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Fairs and Festivals of Maharashtra

<Maharashtra’s festival, quite simply, the mother of all events as it were, is Ganesh Chaturthi. In a city that churns out celluloid dramas by the day, the festival of Ganesh is the biggest grosser of them all, the event around which life in the State revolves, an intense love affair with India’s favourite, most-loved deity.

Held in September/October, Ganesh Chaturthi is a ten day event akin to Durga Puja in Bengal, and nor is it celebrated with any less zeal. For this is the time when the state comes to a grinding halt. Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, has a very special place in every Indian heart as the Indian god propitiated before all other gods, and at the start of any new task, plan or project.

In homes, clay images of the god are installed with pranapratishta or the ritual investing of vital breath in the image. Communities come together to create massive images of Ganesh, some with blinking lights and a moving halo too. In front of these, Maharashtra (and especially Bombay and Pune) go into a frenzy, singing and dancing late into the night. On the last day of the festival, these images are carried in processions to be immersed in any body of flowing water. Bombay’s traffic comes to a virtual standstill as huge Ganesha’s are carried to the beaches, to be immersed into the sea.

Initially a private celebration, like many of India’s religious events, it was first turned into a public event by the Indian leader Lokmanya Tilak who used it as a means of uniting people towards a common goal: the freedom struggle aimed at throwing away the British colonizers from India. Since then, Ganesha Chaturthi has been a public event, especially in Bombay where the Ganapati Bapa Moriya retrain is popularly heard throughout the rainy season. However, in recent years the state’s tourism event has turned it into a tourism festival celebrated over eleven days in Pune. Here, it includes theatre shows, food meals, folk dance competitions and bullock-cart races.

Truly nothing quite warms the heart of a Maharashtrian like Ganesh and his annual celebrations. But Bombay and the rest of the state are known to celebrate all Indian festivals with equal zeal, from Holi to Diwali, and the Ids too. Yet, Maharashtra has a few festivals that stand apart, unique to itself or shared in common with a few neighbouring states.

Of these, Gudi Padva (March/April) is the most significant for it marks the start of the Maharashtrian New Year. It is dedicated to Sahaliwan, the son of a humble potter who overthrew the reigning Guptas of Malwa to become an important monarch guiding the fortunes of a new dynasty. This day marks the start of the Hindu solar year. In a city where business is conducted as much through modern technology as ancient wisdom, the advice of astrologers on this day is highly sought.

Best observed from Bombay’s Chowpatty Beach, Nariel Purnima or coconut day in August marks the end of the monsoons and is celebrated by Maharashtra’s fisherfolk community. Of course, the rains continue through September, but their intensity is less, and it is considered safe for the fishermen to go out once again to sea. Boats are painted, little oil lamps lit and set afloat amidst the waves and carried in the boats, and coconut are broken against their bows as an auspicious symbol. The seas are set afloat with garlands of flowers as the community propitiates the sea for the safety of those who venture out over the waters to fish. Along Bombay’s seafront, Koli villages, there is oil lamp illumination and dancing.

Pateti in August is the Parsee New Year, significant because it was on this day that the Shahenshahi Zoroastrian community landed in India while migrating from Persia. The Parsees celebrate at the agiary or fire temple, and the community bonds are strengthened through feasts and the meeting of friends and relatives.

Mount Mary’s Feast is celebrated in Bombay for a week beginning on a Sunday closest to the birthday of the Virgin Mary (September 8). Held in the predominantly Catholic area of Bandra in Bombay, thousands throng to the Basilica A fair is held with huge Ferris wheels, amusements and rides, bands and shows. The devout trudge up the stairs of the church to light their candles; these are often shaped in the form of the body for which they may be seeking healing at the feet of the Virgin Mother.

In a city with such a large Catholic population, Christmas is a fun event. Trees are decorated and lit in tropical Bombay, midnight masses held and huge amounts of Christmas pudding consumed. Enormous stars of coloured paper are lit and suspended across streets. Miniature cribs are crafted for Jesus recreating the Nativity scene.

But if these are some of the festivals that the people observe, Maharashtra Tourism too has introduced some tourist festivals to attract visitors and focus on the State’s cultural heritage. These include the Ellora Festival and the Elephanta Festival which attract the country’s and state’s finest talent to perform to backgrounds that must surely be fit for the gods alone. These illuminated cave sites are the appropriate muse for the rendition of vocal, classical music. In addition, the department is also promoting tourist festivals in Mumbai (as Bombay is now officially called) and Kolhapur. No doubt, there are others too that focus on the cultural strengths of the city that entertains the entire nation.

Bombay lights its Holi bonfire at Chowpatty, pays obeisance at Shiva temples with bel leaves during Shivratri, and observes a unique event for Janamashtami. On this, Lord Krishna’s birthday, earthenware pots full of curds and coins are suspended on ropes across the streets of the city. The coins are suspended on ropes across the streets of the city. The coins, and a keen sense of competition, provide the impetus for young dandies to form human pyramids to try and either break or upturn these pots. Success is crowned with a roar of applause from spectators. What this does to traffic on the roads is best left to one’s imagination.

The Muslims observe a ten day mourning on the occasion of Muharram (February/March), commemorating the martyrdom of prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain. Tazias of Hussain’s tomb are taken through the streets led by a procession of people self-flagellating themselves with no outward sign of pain, led by men chanting Ya Hussain, Ya Hasan. But the mood during Id-ul-Fitre (November) is altogether more festive, for it marks the Muslim month of fasting, Ramzan, with the arrival of the new moon. Abstinence gives way to indulgence, specially in matters of the table, and alms are generously distributed, as an air of festivity marks the occasion.

And Diwali, like any other city, is celebrated with a burst of firecrackers, and a round of gambling. With the exception that Bombay, India’s commercial capital, gambles harder, loses more, wins more, and remains as extravagant as the latest potboiler released from its studios.

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