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Hinduism almost certainly has a longer list of festivals than any other religion. Everyday of the year, someone somewhere is celebrating a Hindu festival. For this reason, we cannot list them all here, but will concentrate on a few major ones.
Pongal (January 14th or one day on either side)
In the Tamil language Pongal means “it has boiled”, referring to the sweet rice offered at this time to Surya, the sun god, to celebrate the end of the main harvest period. It is also called Lohri (in Punjab), and Makara Sankranti, the time when the sun enters Capricorn and begins on its auspicious Northern path. The festival period is celebrated with the burning of old clothes and the wearing of new ones, the washing and decoration of cows and travelling to visit friends and relatives. It is associated with the principles of rebirth and respect for all living beings.
Shiva Ratri (February – March)
This festival celebrates the appearance of Lord Shiva, famous for his dance of destruction at the end of each creation. On this day his devotees, fast and, often carrying offerings of sacred water visit his temples and shrines. There they observe the worship of the linga, which represents their worshipable Lord.
Holi (March – April)
Holi is a festival of fun when all Hindus, young and old, throw water and coloured dyes over each other in sportive mood. There is often a bonfire. One story told at Holi is about a prince, Prahlad, who refused to obey his atheistic father, Hiranyakashipu. In this story, Hiranyakashipu’s wicked sister, Holika, tried to kill Prahlad by carrying the child into a blazing fire. She had a boon that protected her from fire. Nonetheless, in this instance, the saintly Prahlada was protected by Lord Vishnu, whilst his evil aunt burned to ashes.
Gaura Purnima (March – April)
Gaura Purnima is the birthday of Lord Chaitanya (1486-1534) who widely popularised the congregational chanting of the names of God. He specifically recommended the chanting of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. His followers consider Him to be Krishna, or God Himself. Like many other leaders of the bhakti revival , He was ardently opposed to the hereditary caste system.
On this day everyone fasts, visits the temple to see the deities (images) of the Lord, hears about Lord Chaitanya’s activities and chants Hare Krishna accompanied by drums (mridangas) and hand cymbals (kartalas). At moonrise a vegetarian feast is served.
Rama Navami (April)
This is the birthday of Lord Ramachandra (Rama), considered an incarnation of Vishnu or Krishna. He is green in colour and the hero of the epic Ramayana. He appears with His consort, Sita, His brother, Lakshman, and His faithful servant, the monkey warrior, Hanuman. He killed the ten-headed demon called Ravana. On this day Hindus hear stories from the Ramayana and make cradles in which they place the beautiful form of baby Rama. At noon, when Rama appeared, everyone celebrates with chanting and feasting.
Hanuman Jayanti (April – May)
Many villages in India have temples and shrines dedicated to Hanuman, the hero of the Ramayana. He is well-known for his ability to leap great distances (once carrying a whole mountain) and for finding Sita on Lanka after her kidnap by Ravana.
This festival marks his birthday and is celebrated just before sunrise, often with the recitation of a popular prayer called Hanuman Chalisa.
Narasingha Chaturdashi (May)
This festival celebrates the appearance of the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu or Krishna. He is one of the ten incarnations, and rescued the devoted Prahlad by killing the wicked king, Hiranyakashipu. Devotees on this day listen to narrations of the story (also connected with the festival of Holi) and fast until dusk.
Ratha Yatra (June – July)
The original festival, said to be thousands of years old, still takes place each summer at the seaside town of Puri. The deity of Lord Jagannatha (the Lord of the Universe) is carried on a huge chariot whilst His brother, Balarama, and sister, Subhadra, ride on similar chariots. Each “ratha” (cart) stands over fifty feet high and rides on twelve wheels, six-foot in diameter. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus take turns in pulling the chariots by rope whilst they chant the names of God. Since 1969, this festival has been celebrated annually in London.
Raksha Bandhan (August)
The festival, falling in the full moon day of Shravan, is celebrated mainly at home. Girls and women tie colourful bracelets on the right wrists of brothers. The men in return give gifts or money and promise to protect their sisters throughout their lives. The bracelets, called rakhis, symbolise the renewal of the ties of affection and are made from colourful thread and tinsel.
Janmashtami (August – September)
This festival celebrates the birthday of Lord Krishna, whom many Hindus consider to be the Supreme, or God Himself. He is said to have appeared about fifty centuries ago in a town now called Mathura, some ninety miles south of Delhi.
At home, or in the temple, a small deity form of Krishna is placed in a cradle which is gently rocked. The main deities, usually of Krishna and His consort Radha, are given new clothes and decorated gorgeously with jewellery and flower garlands. Everyone fasts until midnight, singing devotional songs and hearing stories about Krishna. At midnight there is a beautiful arti ceremony followed by a feast.
Ganesh Chaturthi (August – September)
Ganesha, or Ganapati, is the son of Lord Shiva and is distinguished by his elephant’s head with a broken tusk, four arms and a tubby profile. His carrier is the bandicoot (mole-rat) and he is considered the remover of obstacles. For this reason he’s worshipped at the start of any religious ritual or important undertaking.
This festival, popular in Western India, observes his birthday and is celebrated at home as well as in the neighbourhood. A clay image is installed in a temporary pavilion for the ten day festival period, during which arti is performed and prashada distributed. After the final arti the deity is immersed in the river or the sea.
The “Festival of Nine Nights” begins on the first day of Ashwin and revolves around the worship of Parvati, the consort of Shiva. It is one of the few festivals to be celebrated all over India. In the household a brass image of Parvati is installed, puja is performed twice daily and a ghee lamp burns continuously for the entire nine days. A single strand garland is offered daily and special food offered at midday.
Each night of the festival, Hindu families get together to enjoy rasa-garbha, folk dances in which short sticks are knocked together in time to devotional songs and usually performed round a six-faced moveable shrine, dedicated to the goddess.
Durga Puja (October)
Navaratri is known as Durga Puja in West Bengal. The most popular story associated with this festival is that of Durga killing the buffalo demon called Mahisha. Devotees make large clay images of the goddess, with eight arms and riding on a tiger. The main festivities fall on the eight day and at the end of the festival the deity is ceremoniously immersed in the river.
At Dassehra Hindu people remember how Lord Rama killed in battle the evil king, Ravana. They construct huge effigies of the ten-headed demon and celebrate as he is burnt.
Diwali (October – November)
For many Hindus this is the new year, and festivities last for two to five days. There are many stories in connection with the “Festival of Lights”. One such story narrates how Lord Rama, after killing Ravana, returned triumphantly to His own kingdom, Ayodhya. It was the new moon night, and was pitch black. All the people, therefore, lit the way for the returning troops by hanging lamps along the route. On this day, Hindus remember how light will always triumph over darkness, how good will always conquer evil, and how by faithfully following God’s instruction, they will always remain victorious.
Govardhana Puja / Go Puja / Annakuta (October – November)
These festivals are all connected with the story of Lord Krishna lifting Govardhana Hill to protect the inhabitants of Vrindavan from the torrential rain sent by Indra. On this day Hindus narrate the story and build with sweets a replica of the hill, which they then circumambulate. They also worship the cow, considered dear to Lord Krishna, and distribute large quantity of sanctified food (prashada), made from grains (anna).
An annual calendar which includes all the above-mentioned festivals is available upon request from ISKCON Educational Services. Please get in touch for more details.