Andhra Pradesh, a rich mosaic of people from different faiths, tribes and cultural milieu has a fascinating array of festive occasions for anybody in the mood to celebrate.
To be in Hyderabad during Mohurram is to witness the fervour of belief. If you are in Tirupati for the Brahmotsav festivities, chances are you will not remain unmoved by the varied expressions of faith. And if you want to delve deep into tribal psyche, watch the tribals of Andhra Pradesh celebrate their festivals. Spend a day with the Banjara tribespeople as they celebrate the Holi festival in March-April. And if you are not in a religious mood but would still like to celebrate some festival come for the annual Pearl and Bangle festival in Hyderabad.
Mohurrum is not really a festive occasion for it marks the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Hussain, the grandson of prophet Mohammad who was killed in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Devout Shia Muslims all over the world observe a ten day period of mourning during Mohurram but in Hyderabad, the expression of mourning acquires a unique and moving intensity, as though in mourning for Imam Hussain the city mourns for mankind itself – for its splendid past. For a whole month, the story of Hussain’s martyrdom is recounted on the lips of the devout over the microphone in mosques and homes. On the tenth day, in a grand procession, the tragic tale is re-enacted by the mourners who beat themselves and inflict pain on themselves as penance for the heinous crime. Tazias or floats which are gorgeously decorated are carried by the mourners in the procession which is often led by caparisoned elephants. In old Hyderabad, the devout offer beautifully woven rose and jasmine veils or sehras to the alams or representations of the martyrs of Karbala and dress in black.
However, the Muslims of Hyderabad and the rest of Andhra Pradesh do celebrate many joyous festivals where the best of their cuisine is on offer and people wear bright new clothes and go visiting near and dear ones. Bakr-id is one such occasion where prayer and festivities go together – prayer gatherings are held at the mosques followed by feasting and visiting loved ones. This festival commemorates the anniversary of Abraham’s total surrender to God in offering his own son Isaac as a sacrifice and God’s acceptance of a lamb sacrifice. Thus Bakr-id features an animal sacrifice in remembrance of the earlier one. Not long ago, the eminent people of Hyderabad gathered at the old fort to wish the Nizam Id Mubarak, but today the hallowed fort walls remain witness to the glory and splendour of days gone by. Other Muslim festivals include the Shab-I-Barat, the Rabi-ul-thani, the Rabi-ul-Awal and Id-ul-Fitr.
Andhra Pradesh is also home to one of Hinduism’s greatest pilgrimage sites, the temple town of Tirupati. The annual Brahmotsav Festival held in August-September in honour of the presiding deity Lord Venkateshwara is a grand celebration. According to the Puranas, when Lord Vishnu incarnated as the white boar (varah) to save Mother Earth (Bhu Devi) from the demon Hiranyakasha, he bathed at the Pushkarni tank at Tirupati after emerging from the underworld. On the final day of the festival, the image of Lord Venkateshwara is taken to the tank in a grand procession and is bathed there. A special ceremony called deepakulam is held at this sanctified tank and decorated boats are set afloat in its sacred waters. The entire temple complex resounds with prayers recited in Sanskrit and devotional music played on traditional instruments like cymbals and flutes. Tonsured devotees clad in white can be seen deep in prayer, asking for forgiveness and praying for prosperity and peace or bathing in the tank to wash away their sins. Most Hindus in Andhra Pradesh worship Lord Shiva, especially during the Shivrathri and Karthikar festivals. The anniversary of Lord Shiva’s appearance as a fiery linga, the Karthikar festival commemorates His dance of creation. At Tiruvamamalai, the Arunachalam hill shaped like a shivalinga is the chosen spot for devotees to gather to pay homage to this great god. Pilgrims also gather at the Shiva Temple at Kalashasti to celebrate this day.
Tribal festivals have their own vitality and charm. The Banjaras of Andhra celebrate Holi with a great spirit of fun and enjoyment playing pranks and staging mock-fights. A major ceremony is the dhund ritual for all male offsprings born in that year which consists of honouring the god of love Kama and the Holika deity. The tribes people gather around the holika bonfires dancing in separate groups of men and women. Women bring out sweetmeats in a vessel which is hung from a tree and a battle takes place between men and women to steal the sweets. The whole community gathers to watch the fight and often the men sing obscene songs to taunt the women. The spirit of merrymaking fills the air and there is a catharsis of anger and negativity. On the last day, the goddess Holika is propitiated by the women of the community who circle the holika fire, throwing their staple grain, jowar, into the fire. The Banjaras definitely celebrate Holi in a style of their own! Another tribal festival in Andhra Pradesh is the Samakka Festival celebrated every two years in February at Medaram by the Koya and Waddar tribes people. Held in the memory of the Koya queen Samakka who died fighting the Kakatiyas of Warangal, the festival is an opportunity for tribespeople from all over. Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to gather together. Samakka is worshipped with offerings of coconut and jaggery and many of her women devotees often go into a trance. It is really a festival of immense significance for the tribal as it relives an important chapter in their history and provides an opportunity for the Koya oracle to foretell the future.
Andhra Pradesh has a host of other interesting festivals to offer. The Tourism Department has conceived of many fascinating festivals focused around historical buildings, cities and specific aspects of the state’s culture. Hyderabad is known for it’s splendid pearls and its gorgeous range of bangles. What better way to celebrate than to have a festival, the International Pearl and Bangle Festival, held in November every year for three days. First on the agenda is an impressive exhibition of pearls – the sight of so many pearls is absolutely dazzling. A fashion show with the models showing off exquisite jewellery is next on the cards. The festival also showcases the best of the cultural fare from the region – traditional dance, drama and theatre. The Mehandi show provides an opportunity to get traditional henna patterns to be done on the hand while the Food Festival is any gourmet’s dream. The Bangle Festival is held around the Charminar, Hyderabad’s landmark and is any woman’s dream of a shopping experience. There is also the week-long Golconda Festival aimed at highlighting the Golconda fort where the rich cultural heritage of Hyderabad and it’s cuisine are celebrated with zest.
There are many more festivals to speak of in Andhra Pradesh but I think these should suffice to entice you to come here whenever you are in the mood to celebrate.