day is the Bhai Dooj which is similar to Raksha Bandhan, dedicated to brother and sister relationships. It serves as a good time, especially for married women, to get together with her own family and share the post-Diwali glee.

Celebrations in south India include a two day festival

  • The Naraka Chaturdasi day is celebrated as the main Diwali festival. This involves waking up very early in the morning (3 to 4.30 AM). New clothes are worn after a special oil bath and a healthy legiyam follows (a kind of medicine) to aid digestion of the rich food that would be consumed during the rest of the day. After the morning puja, a sumptuous non-veg breakfast along with sweets, savories become the order of the day in every household. This is followed by a distribution of sweets to neighbors and friends. The bursting of crackers is heard throughout the day.
  • While the Naraka Chaturdasi day is for feasting, Diwali Nombu (the day after Naraka Chaturdasi) is for fasting as minimal vegetarian food is taken on this day. Strict rules are followed for Kalasa Puja at some households and in major temples. A special dish called Athirasam is prepared on this day as a prasad for this puja and a specially designed rope called “Nombu Kayiru” is tied onto the wrist after the puja.


Navratri Festival

Navratri Festival

Rightly called as “The Rio Carnival of the East”, Navratri is celebrated all over the country with different customs and rituals according to the state. On the whole, the entire country wears a celebratory look and exudes an elegant ethnicity during this festival. Though many legends are associated with this festival, all would concur that it is Good winning over Evil and the celebration of womanhood.

As the name suggests, Navratri literally means Nine Nights, hence this festival is observed for nine continuous nights. Though theoretically, according to Hindu texts there are 4 Navratris in a year, Sharada Navratri which falls between (September and October), is the most celebrated one. Each of the 4 Navratris occur during the waxing phase of the moon. Though the date is the same for the whole country, the rituals, customs and the reason for celebration etc. vary totally or partly from state to state.

The major legends associated with this festival are that of Goddess Durga killing the demon king Mahishasura (according to Shaktism) and Lord Rama killing another demon king Ravana (according to Vaishnavism). Though the legends are from different schools of Hinduism, both festivals aim at celebrating womanhood. In Shaktism, the reason for celebration is clear while in Vaishnavism, it is indirect, because, Lord Rama worships Goddess Durga in her different forms for nine nights to get all her energy and blessings, without which it would have been impossible to defeat the mighty king Ravana.

Though the legends are just two, the celebration, practices, rituals etc. are numerous which cannot be discussed in one single blog as it varies according to region, state and culture. So let’s take a look at the most prominent ones in the forthcoming blogs.


Velankanni Festival

Velankanni Festival

Do you think walking barefoot (Pada Yatra) to a sacred shrine is only a Hindu religious practice? Then it is just a myth. Here in the south of India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, flocks of saffron-clad devotees including people from all faiths (primarily Christians and Hindus), undertake a Pada Yatra to the Velankanni Shrine in Velankanni mainly to attend the Flag Hoisiting Ceremony.

The Velankanni church or the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, located in the Nagapattinam District of Tamil Nadu, is one of the country’s biggest catholic pilgrimage centers. The Velankanni festival commemorates the miracles that occurred around the site of the Basilica that date back to the 16th century. One historical incident tells of how Mother Mary saved the lives of ship-wrecked Portuguese sailors. Another well known miracle is when the Mother Mary appeared in the form of young Mother asking for buttermilk for her child to a crippled boy who was selling it. After feeding the child some buttermilk, she revealed her True Self to the little boy and cured his crippled legs. Following this miraculous event, a thatched chapel was built by the people. The Virgin Mary’s miraculous healing powers have also earned the church the name of the ‘Lourdes of the East’.

It was on September the 8th that the Portuguese merchants dedicated the chapel to Our Lady after subsequent improvements to the small permanent chapel which they built immediately after being saved by the Mother. Therefore to celebrate the date of their safe landing, they commenced this annual festival which spans 11 days from the 29th of August to the 8th of September.

Every year on the 29th of August at 6.30 pm, an impressive Flag Hoisting Ceremony which marks the beginning of the festival is witnessed by large crowds of devotees praising Our Lady of Health. Holy Mass is conducted from 6 am to 6.30 pm, 14 times in about 6 languages on all festival days. An illuminated and colorful chariot carrying the idol of Our Lady of Health is taken in procession at around 8 pm every day from the 29th of September till the 8th of August, which is a crowd pulling event. The procession is followed by a Novena (liturgical service) later in the evening. The festival concludes with the lowering of Our Lady’s Flag at 6.00 pm on the 8th of September while the Major Feast Mass is conducted on the 8th of Sep at 6.15 am in the Shrine’s open-air auditorium. Additionally, every day after the procession, cultural programs are held like musical concerts, plays, Bharathanatyam performances, etc. in the open-air auditorium.

Come to Velankanni in Tamil Nadu between the 27th of August and the 8th of September if you’d like to experience a spiritually soaked Velankanni or participate in a Pada Yatra (5 days from Pondicherry) along with devotees who walk barefoot. We are here to help.


Paryushana

Paryushana

Paryushan, the monarch of all Jain festivals, is an annual festival considered as a call for spiritual cleansing. The word “Pari” means “from all possible directions” and “Ushan” means “to dissipate or burn away”, while in another context Paryushan, means “abiding and coming together”. This festival is observed by the 2 sects of Jainism. The Svetambaras observe it over a period of 8 days while the Digambaras observe it over a period of 10 days and call it Das Lakshana.

The Jains celebrate this festival by observing fasts and by taking part in several sessions of meditation. The Digambara Jains organize several processions and recite the ten chapters of Tattvartha Sutra (an ancient Jain text) while the Svetambaras celebrate the festival by reciting the Kalpa Sutra, a Jain text comprising the biographies of the Jain Tirthankaras (special Siddhas who have attained enlightenment). They also recite the Antagada Sutra, a text that gives details of those who have attained moksha during the Neminatha and Mahavira eras. There are no strict rules regarding the fasts; the followers are free to practice depending on their ability and desire. However, the Jain community generally reflect, introspect and immerse themselves in penance of various kinds as a means to purify their mind, body and emotions and of all negativity.

An important highlight of this festival is the Samvatsari for the Svetambaras or Kshamavani for the Digambaras, which is an important day of forgiving and the seeking of forgiveness, the very reason why the Paryushan festival is also called the festival of forgiveness. The Samvatsari day is the last day of the Paryushan festival, which usually falls on a Chaturthi (4th day) of the waxing moon in the holy month of Bhadra coinciding with Ganesh Chaturthi (the birthday of Lord Ganesh), a Hindu Festival.

“Micchami Dukkadam” is the phrase used to ask for forgiveness, which is a Prakrit (language relating to Sanskrit) phrase meaning, “May all the evil that has been done be fruitless”. Hence on this auspicious day, every member of the Jain community approaches everyone, irrespective of their religion and begs for their forgiveness for having offended them in thought, word or deed either knowingly or unknowingly.

Therefore the main goal of Paryushan is to remind and to emphasis strictly on the five fundamental ethics – Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (chastity) and Aparigraha (non-possession) for the whole span of the festival and aims at uplifting the human being internally and externally.


Onam

Onam

Primarily the rice harvest festival of Kerala, Onam, is also known as the festival of rain flowers. But for most of the Keralites, Onam is the homecoming day of their benevolent king Mahabali, who ruled Kerala long ago. Legend has it that King Mahabali was so sincere, honest, just and good that his citizens almost forgot the Devas and their pujas to them which made them jealous. So they requested Lord Vishnu to put an end to this situation. Lord Vishnu could not deny their request as it was a matter of keeping the whole system in balance. Therefore, in spite of King Mahabali being his devout worshipper, he tricked him using his only weakness, the Ego. Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamana Avatar and defeated him by pushing him down into the Patala Log. Yet, because he was such a perfect King, he was granted one boon – to visit his kingdom once every year on the day of Onam.

The festival is celebrated over a span of 10 days as it is believed that it took the king 10 days to travel from Patala log to Earth. The first day is the day he starts to travel back to visit his kingdom. On this day, the festival kicks off in Kochi, Kerala, with the Royal parade called Attchamayam leaving the temple dedicated to Lord Vamana at Thrikakkara, the ancient capital of his Kingdom. This parade depicts all the elements of Kerala culture, including royally caparisoned elephants and numerous floats and tableaux. Once the Kodiyettu (flag hoisting) in this temple is done, the Onam celebrations in other temples can commence. The temple at Thrikakkara is considered to be the centre point of Onam celebrations. Apart from the parade on the first day, two more grand processions named Pakalpooram and Seeveli are held in the temple on the last day (9th day) and on Onam day respectively. These two parades attract a lot of devotees and tourists. Along with the processions, Sadaya at the temple grounds is also an important attraction. Sadaya is a traditional feast prepared with seasonal vegetables and served on a banana leaf. This elaborate meal has a minimum of nine courses and can go up till two dozen dishes in some households.

Though declared a taboo (Haram) by the Islamic preachers, some Muslim communities celebrate Onam along with the Christian and Hindu Communities in a big display of communal harmony in the state. Therefore big and beautiful Pookolams (decorated arrangement of flowers on the floor) are made at the entrance of houses and temples, images of Onatthappan (Vamana) are put up at the house, the performances of Kummattikali (dance with wooden masks) are done at Thrissur, Kathakalli (traditional dance of Kerala) at Valluvanad. Cheruthuruthy and Thriruvathirakali (executed by a group of dancers in a circular pattern and by clapping hands around a lamp) are also performed. Pulikali (an enactment of tiger hunting done by dancers painted like tigers and hunters) is done on 4th day of Onam in Thrissur, Theyyam in the North Malabar region of Kerala and a showcase of percussion instruments like Panchavadhyam, Chenda etc, along with Vallamkali (Boat race) are also done at Aranmula. Onam Sadaya at almost all households, marks the celebration of the Onam festival in Kerala. Onam is celebrated all over Kerala, but Kochi, Trivandrum, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, and Kottayam have the most vibrant celebrations.


Krishna Janmashtami

Krishna Janmashtami

Whether it is gopalkala, Singhare ki poori, or seedai  at home or raas leela, dhandiya or dahi handi at a public gathering, huge rangoli or footprints of baby Krishna are made at the entrance of houses. All of these represent the joy of people all over the world celebrating the birth of their beloved Lord Krishna. On this auspicious day, Sri Krishna is worshipped in the form of an infant, hence the rituals are done to the infant idol. The idol is bathed at midnight, at the time where he is believed to be born and is placed in a cradle. He is then adorned with flowers, jewelry and a small “mukut” or crown. Everyone swings the cradle to the tune of bhajan’s or songs of praise.  “Naivedya” mainly butter, his favorite food from his childhood, is offered to Him and then distributed to all.

In order to rescue the world from the evil-doer, King Kansa of Mathura, Sri Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu was born. The Lord was destined to be birthed by the sister of Kansa, Devaki. In order to save the Lord, Sri Krishna’s father, Vasudev, took the infant on the very day he was born and put him in the care of his friend Nanda and his wife Yashodha at Gokul, for them to bring him up safely. They did this with complete dedication and loyalty. Krishna was a darling son to his parents, an endearing friend and comrade, a devoted disciple, a loving husband and a trusted brother. He is the incomparable hero, teacher, protector, leader, friend, guide and lover.


Nehru Trophy Boat Race

Nehru Trophy Boat Race

The rhythms are the loudest when the oars dip and flash 100 to 120 times a minute as the flag falls in a blur indicating the start of the competition.  Conducted on the second Saturday of August every year, the Nehru Trophy Boat race transforms the otherwise serene and tranquil lake of Punnamada into a sea of around two lakh people and the lake itself becomes “Chundan Vallams”- Snake Boats. The Snake Boats are superior canoes built by Kings themselves to give an edge over their adversaries in river battles. With the passage of time, the wars got settled leaving behind many unused snake boats which were later used for entertainment purposes like boat races.

To mark the visit of the then Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to Alleppey in 1952, an energetic and pleasing welcome was done by the people of Alleppey in the form of a boat trip, accompanied by a pageantry of boats, from Alleppey to Kottyam, followed by a colorful Boat Race named “the Prime Minister’s Trophy” in the Vembanad lake for the first time.  But the continuity of the competition was done to commemorate the real happiness and excitement expressed by the then Prime Minister during his visit. The Prime Minister got so enthralled by the uproar of the crowd, the rowers weaving their oars to the rhythmic chants and beats of drums and floats  with artists performing “kathakali” “theyyam” “panchavadyam” and “padayani”  following the race boats etc, that he tried to jump into the Winner’s  boat when it reached very near to his pavilion. Later, a pleasure trip was made by the Prime Minister standing inside the winner’s boat, accompanied by other snake boats for security. This event marked the beginning of the greatest water sport in the world.

Jawaharlal Nehru then proceeded to Delhi from where he sent a silver trophy for the winners of the boat race. The trophy was shaped in the form of a snake with the inscription, “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore”. Since then, every year the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is organized at the Punnamada Lake.


Aadi Festival

Aadi Festivals

Aadi is the fourth month in the Tamil Calendar. It marks the beginning of the six month period of the sun rising in the South-East of the Equator also called the Dakshinayana. Aadi, considered inauspicious for personal celebrations such as weddings, house warming etc., is on the contrary the month of the biggest number of religious celebrations. It is a special month for women to connect themselves to the divine power. If one is in Tamil Nadu during this month, one cannot miss the loudspeakers blaring devotional songs and the huge cut-outs of Gods and Goddesses. Some of the religious celebrations include Velaku Poojai, a celebration where women gather at a temple and do a puja in a straight line leading to a lamp. Thee Mithithal is a ritual where men walk on fire in front of a temple, Koozh Ootrudhal is the distribution of raagi (finger millet) porridge as prasad given to the devotees at the temple on Fridays, Maa vilakku, is the gathering of women with laddus (circular sweets ) of jiggery and rice. They light a lamp in the centre and the sweets are first offered during the puja and are then distributed to devotees later on. Puthhuku Paal Varthal is a snake worship. The temples have replicas of snake dens which are worshipped during this day.  And lastly all the deities of this festival are beautifully decorated and are taken on a chariot in processions for all those who want to seek their blessings in the neighbouring areas.

The important festivals include

Aadi Pirapu: The beginning day of the month is marked with the decorating of the house with mango leaves on the door frames and beautiful big kolams at the entrance of the house. These kolams  are bordered with brick powder. A puja is then performed in the morning followed by a feast of special delicacies including payasam, vadai etc. An important custom on this day is the changing of the yellow thread of women in their “Thali”. This month is also more significant in a household where the daughter is newly married, as they are brought back to the groom’s house on this day. This is done to avoid the conception of the first grandchild to be born between the months of April and May, considered the hottest months in Tamil Nadu.

Aadi perukku: Also called as padinettam perukku, is celebrated on the 18th day of this month. People pay their tributes to water bodies like rivers, lakes as well as temple tanks etc. They celebrate the rising of water levels due to the onset of the monsoon. Therefore this festival is a very special one in the Kaveri delta region. Mulaipari is an important festival in the villages of India. It’s a procession in which women walk towards a river-bed carrying pots of sprouted and germinated Navadhanya (9 types of grains). Goddess Parvathi is worshipped on this day while Chitrannam, (varieties of rice with different flavors) is offered during the prayer time and is distributed to the family members after the puja at the river bank.

Aadi Pooram: This festival is celebrated on the day of Pooram star of this month. Amongst the Vaishnavites, this day is called Aandal Jayanthi, an incarnation of Mahalakshmi. In Srivilliputhur, the birth place of goddess Aandal, the consort of Vishnu, it is celebrated as a 10 day festival as Aadi Brhamotsavam. On the 10th day, the Pooram day, the divine marriage of the God and Goddess is staged.  Amongst the Shivaites, this day is celebrated as Valaikaapu festival, where glass bangles are offered to the Goddess and distributed among the devotees.

Varalakshmi Puja: Unlike the other aadi festivals, this is celebrated at home. This puja is celebrated on the Friday before the full moon day of this month. The term Varalakshmi means the Goddess who grants boons. The worship of Mahalakshmi in the form of Varalakshmi on this day provides all the benefits of worshipping Ashtalakshmi. Hence married women strictly perform this puja for the wellbeing of their family members. The Goddess is worshipped in the form of Kalasam a pot, decorated with the face of goddess Ambaal on a coconut and placed on top of rice and banana leaves while a Maakolam is drawn in the front. The puja is performed by the ladies of the house chanting Lakshmi Shasranamam and other slokas. In the evening, the neighboring married women are invited to the house and the distribution of Thambulam (return gift) is done.

Apart from the festivals mentioned above, monthly puja days like Kirthigai dedicated to lord muruga, Amavasya (No Moon day) and weekly puja days like Tuesday (Aadi Chevvai) and Friday (Aadi Velli) are also more specially celebrated during the aadi festival.