Saturday, January 2, 2010

Diwali - the Festival of Lights

Diwali, also known as Deepavali is one of the most gorgeous festivals of India. This is the festival when the people of India worship Goddess Kali in the temples, welcome Goddess Lakshmi to their decorated homes, offer prayers to Lord Ganesha and celebrate the victory of the good over evil remembering Lord Ram’s glorious triumph over evil Ravan. Diwali festival is one of a kind in India, which is celebrated in different ways and for different reasons in the various parts of India, but whatever the reason, the celebration of Diwali marks the end of darkness and the beginning of a bright new day everywhere.

Diwali means the festival of lights in India, when people light up the darkness with diyas or oil lamps and creative light bulbs. The night sky becomes the playground of colorful fireworks when people spill a dozen sparkling colors on the canvass of the dark sky and the night of Diwali comes alive with the noise of crackers, the chimes of the temple bells and the merry making of the people all around. There are many legends associated with the festival of Diwali and that is why different regions of India have their own special way of celebrating this auspicious occasion.

Diwali of North India begins with Dussehra when the homes, temples, pathways, shops and offices are adorned in thousands of candles and small earthen lamps. In this region, almost every corner of the street stages up the Ramleela, a theatrical representation of the legendary homecoming of prince Ram after defeating the evil enemy Ravan. Homes are decorated to entice Goddess Lakshmi inside and shower her blessings on the family. In South India, Diwali festivities are enjoyed in a somewhat different way. The festival commemorates the seizure of Asura Naraka by Lord Krishna. On this day, homes are cleaned and decorated with rangoli or kolam which are patterns made with red oxide.

A puja called Murukku is held and in the evening the sky is flooded with multicolored glowing fireworks. Diwali in West Bengal has another interesting celebration as the worship of Goddess Kali or Kali Puja coincides with this auspicious occasion. Gusto and enthusiasm flow in from everywhere as people revel in the celebrations by lighting up homes and roads, bursting crackers and worshipping the chief deity of the occasion – Kali. In many rural areas of India, Diwali also marks the celebration of the harvest festival. With the ending of the harvesting period or the Kharif season, fresh crops become available and Hindu farmers celebrate Diwali by expressing their gratitude to Mother Nature.

Diwali or Deepavali which in Sanskrit means ‘a row of lamps’ is a festival of the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, all of who come together to celebrate this sacred occasion with loads of joy and lots of fervor. Diwali is a gleeful occasion when the nation comes alive with conviviality with people expressing their joys and greeting each other. With Diwali, comes the day of exchanging gifts, sweets and good wishes and with Diwali comes the day of celebrating the good over the bad. In other words, Diwali is a festival which teaches the value of nobility, brings with it the joy of celebration and fills the hearts with the good hopes of new bright days to come.

Pongal - the Harvest Festival of South India

In India, from the time people have been planting and gathering food, harvest festivals have been celebrated in some form or the other and sometimes in a pompous way. Pongal, is one of those most popular harvest festivals of India which is celebrated in Tamil Nadu, a famous state in South India. Pongal is a four day Hindu festival of thanksgiving when the people of Tamil Nadu shower their heartfelt thanks to Mother Nature. It is a celebration of the life cycles which feeds us grains. In Tamil, the word ‘Pongal’ means ‘to boil’ and the Tamils celebrate this auspicious occasion sometime in between January to February, the period they call ‘Thai’ in their regional language.
‘Thai’ is the season when cereal grains like rice, turmeric and sugar cane blossom in the lush fields of Tamil Nadu and since all of these three form the essential most ingredients in any Tamil cooking, the festival of Pongal is celebrated during this time. This quintessential 'Tamil Festival' falls typically in the middle of January, on 14th or 15th of the month. One of the popular faiths, which, attaches itself with this sacred occasion is that that the knotty family problems come to an end as the holy month of Thai begins. This marks the beginning of the Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu and this is the month when most Tamils prefer to get married. After all, this period is considered the ideal time for tying the sacred knot of marriage.
So, the very first day of this holy occasion of Pongal is flagged off with offerings to Lord Indra, the God of clouds who brings rains. On the same day is celebrated the Bhogi Mantalu. Useless articles of the household are burnt in the flames of firewood and cow dung cakes, with women singing and dancing around the bonfire. The second day of the harvest festival witnesses the ceremonial worship of the Sun God. This day which is known as Surya Pongal, is followed by an interesting ritual when husbands and wives in their traditional attires dispose of the utensils which were used in the puja or the worship.
The third day of Pongal begins with another beautiful celebration which is known as Mattu Pongal, meaning the Pongal of cows. Cows on this day are adorned in tinkling bells and garlands of flower, corn and beads and are worshipped with all devotion. Knau or Kannum marks the fourth day of this harvest festival of Tamil Nadu. Every woman, young and old, of the household assemble in the courtyard to offer prayers for their brothers. Thai Pongal is often referred to as Makara Sankaranthi and it marks the entering of Sun into the Makara Rasi (Capricornus). This signifies the onset of the spring season as the winter season comes to a close.

The month of Thai is also known as Uttarayan Punyakalam, traditionally. As the Legend of this period goes, this is the time when the Devas in the heaven wake up after a six months old slumber. The popular faith that goes with it is that people, who pass away during this auspicious period of Uttarayana, attain moksha or salvation. In fact, the legendary Bheeshma of Mahabharata is said to have waited till the dawn of Uttarayana before leaving his body for the heavenly abode. Thus, Pongal is a celebration of thanksgiving to the bountiful nature, a festival to immortalize the legends and a season of performing the sacred most activities.

The Legends of the Festival Dussehra

India is a land of festivals and each of these colorful festivities of this region epitomizes the aspirations of the people here in terms of culture and religion. Dussehra is one of those beautiful festivals of India which binds the people together in moments of joy and happiness. Dussehra festival is celebrated just after the ‘festival of nine lights’ which is so popularly known as Navratri in India. Dussehra originates from the word "Dasa-Hara", which signifies the cutting off of the ten heads of the evil king Ravan.
As this legendary tale of Dussehra has it, on this very day, Lord Ram, the hero of the epic tale of Ramayana, had defeated the great demon Ravan and killed him. The tenth day after the nine day celebrations of the Navratri festival, Dussehra also happens to fall on the same day as Vijaya Dashami. The Vijayadashami festival marks the end of the festival of Durga Puja in West Bengal when the Goddess Durga and her family of other Gods and Goddesses are bid a tearful farewell by immersing their earthen idols in the holy river of Ganga.

Vijayadashami celebrates the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. The festival of Dussehra is also reminiscent of another classic legendary tale. The celebration of Dussehra commemorates the end of the exile days of the Pandava princes and the return to their kingdom. The celebration of this colorful festival is carried out it in a different way in different parts of the country. In Western Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh Barley seeds are planted on the first day of the Navratri festival. On the tenth day i.e. on Dussehra, the sprouts of the seed are used as the holy symbol of luck.
In the northern part of India and in some parts of Southern India, the festival of Dussehra is rejoiced by staging dramas of Ram’s victory over Ravan, traditionally known as Ramleela. This ancient way of celebrating Dussehra is brought to a joyful end by burning the giant effigies of Ravan. Dussehra is better known as Dasara in Mysore and this extravagant festival is celebrated by holding a grand procession carrying the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari on an elephant-mounted golden throne. 

In Karnataka, the festival is celebrated by worshiping the everyday items like books, computers, machinery, vehicles, kitchen items, agricultural tools and others. In Andhra Pradesh, huge effigies of Kumbhkarn and Ravan are burned to celebrate the triumph of Lord Ram. The celebration of Dasha-Hara in Madikeri ages back to more than 100 years down the lanes of history.

On this occasion, follows the glorious procession of ten mandapas from the ten different temples. The day ends by burning the effigies of Kumbhkarn, Ravan and Meghnad. In Maharashtra the ritual is known as Seemollanghan when people cross their village or town border. Thus, Dussehra in every part of India is celebrated with great pomp and splendor and no matter what the reason, at the end of the day this wonderful Indian festival gives out one special message which says - ‘the good always shines over evil’.