Hindus celebrate a wide variety of events such as the New Year, full moons, harvests, marriages and the birth and marriage of gods. This is because traditional Hindus consider anything, animate or inanimate, to be sacred. Most Hindu festivals are linked with the movements of the sun, moon and seasonal changes. The myths of the Ramayana, and Krishna's activities are also incorporated into the celebrations.
The most well-known Hindu festival, Diwali is the Festival of lights and it is celebrated over 5 days in the Hindu month of Ashwin (to read more about the Hindu lunisolar calendar click here). The first day of Diwali is the Hindu New Year and Diwali marks the start of the financial year for most businesses in India. The festival of lights is held in honour of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity and Hindus pray to her to bring them good luck in the coming year.
Diwali celebrates the return of Rama and Sita, in the story from the Ramayana. Prince Rama and his wife, Sita, are banished from their home in Ayodhya by their father the King. Rama's brother, Lakshman, goes with them to live in a forest and they are banished for fourteen years.
After many happy years in the wilderness, Sita is kidnapped by the ten-headed demon Ravana, who takes her to his island of Lanka. With the help of the devoted monkey warrior, Hanuman, Rama rescues his wife.
The people of Ayodhya light diyas (oil lamps) in rows to guide Rama and Sita back from the forest to Ayodhya and on their return, Rama is crowned king.
The word Deepavali means "rows of lighted lamps" in Sanskrit and the festival commemorates the part of the story that describes diyas being placed outside people's homes to light the way for Rama and Sita's triumphant homecoming. During the festival Hindus place them around the home, in courtyards and in gardens, as well as on roof-tops, outer walls and by the front door.
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Maha Shivaratri (February/March)
Maha Shivaratri means "Great Night of Shiva" and is a celebration of this important aspect of God. Every night of the new moon throughout the year is dedicated to Shiva, but this night is especially important as it is the night on which Shiva is said to have performed the cosmic dance from creation to destruction.
According to the Puranas, during the great mythical churning of the ocean called Samudra Manthan, a pot of poison emerged either from the ocean or from Vasuki (depending on who tells the story!). The gods and the asuras (demons) were all terrified as this could pollute and destroy all creation. When they ran to Shiva for help, he drank the deadly poison to protect the world, but held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. This turned his throat blue, and ever since then he has been known as 'Neelkantha', the blue-throated one. Shivaratri celebrates this event.
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Every year, thousands of Hindus participate in the festival of Holi. The festival has many purposes. First and foremost it celebrates the beginning of the new season, spring. Originally, it was a festival that commemorated good harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring's abundant colors and saying farewell to winter. It also has a religious purpose, commemorating events present in Hinduism. During this event, participants hold a bonfire, throw colored powder at each other, and celebrate wildly.
In most areas, Holi lasts about two days. Holi lowers (but does not remove completely) the strictness of social norms, which includes gaps between age, gender, status, and caste. Everyone comes together in public and no one expects polite behavior; as a result, the atmosphere is filled with excitement, fun and joy (and not a little coloured powder!).
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Vasanta Navaratri (March/April)
Navaratri literally means "9 nights" and the Vasanta Navaratri is the "9 holy nights of spring". Very well observed in northern India, this is a festival in honour of the many forms of divine mother or Devi. This festival consists of nine nights dedicated in sets of 3 each to the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati and celebrates Durga's victories against a series of powerful demons. Devotees will fast during daylight and chant the Durga mantra at least 108 times per day. This festival overlaps with Rama Navami, the birthday of Sri Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu) and you will often hear mantras for Rama being said during this period.
Ratha Yatra (June/July)
Ratha Yatra means "Journey of the chariot" and on this festival statues of Hundu deities are taken from temple and transported around town on hand-made, heavily decorated chariots to allow people to see them. This festival is associated with the god Jagganath, and the image of his statue on a huge chariot gave rise to the english term "Juggernaut" to describe an unstoppable force.
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Raksha Bandhan/Rakhi (July/August)
The festival is marked by the tying of a rakhi, or holy thread by the sister on the wrist of her brother. Indian kinship rules also allow for cousins and close male family-friends to be counted as "brothers" for this festival. The brother in return offers a gift to his sister and vows to look after her throughout her life. The brother usually presents his sister with an envelope filled with money, though other presents such as saris and clothing are quite common. They then traditionally feed one another Indian sweets such as gulab jamun or barfi.
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Krishna Janmashtami (August/September)
Hindus celebrate Janmashtami by fasting and staying up until midnight, the time when Krishna is believed to have been born. Images of Krishna's infancy are placed in swings and cradles in temples, workplaces and homes. At midnight devotees gather at temple for devotional songs, to dance and to exchange gifts. Some temples also conduct reading of the Hindu religious scripture Bhagavad Gita. Rasa lila, dramatic enactments of the life of Krishna, are a special feature in certain places and re-create the flirtatious aspects of Krishna's youthful days. Dahi Handi celebrate god's playful and mischievous side with teams of young men forming human towers to reach a high-hanging pot of buttermilk and break it open.
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Sharad Navaratri (September/October)
All Hindus celebrate this festival at the same time in different ways in different parts of India as well as around the world. In the northern part of the country, the first nine days of this festival is commonly observed as a time for rigorous fast, followed by celebrations on the tenth day. In western India, throughout the nine days, both men and women participate in a special kind of dance around an object of worship. In the east, people go crazy over Durga Puja, from the seventh till the tenth day of this annual festival.
This important festival immediately follows the Sharad Navaratri and the name Dussehra comes from the Sanskrit meaning "removal of 10" which refers to the 10 demons defeated by Durga. The festival also celebrates the victory of Rama over Ravana, the demon king of Lanka and this is more pronounced in northern India where they perform Ramlila to commemorate Rama. Dussehra marks the end of the Durga Puja so many people immerse their statues in water and visit each other to exchange sweets.
To read more about the fundamental concepts of Hinduism please click here.