Hindu festivals are based on a lunar calendar of 12 months with an extra month added every 5 years to bring it in line with the solar calendar. Most festivals are celebrated throughout India though different levels of prominence may be given to particular festivals in different states.
Lohdi – mainly Panjab
This is a festival to celebrate the birth of a son in the preceding year and on Lohdi small bonfires are lit, gifts exchanged in families. Children go around neighbourhood homes, sing and each home gives them sweets and nuts – a sort of “trick or treat” without the tricks. Later at night people sit around bonfires and roast nuts and eat together.
Pongal – mainly Tamil Nadu, south india
This is a harvest festival in South India when prayers and gifts are offered over two days. People make “pongal” a sweet rice dish, pray to the Goddess Paravati, consort of Lord Shiva.
Sarswati Puja (Prayer)
This is also called Vasant Panchmi for the beginning of spring and prayers are made to the Goddess Saraswati who is the patron of arts, music and learning. Saraswati is the consort of Lord Brahma, the creator, and is always seen with a sitar by her. Traditionally Bengalies have been the greatest musicians in India and normally there is someone in every Bangali family who would play an instrument. On that day people wear bright yellow clothes and play music.
This is the night of Shiva when from midnight to dawn Lord Shiva is prayed to and honoured. People break their fast when the sun rises and offerings of milk, flowers are made in the temples. Lord Shiva, who in the Hindu Trinity is the destroyer, ends each cycle to make way for a new creation, is also known as the most gracious. Lord Shiva’s consort is the goddess Parvati, who represents strength, and their son the loveable Lord Ganesh.
A price called Prahlad worshipped Lord Vishnu, the preserver, against the wishes of his King father, who wanted all his people to worship the king as God and none other. The king tried many ways to stop the prince from worshipping Lord Vishnu but the prince would not obey. The king’s sister then offered to take the child prince into a fire pyre as she had the boon that fire could not harm her. However she actually got burnt and the prince remained unharmed. People celebrate by throwing colours and dyes at each other, they play tricks and dance.
This day celebrates the birthday of Lord Rama, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu the preserver. For 8 days leading to the birthday there is a continual recital of Ramayana in pious homes, with final offerings made to Lord Rama in the temples on the day.
Born on 2nd April 1781 near Ayodhya, the birth place of Lord Rama, Swaminarayan’s birthday is celebrated on Ram Naumi also. Swaminarayan whose presence on the earth was for 49 years wrote the Shikashpatri – a code of conduct for the devotees and is passed through to all Swaminarayan followers.
1st month of new year Hindu Calendar This is a harvest festival in some states and there are fun fairs and games played in large gatherings, i.e., in each village, town and cities.
Ratha Yatra – mainly in East India e.g. Orisa
A huge image of Lord Vishnu, the Jagganath ( the lord of the universe), is placed on a chariot and paraded through the streets of the cities/towns. People try to take turns at pulling the chariot and others throw flowers at the image and wave lamps before it. The statue is huge to show that before the Lord of the universe our world is minute and as the scriptures say that our cosmos (the earth and our solar system) is smaller than the nail of the little finger of Lord Vishnu.
The Sage Ved Vyas who classified/wrote some of the great Hindu scriptures like the epic Mahabharat is celebrated in veneration. Gu means ignorance, Ru means remover of darkness, hence Guru!
This is the festival when sisters tie a thread/string with flowery decorations on the wrists of their brothers and in return the brothers give them money and presents. The Rakhi is kept tied on the wrist for a week with a promise of protection for the sisters and each year the vow is renewed. Girls can also do it (tie the rakhi) to their other male relatives.
This is the birthday of Lord Krishna who was born at midnight in a prison and miracles started to happen at his birth. Lord Krishna’s life is full of miracles but the main event that he is so loved was his imparting spiritual knowledge to the despondent Pandav Arjun on the battle field of Mahabharata, in the form of Bhagavad Gita. An image of Lord Krishna is bathed in milk, honey and ghee and people pray and sing hymns.
Maharashtra state and Mumbai This is a celebration of Lord Ganesha’s day. People pray to Lord Ganesha and this has become very popular, in all states, since the milk miracle of 1996 when all over the world for a week people gave spoonfuls of milk to the deity and the milk was drunk leaving the spoons dry.
Swaminarayan’s choicest devotee, Swami Aksharbrahma was born on this day and together with Goddess of wealth Laxmi the consort of Lord Vishnu is prayed to on this day, though it is important to note that the mundane desires of wealth do not go hand in hand with the worship of the Goddess.
This is also known as the Goddess Durga puja and lasts 9 days. This is a popular festival as most people worship the Goddess, including other religions of India e.g. jains, Sikhs. The Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, is shown in 9 manifestations throughout time and all these forms are honoured. In northern India the statue of Goddess Durga is immersed in the river Ganga and people dance and sing hymns all through the nine nights.
This is a festival when the wives do a fast for their husbands’ longevity and they are not even supposed to drink water until they can see the moon at night to break the fast. The ladies, dressed in red and yellow saris, go to the temple that evening where the priest recites a prayer.
This marks the triumph of Lord Rama over the King Ravana who had hijacked Sita. People burn Ravana’s huge effigies and celebrate as plays are performed in every town and fun fairs last for a week.
Goddess Kali Puja
Goddess Kali is another manifestation of the Goddess Parvati and this particular festival has the practice of donating goats (in some rural areas calves and buffalos) by the rich to the poor but through the temple ceremony.
This is the largest festival and marks the homecoming of Lord Rama from the 14 year exile after his victory over the dark forces. People celebrate with lighting lamps and burning fireworks. Also it is the day when the Goddess Laxmi, signifying wealth, is prayed to and the houses are left lit at night to welcome her. Rama was the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the preserver and Sita was the incarnation of Goddess Laxmi, consort of Vishnu. Therefore on Diwali as Sita is welcomed home with lighting lamps the traders, having closed their annual account books, worshipped Goddess Laxmi. The traders then started their new financial year the next day after Diwali and in some states, particularly Gujarat, this day has become their new year even though in other states of India and Nepal and for Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka the new year still begins on Vaisakhi during April as per the Hindu calendar.
For those who follow a separate calendar system the day after Diwali is the start of the New Year. This day is also gaining prominence among other Hindus from a celebratory point of view as best wishes flow through for the New Year, particularly in the UK.