Life events - Celebrations

Celebrations in South Asia are as numerous and diverse as its teeming peoples and cultures. They fall into certain broad categories: celebrations of the cycles of nature and the seasons; harvest festivals and monsoon festivals; celebrations of phases of the life-cycle or samskara; celebrations of deities and saints or religious festivals; celebrations of the new year which differ from region to region; celebrations rooted in traditional belief systems; and celebrations of political or secular events which are designed to promote a sense of national identity and unity.

Festivals

Watercolour of a Hindu priest garlanding flags of the 35th Bengal Light Infantry.
Hindu priest garlanding the flags of the 35th Bengal Light Infantry at a festival.

Buddha Purnima (April-May) commemorates the birth of the Buddha and is of great significance to Buddhists with special prayers in the places connected with the events of his life. Mahavir Jayanti (March-April) marks the birth of Mahavira and is the most important festival in Jainism. For the Sikhs, Gurupurabs are anniversaries of events connected with their great teachers or Gurus. Besides this they share with other Punjabis the festival of Baisakhi or New Year (April). For the Parsis, New Year or Nauroz (March)is a major celebration, while they also commemorate the birth and death of Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) with Khordad Sal in August-September and Zarthost no Deeso in June respectively. The Parsis believe in six seasons covering the year with a festival in each. These ceremonials are called Ghambar.

Regional festivals

From the cold northern reaches of the subcontinent to its warm coastal south, from the dry deserts of the west to the wet and lush deltas and hills of the east, there are various regional festivals. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Ladakh there are monastery-based festivals, which commemorate the founding of the monasteries and celebrate their patron saints. Among these are the sacred dance-dramas called Chams and Losar or the Ladakhi New Year. In these regions, much chang or beer brewed from barley or rice is consumed during festivals. Buddhist Sikkim is famed for its masked dances during Tsechu, and Phang Labsol, a festival that offers thanks for the sacred peak Kanchendzonga.

Hindu festivals

Some major Hindu festivals of the subcontinent are Diwali or Festival of Lamps (October-November), the monsoon festival called Teej, and the spring festival of colours in March called Holi. Major harvest festivals include Pongal and Onam in the South, Nagpanchami in August to propitiate the serpent deity, and the desert festivals of Jaisalmer are some other celebrations. Hinduism is a broad umbrella of beliefs and traditions and many festivals are more prominent in some regions than others.

Other celebrations include a number of melas or fairs particular to each region, as well as the urs, or commemorations of Sufi saints at their dargahs, or mausoleums which are pilgrimage sites, such as that of Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer in Rajasthan.

The Goa Carnival is celebrated with gusto in February-March in this former Portuguese colony. Christmas is a major event here and the feast of Sanjuan (St. John) is widely celebrated in June. Temple festivals are very important in the southern states, particularly well known are those in Tamil Nadu and Orissa, when images of the gods are drawn in procession in wooden temple chariots.

An important celebration in the life of a young upper-caste Hindu male is the upanayana or thread ceremony. This is an initiation rite, marking the passage from boy to young adult, with awareness and religious responsibilities. It takes place usually at the age of twelve, and the priest endows the boy with a sacred thread of cotton, to be worn evermore over his left shoulder; he is instructed in sacred mantras or chants. The initiation ceremony is considered a new birth, and the initiates are described as dvija or twice-born. At puberty, young boys in the Theravada Buddhist tradition also undergo initiation rites when they are ordained as monks for a period. This event is an occasion for both solemnity and celebration.

Tribal festivals

There are hundreds of tribes and indigenous peoples who have their own ancient celebrations mostly based on worship of forest gods, and sowing and harvesting periods. Folk-dances are an invariable accompaniment to the rituals, and liquors distilled from fruits and cereals are also consumed. Men and women play an equal part in tribal customs. Masks made of pumpkins, gourds or wood often form a part of tribal ceremonies, particularly among the tribes of central India.

Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, a major celebration is the harvest festival Nabonno (or Navanna) in the month of plenty (November-December). Besides the Muslim celebrations of Eid-ul Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha, Pahela Boisakh or the Bengali New Year is celebrated in mid-April. The tribal peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tract region have their own customs and celebrations. Durga Puja is also important to the Hindus of Bangladesh.

Pakistan

The mountain valleys of Pakistan such as the Chitral region have their own festivals; an example is Phool, during the harvest of grapes and walnuts. Besides Eid-ul Fitr and Eid-ul Azha, Pakistan celebrates Basant (spring) and Mela Chiragan (Festival of Lights).