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Festivals of Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s largest States, is a conglomeration of an astounding number of fairs and festivals and the entire expanse of land with its veritable beliefs is a treasure trove of festivities, abounding almost every month.

Perhaps, one of the biggest crowd puller of all is the Sangam at Prayag, in Allahabad, Believed to be imbued with sin washing powers, it is at the confluence of the River Ganga the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati which is believed to be a subterranean stream at Prayag. This confluence is the venue for a great annual bathing festival which takes place in the month of Magh (Jan-Feb.) known as Magh Mela. It starts on a full moon day and lasts for 15 days toa month and attracts thousands of pilgrims who come for a dip. Every twelfth year, this mela is known as Kumbh Mela and every sixth year it is known as Ardh Kumbh. Kumbh is a tradition maintained over centuries. Legend traces the origin of this unique festival to the creation of the Universe. According to mythology, the gods and demons once churned the oceans to retrieve a pitcher containing the nectar of immortality – amrit -- after which a struggle ensued between the two to wrest control of this pitcher. It is said that during the scuffle, a few drops of amrit were spilled at places, making them hallowed and sacred. The waters at the Sangam are believed to have received the amrit too and a dip in these holy waters during the Kumbh is believed to cleanse and purify the soul.

The mela attracts the devout from all across the world, merging into one gigantic body of worshippers. It is in actuality, a bathing ritual but living on the banks of the Triveni and conducting rites there, holds a special religious significance. For the mela, tents and huts sprout along the banks which come alive to chanted mantras, and chiming bells, sacred dips and the fragrance of incense and flowers. A huge township springs up on over 25 acres of vacant land, and elaborate arrangements are made to provide security and regular infrastructure to the approximately 40,000 sadhus, 5,00,000 kalpavasis and 20,000 people who come for a few days. At the Kumbh the sadhus have special privilege – they come in a procession, to be the first to bathe. They are followers of Shiva and are naked with matted hair. Ash is smeared all over their bodies and many carry spears, swords, daggers tridents and banners and they dip their spears at the holy confluence, signaling the start of the bathing.

Maker Sankranti, which is usually, on the 14th of January, signals the start of the Maga Mela and is a significant day in the Hindu calendar. On this day a fast is observed. Fasts or vrata is the most ancient tradition for performing religious worship. The hall-mark of the day, of course, is a dip in the Sangam after which worship of various gods and goddesses is followed by distribution of alms to the poor – blankets and clarified butter (ghee) particularly. This day is also commonly known as khichdi in the northern parts of Uttar Pradesh.

As winter gradually begins to wane, there is a distinct flamboyancy in the air, that is felt instantly and Basant Panchami is celebrated with much pomp. This is a significant festival in Uttar Pradesh. It heralds the arrival of spring, one of the most beautiful seasons of the year. On this day, Lord Vishnu is worshipped even as people attired in bright yellow colour, apply a paste made of sesame seeds and also bathe with sesame water. An elaborate feast is organized for the Brahmins. All over the State raga basant (raga: pattern of notes; basant; spring) resounds and in Braj Bhoomi, worship of Radha and Krishna commences. The Goddess Saraswati too is worshipped on this day as it is believed that Lord Krishna pleased with her bestowed a boon, which is why see is remembered on this day.

Maha Shivratri, though celebrated throughout the country, is particularly popular here. Being one of the most important days of Lord Shiva’s worship, regular fasting and worship purifies the soul and also extricates tendencies of violence.

After Holi, in the following months of Chaitra (March-April) is the festival of Ram Navami. It is in honour of Lord Rama’s birthday. In Ayodhya (his birth place) a huge fair is organized that lasts for two days. On the ninth of Navratra people keep awake the whole night. Special worship is performed on the 10th morning and by gifting land, cows, gold, sesame seeds and clothes, one is guaranteed entry into heaven.

Janmashtami or the birthday of Lord Krishna, under the Rohini Nakshatra (a constellation of stars) in the month of August, generates a mass fervor and hymns are sung all through the night and fasts observed. This is followed by Sharad Purnima in the month of Asvina (September-October), when the full moon in all its glory, showers amrit on earth and those mortals who partake of it are granted immense peace of mind.

Prior to these, in the month of Shravana (July-August) is the Vrindavan Shravan festival, observed in the temple of Rangji, in Mathura. Legend has it that Lord Vishnu deputed His elephant to collect flowers for him. Unfortunately the crocodile held his leg and began to drag him into the water. Lord Vishnu rescued the elephant and killed the crocodile. Effigies of elephants and crocodiles are floated in the tank and the story of Gajendra Moksha enacted.

Two days before Diwali is the festival of Dhan Teras, celebrated in honour of Goddess Dhanvantri – the divine healer and physician of the Gods. She came out of sea, during the legendary, Samundra Manthan and authored Ayurveda, the ancient treatise on the treatment of diseases. People wear new clothes on this day and purchase utensils.

In the very same month of Kartik (October-November) is Kans ke Mela. In Mathura and Fatehpur Sikri, Agra is commemorated the destruction of Kans (Lord Krishna’s evil uncle). At the fair the effigy of Kans is burnt.

In Northern Uttar Pradesh in the hill region(now Uttaranchal), the practice of worshipping nature is highly prevalent. The entire year is marked with festivals where people offer their prayers to various manifestations of nature. One such festival in Kumaon which is followed by a fair, is Khatadua. On this day young girls and boys decorate an ornamental platter of flowers and fruits and offer it to the fire. After this they partake of the Prasada. Ganga Dussehra is yet another popular festival of the hills to commemorate the arrival of the River Ganges on earth. A dip in the Ganga, on this day cleanses the sins of the mortals. The Nanda Devi Festival, celebrated in the Nanda Devi Shrine, near the local lake, is again peculiar to the hilly region. It was originally started by Baj Bahadur Chand, contemporary of Aurangzeb.

Though most fairs have a religious connotation, in Uttar Pradesh there are a few that have no connections with religion yet are perennially popular – Dadri Fair in Balia that lasts for three weeks and the Cattle Fair at Katra Gulab Singh, in Pratapgarh. Spread over several acres of land that is owned by the feudal family of Pratapgarh and adjacent to a beautiful property offering a panoramic view, it is a massive congregation of humans and animals. Thousands of cattle, including camels, cows, buffaloes and goats, are sold here and extensive transactions take place. Commencing ten days after Dussehra, it carries on for 20 days. People camp here and stay till deals are sealed and prices procured. Breaking the monotony of the business are the various means for entertainment: circus, magic shows, eateries, stalls for knick knacks and nautanki or folk theatre. Dust mingling with aromatic whiffs from stalls, happy faces and easy camaraderie, drowned in loud and raucous music, all convey a deep rooted sense of festivity not easy to match.

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