The Vaishakha period of April and May is filled with festivals of fun, frolic and merry-making. These festivals assume various forms, rituals and contents in the celebrations in Punjab, South India, Manipur and Assam. There are colourful displays in a compendium made up of abstruse philosophy as also light-hearted livety.
India’s rich and glorious civilization is mirrored in its innumerable fairs and festivals. They mark the seasons which signal to man the time for work and the time for play and relaxation, the commencement of the agricultural cycle with sowing in spring, and its culmination with the harvesting of the golden grain. And then, of course, we have, in endless variations of legend and myth, the hallowed perceptions that there is an ever-renewed war of light and darkness, of the divine and the demoniac in the unceasing evolution of the world.
Baisakhi, also called Vaisakhi, is a harvest festival which is celebrated on the thirteenth of April according to the solar calendar. It is celebrated in North India, particularly in Punjab, when the rabi crop is ready for harvesting. This tough agricultural operation is rendered into a lighter occupation by merry community festivities such as the Bhangra dance by men, who pound the ground with vigorous steps accompanied with singing. Women too, break into a revelry of dances principally the Gidda dance, executed with fervour and rhythmic exactitude. On these occasions, men and women adorn themselves with gay coloured clothes and traditional jewellery. Generally, the sites of these festivities are on the banks of the rivers which have their sacred import with myths and legends woven around their origin and names.
Baisakhi has a special meaning for the Sikhs. On this day in 1699, their tenth Guru Gobind Singh organized the order of the Khalsa. On this day also, Guru Arjan Das was martyred by the Muslim rulers who, in barbaric cruelty, threw him alive into a cauldron of boiling oil. Again, on this day in 1875, Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj—a reformed sect of Hindus who are devoted to the Vedas for spiritual guidance and have discarded idol worship. This day is once again of immense religious import to the Buddhists because Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment and Nirvana on this auspicious day.
Baisakhi day is observed as the Naba Barsha (New Year) in Bengal. On 14th April, the people take a ritual bath in the River Ganga or any other river or a nearby tank and bedeck their houses with rangoli (floral patterns) drawn on the entrance floor of their homes with a paste made of rice powder.
Baishakhi festival is celebrated twice a year in Himachal Pradesh in honour of Goddess Jwalamukhi. This happens in the months of Vaishakha (April-May) and Kartika (November). A temple near the hot springs is dedicated to the Goddess. Her image is so fabricated that a jet of flames issues forth from the mouth of the deity. This flame is held sacred and is worshipped. The neighbouring hot springs are a popular place for a holy dip by thousands of pilgrims on the days when the fairs are held.
In the South, Baisakhi is celebrated to mark the Tamil and Telugu New Year. In a ceremonial march, people take out wooden chariots in a procession. The temples in Kerala celebrate Pooram festivals usually in honour of Vishnu. Among them, the Pooram observed in the Vadakkunathan Swamy (Shiva) temple of Trichur is famous. The temple stands in the heart of the town in the Tekkin Kadu Maidan, once a forest of rosewood trees. Many smaller Poorams calld Cheru Poorams also take place. Caparisoned elephants with gold-plated ornamental coverings embellished with garlands and coloured umbrellas, mohair whisks, round, coloured hand fans, along with panchavadyam (a combination of five traditional musical instruments of Kerala), emerge from the surrounding temples. The elephants coverage on the main temple after circumambulation and prayers and thereafter disperse. In the afternoon, the primary Pooram commences with the two parties called Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu, each along with its fifteen fully caparisoned elephants, accompanied by the traditional musicians of Kerala. After the procession has gone round the temple, it arrives on the vast maidan by evening. The elephants of various parties line up opposite each other and exchange their brightly-coloured umbrellas to perform the Kudamattam ceremony. This is a most impressive and spectacular sight. The entire atmosphere resounds with the high notes of music and by 9 pm the first Pooram comes to an end.
The second Pooram commences at midnight with a peculiar musical tone called the Elangithara Melan played under a tree called the elangi. Then starts a procession headed by fire torches and followed by the elephants which make for a thrilling scene, surpassing the beauty and grandeur of the earlier Pooram. The tempo of the Pooram comes to an end by early morning with a competitive display of fireworks among the two parties. The celebrations attract not only the people of Kerala but others from far and wide.
Another festival of note in South India takes place in honour of the Goddess Kamarchi Amman whose temple is located in Pondichery. The goddess is worshipped three times a day when the idol, duly decorated with jewelry and flowers, is taken out in daily processions on different mounts consisting of a horse, a lion, a swing or a chariot. Musicians accompany the procession. On the ninth day of the festival, between 10 am and 5 pm, the image is placed in a wooden chariot and taken out in a grand procession through Pondichery city.
To return to north India again, Bihar state celebrates a festival in Vaishakha (April) and Kartika (November) in honour of the Sun God, Surya, at a place called Surajpur-Baragaon. This is essentially a village where, according to an ancient practice, people bathe in the temple tank and pay obeisance to the Sun God while offering flowers and water from the sacred river Ganga. It may be mentioned here that the Sun God holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Bihar and Orissa—particularly the latter where the temple at Konark manifests this deep veneration.
North-East India with its complex of seven states, inhabited by people of different ethnic origins, languages and cultures, has its own panoply of spring festivals. Perhaps the most colourful is the is the exquisite festival called Lai Haraoba in the local Meitei dialect, celebrated by the people of Manipur. There are three variations of it peculiar to Moirang, Kanglei and Chapka. Of these, the one at Moirang is more widely known and attracts a larger audience because of its component of dance called Kamba-Thoibi. The celebration is a balanced composite of music, dance and sport which blend into a single entertaining event.
The word Lai in Lai Haraoba stands for God which is perhaps a derivative from the Sanskrit word Linga—the symbol of Lord Shiva. The festivalof Lai Haraoba is considered a synthesis of the old Tantric faith of the Manipuris combined with Shaivism. Although Manipuris’ major faith appertains to the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, as also their incarnations Rama and Krishna, they zealously worship their distinctive tribal gods called Umang Lais numbering as many as 361. The Umang Lais means the gods of the forests, to whom the festival of Lai Haraoba is dedicated from the earlier tribal days when Manipur had sacred groves.
The festival of Lai Haraoba lasts a fortnight with the gods descending from the Heavens and returning there to when the celebrations terminate. During the festival, the creation of the earth is re-enacted by a quaint ceremony each year. Nine gods called Lai-purmthous give the vital elements of he earth to seven goddesses called Lainuras, who dance on water and throw the essence of the earth into water. Thereafter, Maibis level the created earth. Maibis like the devadasis, are consecrated girls who acquire this status when they exhibit their capacity to pass into a trance as if possessed by a god. Maibas, male priests, also perform a vital role along with the Maibis.
The time is now ripe for performing the Laipon dance, symbolizing the birth of a god. The god is known as Nong-Pokning-thuo who is believed to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva assumes youth and with a stick on his shoulders emerges from a hut and meets Panthoibi, the Manipuri name of Parvati, and marries her. After this divine union, a dance-drama is enacted when gestures and mudras purport that with their creative forces the earth has been re-energized as also the sustaining principals. When the gods feel that the earth has plenty of cotton and fish catch, they return to their celestial abode in a boat. After their departure, the empty thatched hut is set ablaze lest is should get haunted by evil spirits. With the burning of the house, the festival of Lai Haraoba finally comes to an end.
The brightest of the seven jewels in the eastern crown of India is Assam with its emerald green rice fields, undulating tea gardens with a backdrop of the Himalayas in the north covered with a pearls white snow line. Assam has been home to a number of ethnic groups professing different faiths. The Ahoms who came through the eastern gateways were Buddhists but soon embraced Hinduism with its many faces. Assam was also the birthplace of Shankar Deva who taught a new reformed Hinduism—Vaishnavism—with its many faces. Assam was also the birthplace of Shankar Deva who taught a new reformed Hinduism—Vaishnavism—with its namghars where people foregathered to chant hymns. All these varied strands were woven into a colourful fabric of social life and culture. The many Bihus or festivals of the Assamese are a celebration of life, of joie de vivre and a manifestation of the exuberance of the people. Perhaps, the most important of these Bihus is the Rangali Bihu celebrated on the 14th of April, the Spring festival and the Assamese equivalent of Baisakhi. Young women clad in their silken raiment, dance to the rhythm of the drum. Their costume consists of a sarong-like skirt known as the mekhala usually hand-woven in the golden fibred muga silk of Assam with wide decorated borders in bright red. They wear matching chaddars or shawl-like pieces of the same silken fabric draped over the upper part of the body and trucked in at the waist. The galaxy of the young women and men dancing and singing at the time of the Rangali Bihu is a colourful spectacle.
Festivals are occasions when people cast aside their misunderstandings and ill-feelings and refurbish relations of fellow feeling and amity.
Visitors will be well-advised to obtain reading material and information for undertaking festival tours to the various parts of India. They should contact the following government tourist offices in the country:
1. 88, Janpath, New Delhi
2. 4, Shakespeare Sarani, Calcutta-700001
3. B.K. Kakati Roa Ulubari, Guwahati-781007 Assam
4. Wellingdon Island, Kochi-682009, Kerala
5. Airport Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
6. 154 Anna Salai, Chennai-600009, Tamil Nadu
7. 123/ Karve Road, Opposite Church Gate, Mumbai-400020
8. K.F.C. Building, 48 Church Street Bangalore-560001 Karnataka
9. 3-6-369/A-30 Sandozi Building, 2nd Floor, 26, Himayat Nagar, Hyderabad-500029 Andhra Pradesh