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Gujarat Festival

Fringed by the Arabian Sea, with a hint of the desert, prosperious and very, very beautiful, Gujarati is inhabited by a people who find the slightest excuse to celebrate. And what celebrations! Colour and spectacle merge together in a delightful kaleidoscope.

The year begins on a celebratory note with Make Sankranti, and what better way to show your freewheeling spirit than flying kites. Called Utarayan in Gujarat, Makar Sankranti on January 13 marks the shift of the winter sun into the northern hemisphere, indicating that spring is but round the corner. This day is celebrated with the flying of kites all over the state. But in Ahmedabad, where Gujarat Tourism organizes an international kite flying competition, a seeming hysteria pervades the city. Gujarat’s commercial capital is converted into a fun-fair ground with people thronging rooftops to fly and compete in kite-flying competitions. That prizes are offered, and competitors come from countries as far off as Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, France and more, makes it a very lively event indeed. And various food-stalls all over the city with their mouth-watering snacks are like the icing on a cake of fun-filled fantasy.

Gujarat Tourism also organizes the Kutch Desert Festival (February-March) which aims to introduce the cultural attractions of the Kutch region. Held in the arid Kutch, close to the Dhrang Mela which celebrates Shivratri, the festival in honour of Lord Shiva. It is a lyrical ballad with the full-throated music and song of the desert in attendance, accompanied by the hypnotic beat of the region’s folk dancers. The treasures of the desert, those glowing patches of mirror-worked embroideries, the elegant lines of furniture, work on wood and metal, is on display, and for sale at unbelievably inexpensive rates, following the ritual bargaining which makes it so much fun. Gujarat Tourism sets up a tented village for visitors during the fair; hotels are available at nearby Bhuj and Gandhidham. The Bhavanth Fair held at Junagadh, also coincides with Shivratri and is dedicated to the Hindu God of Destruction. While, as in other Shiva temples, ritual worship is conducted, the Bhavnath Fair is known for its unusually high attendance of Naga Sadhus – ascetics who are naked for they believe themselves to be sky-clad. The ascetics and most believers bathe in the Mrig Kund, and their arrival in stately processions and carvans is a sight that rivets visitors.

The month of March marks Mahavir Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the founder of the Jain sect, Lord Mahavir. A contemporary of Buddha, Mahavira Jain founded a new religion based on tolerance and non-violence (Jain ascetics walk bare feet lest they crush insects under their shoes, and wear muslin patches across their nose and mouth to avoid killing little insects by breathing them in). The anniversary celebrations are marked with particular fervour in Palitana, a hill dotted with Jain shrines of the most incredible beauty.

March/April is marked by a number of fairs. The Chote Udepur Tribal Fairs, several in number, take place in villages around Chote Udepur (base point for visitors: Vadodara). These celebrate the harvest, and village entertainment consisting of gymnastics and tribal dances adds to the colour. Fourteen days after Holi, the Chitra Vichitra Tribal Fair in North Gurarat, in the foothills of the Aravallis, combines mourning and nostalgia for the dead with betrothals between members of the Bhil community. This fair, held at the confluence of the Sai and Pihari rivers, is a showcase of tribal culture. However, two weeks before Holi, another tribal fair is held during the Dangs Darbar. The Dangs region close to the hill resort of Saputara, is a tribal belt, and during this darbar or court, the chieftains of all the aboriginal villages of the area meet for a conclave. Feasting is a natural fallout, complete with music and dancing.

There is more yet in March/April. Close to Porbandar (where Mahatama Gandhi was born and lived as a youth) is Madhavpur with a clean beach and a shore temple. Here it is believed, Lord Krishna married his wife, Rukmini. On the occasion of the Madhavpur Fair, the Mer tribals of the region re-enact the marriage ceremony with all its colourful traditions.

And finally, also in March/April, the Shah Alam Fair is held at the Ahmedabad mausoleum of the 15th century religious leader of the same name.

Ahmed Shah, the Muslim founder of the city of Ahmedabad, looked up to Shah Ahmed Khattu Gunj Baksh for guidance. His memory is consecrated in the Sarkhej Fair held at Sarkhej, a little away from the city limits, every July/August.

Gujarat has a large concentration of Parsees, members of the Zoarashtrian community. The Parsee New Year, Pateti, is celebrated in Ahmedabad and in South Gujarat where the Parsees are concentrated.

Gokulashtami, or Janamashtmi as we know it in the rest of the country, is celebrated in August/September, commemorating the birth of Lord Krishna. The monsoonal weather at this time of the year appropriately recalling the stormy, wet night on which Krishna was born. He grew up to rule the seaside town of Dwarka, and died there. Celebrations at the temples here are naturally festive.

Gujarat’s equivalent of Rajasthan’s Pushkar Fair is the Tarnetar Fair (August/ September). It is said that it was at Tarnetar that Draupadi’s swayambar or betrothal to the five Pandava brothers (heroes of the epic tale, the Mahabharata) took place. On this occasion, at the Shiva temple here, members of pastoral communities such as the Rabaris and Bhadrawads gather for choosing their life-companions. Dressed in their best, young men and women size up their prospects as they gather in one of India’s most colourful fairs. Nor is this a social occasion alone, for it is believed that the Ganga once flowed here, and so prayers at the temple by day are accompanied by song and dance at night. And ‘once-upon-a-time’ dreams of lovers find a meeting ground for the ‘happily-ever-afters’. Accommodation in the fair grounds is arranged in tents, while hotels are available at Wankaner and Rajkot close by.

Gujarat’s most spectacular event is Navratri, the festival of nine nights celebrated in September/October. Starting ten days before Dusshera when effigies of Ravana are burnt to celebrate the victory of Lord Rama over the demon-king, it takes place all over the state, from the smallest hamlet to its bustling cities. People keep fasts, prepare special meals to be eaten just one a day, and fill in the evenings with performances of Gujarat’s most popular dance forms, the garba and the dandiya raas. Sticks clack-clack as dancers whirl around in circles, maintaining a beat with their sticks which they bounce off their partners stick as they bend and twirl and move in graceful movements.

November too has a large number of celebrations. The Vautha Livestock fair is held near Lothal, one of the most important sites of the Indus Valley civilization. Fittingly, the fair is a trading event for livestock and donkeys, an activity that is as old as civilization itself. Another livestock fair, the Sidhpur Camel Fair, is held near Patan. A modest event, since camels are not nearly as important in Gurarat as in Rajasthan. Nevertheless it has all the colour and spectacle of any other Gujarati mela.

The same month, the Somnath Mahadeo Fair (at the great Somnath shore temple near Veraval) celebrates the wedding of Kartikeya, Parvati and Shiva’s son, with dances and stage shows. Somnath is considered one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. The Shamlaji Fair, held at the Shamlaji shrine in the North Gujarat Aravallis close to the border of Rajasthan, lasts 21 days, and attracts tribals form the neighbouring regions. The fair is a spectacular event. Getting there, however, is not convenient, and accommodation is in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur, a former royal state. The Pavagadh Fair in Pavagadh is held in honour of the Goddess Mahakali, while the Swaminarayan Fair (held at most Swaminarayan temples in the state) is best seen at Gadhada.

All too soon it’s the end of the year, and Makar Sankranti time again, a time to take wing with the kites in the sky.

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