India - Interviews
Zahira Marylone Crasta
Watershed - What does Holi mean to the Indians? And how is it celebrated?
Zahira Crasta - The greening of the trees, the blossoming of flowers in the garden and the call of the cuckoo along with the chirping of other birds, announces the advent of spring and the Holi Festival in India, with the splurging of colors and an aura of romance in the air. Rituals and celebrations of the Holi Festival are an important component of participation in the social and cosmic order. It is spring celebration—the first day of the spring that wakes up the people from their long winter slumber. Holi is a day when all classes of people are free to draw all parts of society, even the passers by into a celebration just like the carnival in Latin American countries. All are free to throw colors - powder and water - on each other and this they believe breaks down barriers. It is a day of gay abandon when young and old, rich and poor join in a jamboree of myriad colors. Even the currency notes in the pockets of the revelers get colored and people do not hesitate to accept them for transactions. Sometimes it reminds you of the tomatada festival in Spain. In India the Festival of Holi is pre-planned and each locality and certain groups of people like the Bollywood actors enjoy among themselves. In many localities colored water is thrown from terrace tops on unsuspecting passers by, and some use water balloons and water guns to direct water on one another through snorkels. Besides the spring, people of India celebrate Holi in honour of Lord Ram who helps a boy called Prahalad who refused to accept his father as an omnipotent King. The King tried to kill his 9-year old son Prahalad in many ways as his son refused to accept his omnipotence, but God saved him and instead killed his father. So Holi also celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Indians in Europe and United States and all over the world celebrate Holi. Here in India, people belonging to all castes and creeds celebrate it. In fact, it is a day to demolish barriers and be friends.
WS - What is the significance of Diwali in the life of an average Indian?
ZC - A Festival of Lights, merriment alive with the burning of fireworks all over the country from mega cities to remote villages in India and even the foreign tourists know it is the 5-day festival Deepavali that is in progress. The Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and even Buddhists and for that matter everyone immaterial of caste and creed celebrate Diwali. This festival and season brings a lot of joy and nostalgia to most people in India. Diwali is celebrated soon after the Dassera at the fag end of the southwest monsoon. Mostly it is celebrated end October or beginning of November. People visit their native places to be with their parents or grandparents and there is a great demand for any transport and so the holidayers book tickets by Air Sea and road 3 months in advance. There is a great premium on the tickets to travel any part of India and so even foreigners must know of this situation. The inherent meaning of Diwali is different for different people. The Hindus celebrate the homecoming of Lord Rama after 14 years from his exile in Ayodhya. For Jains it is the attainment of nirvana (absorption into the supreme spirit) by Lord Mahavira. For Sikhs, Diwali marks the return of their 6th Guru, Har Gobind from the imprisonment by Emperor Jehangir. The highlights of Diwali in India is the intricate decoration and lighting of houses and public buildings, fireworks all over the country for 5 days, decoration of houses and lighting of diyas, making and distributing sweets, buying new clothes, exchanging presents and making merry by visiting hotels and restaurants. It is the time the children look forward to enjoy fireworks, sweets and most of all the holidays. Even the Christians, Parsis, Muslims participate in Diwali Festival as it is the holiday season and most buildings housing people in cities and towns are cosmopolitan. Diwali is celebrated all over the world wherever Indians live. As such the NRIs have a better Diwali as their standard of living is higher and the groups are restricted. Here too in India, Bollywood actors have their Diwali function, other corporate offices have functions for their employees families. But all said and done Diwali brings a lot of cheer for Indians and it is the most widely celebrated Festival in India.
WS – Has Christmas the same international flavour emphasising the secular factor?
ZC - India is a blessed country as the birth of baby Jesus is celebrated with great pomp, happiness and reverence. For non-Catholics, Xmas has a special place in their hearts. And so, just like Diwali, Christmas is enjoyed by all and celebrated with great joy. The decorations of Diwali and lighting is kept even during Christmas and once it is Xmas night, Christmas stars in and outside catholic homes add to the revelry. Christmas time is the most pleasant time in India as the cold season sets in, and the tourists make a beeline for the subcontinent. Christmas in India has the same international flavour as all are free to worship and celebrate the birth of Christ. The secular factor enshrined in our constitution is vindicated and more non Catholics than catholics come to worship and praise Jesus. Whether it is mere spirit of the season or curiosity or both all castes and creeds enjoy Christmas totally. It is a national holiday and people enjoy at restaurants and clubs with gay abandon. There is only one regulation of the government that all music should stop by 10 p.m. especially in public places. But house parties can go on till the wee hours of the morning. Christmas is celebrated in India on western lines. All houses are spruced up, and people decorate the houses well 30 days in advance. Though we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, yet all other customs associated with Nativity are observed in India. The Christmas tree is erected in all Christian houses and in churches and schools. The Christmas carols are sung in different places by local groups of boys and girls. Christmas cards are exchanged and all households prepare mouthwatering sweets and dishes. Christmas cribs are erected in many places and the churches have special functions for the old and the infirm - giving them a Xmas Party and local volunteers make their cars available to transport the homebound. The midnight mass, the expectancy of the birth of Christ, the brisk sales at the local shops of all Xmas décor, preparations for the post midnight mass celebration especially among the young, the reunions of families where children come from far and near to be with their loved ones at Xmas, the joy on the faces of the very young whom the Christmas father has left a gift under the Xmas tree, all add up to the holy spirit of Christmas. Finally what is the essence of Xmas? By now all know how Jesus was born in a manger to inculcate the virtue of humility in Mankind. So in India all are aware that we have to make charity during Xmas time and cut down on entertainment and excesses and donate this money to the poor of the locality. After all it is nice to see a smile on the face of the less fortunate who could not celebrate Christmas due to his or her circumstances. Indeed to help the needy is the spirit of Christmas.
WS – Elaborate on the Festival of Rakhi.
ZC - It is unheard of in other parts of the world but it is celebrated in India - the love of siblings. The Rakhi Festival is observed on the full moon day of the Hindu month of shravan (month of August). This festival is celebrated in different ways in different parts of India, but the underlying meaning is that the sister ties a sacred thread round the wrist of her brother wishing him long and prosperous life. The brother in turn vows to protect her so long as he lives. Rakhi is the festival that celebrates the conviction of the strong that they must protect the weak. It is a unique gift of the Indian culture. If a sister has no brother she makes any male in the family or even a family friend her Rakhi brother. The Rakhis are made of various designs, shapes and colors. But even a thread will do. It is the thought that counts. Sisters who have their brothers abroad send Rakhi wishes online and even present rachis physically through friends or agents abroad. Rakhi is widely celebrated in all parts of India and abroad and sometimes one brother who has maybe 6 sisters has his wrist full of the colorful Rakhis. Besides sisters other women who are friends can also tie. It is a gesture of the man promising to help the woman sibling or otherwise that he will always protect her. What a feeling for the woman and what a festival. Women look forward to this festival in order to be reassured of their brother’s protection and love.
WS – What is the meaning of Dahi-Handi and what it signifies to the people of India?
ZC - Janmasthami is the festival that celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna, the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. On the next day of this festival people in India celebrate a spiritual and sporting event called the Dahi-Handi. And every ritual in the celebration is associated with various phases in Krishna’s life. Legend has it that as a child Lord Krishna was very fond of curd and butter. He and his friends would steal butter from the milkmaids. In order to hide their butter the women used to hide their dahi and butter in pots hanging from the ceiling of their houses. So the celebration of Dahi-Handi is a challenge posed by the women to the men of the locality to dare steal their dairy products. So the Dahi-Handi Festival consists of the pot with dahi and butter being ties at great heights and the men form a pyramid and climb to break it and steal the milk products. Nowadays there is innovation and the rich and the mighty put lakhs of rupees in the dahi pot to attract the best of talent in physical fitness to break the dahi handi. And since it is a challenge from the women the latter try to dissuade the men from breaking it by throwing buckets of water on them as they climb the human pyramid to break the pot. The whole spectacle is very interesting and as the festival takes place during the month of August there is a lot of rain that makes the conditions slippery for the men to achieve the physical feat. There are a lot of cases where this festival has ended in tragedy because the more money the handi carries the higher it is tied even the height of a 3storey building. Actually constant climbing has made professionals in this field and bands of boys roam the streets breaking the handis at various spots. This celebration is treating to the tourists but there is a great risk to the participants. This festival is celebrated in most parts of India.
WS – Elaborate on the Ganpati Festival.
ZC - India is a land of festivals and fairs. There are some festivals celebrated in most parts of India and Ganpati Festival is one such important festival as Ganpati has the ability to remove obstacles and usher in good fortune according to the devotees who worship him. Ganesh Chaturthi is the most important of all Mumbai and Pune's festivals, and is celebrated with great aplomb amongst Marathi communities worldwide. Artisans work for over a month before the Festival of Ganpati that falls in early September, when Ganesha is installed in homes and at public podiums sometimes accompanied with brass bands. Though a lot of noise and dust is generated during these processions of the revered Ganpati idol it is a great tourist attraction as the enthusiastic crowds make merry and give their best to their God. Ganpati Festival started in the 12th century and that time it was a 2-day affair. But modern history of the Ganpati Festival dates back to 1894 when the great Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak gave political overtones firing the aspirations of the Indian people who wanted independence from the British overlordship. From the private family festival Tilak made it a community affair where all subscribed to get bigger idols and install them on mandaps --platforms-- accompanied by frenzied songs and dances. On the occasion of the Ganapati Festival, normally people buy ganpati idols of the size that suits their pocket to keep in their houses as a divine guest for one and a half, five, seven, or ten days, or 21 days in exceptional cases; after which the image is taken out ceremoniously and disposed of into the river, sea or well for immersion or "Visarjan". Ganesha is the god of wisdom and prosperity and is invoked before the beginning of any auspicious work by the Hindus. It is believed that for the fulfillment of one's desires, his blessing is absolutely necessary. The Puja can be a simple one performed by the head of the family and witnessed by family members, close friends within the household or an elaborate one, involving a priest who would come home and perform the Puja. The people gather around chanting Sanskrit shlokas when the idol is installed. Aarti (prayers and hymns in worship of Lord Ganesh) is done several times everyday day after that. After the Aarti, flowers, Haldi and Kumkum are offered to the women, and Prasad is distributed to all those present. 'Modak' is the most famous and most typical food preparation of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. The immersion of Lord Ganpati symbolises the Hindu belief that the universe is constantly changing and form has to give way to formlessness. The whole festival embodies the religious fervour in an average Indian's life and the high reverence they give to the Almighty. Most corporate offices are shut on this day and people usually go to their native place for the festivities.
WS – What is Nav-Ratri and its significance to the people of India?
ZC - Festivals in India epitomise the religious, cultural and social aspirations of the people. These festivals are a soul-purifying experience to the believer. Every Indian festival has a reason and significance behind its celebration. Similarly with the Festival of Navaratri there is a significance and meaning attached to it. The festival celebrates the worship of Three Goddess, Durga (the god of power and strength), Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and Saraswati (the Goddess of knowledge and learning). The festival leads to spiritual growth of a person. It gives the person inner strength to fight against all odds of life and the courage to fight for the weaker section of the society and against all evils of the society. So the first three days is dedicated to the worship of Goddess Shakti. The next most important requirement in life is wealth and prosperity and for that the next three days of the festival is dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi. Knowledge and learning is another important aspect of life. And for that the last three days of the festival is dedicated to Goddess Saraswati. She is worshipped so that she blesses us with power of knowledge and helps us to attain spiritual enlightenment. The Navratri Festival of nine nights begins on the 1st day of the bright fortnight of the Hindu lunar month of Ashwin. A pot is installed in a sanctified place at home and a lamp is lit in the pot throughout the 9 days. The pot symbolises the universe and the lamp represents the medium though which the Indians worship goddess Durgadevi. Navratri celebrations coincide with the end of the rainy season and it is the auspicious time for an average Indian to start new ventures. People wait to buy new homes on this auspicious occasion. The Festival of Navratri is celebrated with gay abandon. Even other communities like Christians, Muslims, and Parsis participate in the revelry. Young and old participate and the girls specially take the opportunity to have a good time as otherwise they are not allowed to remain late at nights especially in conservative households. Bollywood and Corporates participate in this merrymaking in a big way. India is a secular country and so there are no religious boundaries drawn where the celebrations are concerned. The men dance the dandiya ras and the women the garba but as the revelry increases the groups intermingle to the rhythm of even samba and salsa. The dress used by women is normally chania choli (skirts and blouses with mirror work) and the men wear dhoti kurta (long shirts and flowing garments below the waist. The modern western culture influence is seen in the dances and is overlooked in the name of the merriment of the Navratri festivities. People look forward for this festival as it cements new friendships as castes and creeds rub shoulders in a frenzied cauldron of merriment for nine long nights.
WS – What is the mythology behind the Festival of Dassera and how is it celebrated?
ZC - Dussehra or Vijaya Dashami is an important Hindu festival. This day marks the triumph of Lord Rama over Demon king Ravana. On this day, Rama killed Ravana and freed his wife Sita after leading an army of monkeys. Sita was taken by Ravana from Ramas Ashram to avenge the insult of his sister Shoorpanakha who had proposed to marry Lakshman but got her nose cut off by Lakshman when she tried to hurt Sita. As per Ramayan, Ram did Worship and invoked the blessings of Durga & Shiva to kill Ravana. The war against Ravan lasted for ten days. Sita had been returned to her husband Ram and they now make their way to Ayodhya in triumph and glory. Local customs inevitably colour the forms and interpretation that the festival receives regionally. In northern India, the festival wears the colourful garb of Ramlila wherein various incidents from Rama's life are enacted, but Rama's victory is always the centrepiece of the celebrations. On this day, the effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakaran and Meghanad are burnt; which are stuffed with crackers. In burning these effigies the people are asked to burn the evil within them, and thus follow the path of virtue and goodness. In Southern India - Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, families arrange dolls (Bommai Kolu) on artificially constructed steps and prepare an elaborate spread of lamps and flowers. In Western India, especially in Gujarat, the evenings and nights are occasions for the fascinating Garba dance. The women dance around an earthen lamp while singing devotional songs accompanied by rhythmic clapping of hands. In Bengal, the festival is celebrated as Kali Puja or Durga Puja. Beautiful idols of the Mother Goddess are worshipped in elaborate pandals for nine days, and on the ninth day, these are carried out in procession for immersion (visarjan) in a river or pond. Dassera or Dussehra is an auspicious day to start new ventures. All tools and machines in factories are cleaned and the offices wear a new look. Household articles and children books are placed before the goddess Durga. A puja thali containing rice, sweets, coconut, flowers and fruits is also placed before the idol. This festival also celebrates the fertility of married women in the household. Many corporates distribute gifts and sweet boxes of 'pedas' and 'burfi' to the employees and their families. It is normally a public holiday in India.
WS – Are the celebrations of these festivals intense areawise or are they an all-India affair?
ZC - The Festival of Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and many other parts of India. Started by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaja, the great Maratha ruler, to promote culture and nationalism, the festival was revived by Lokmanya Tilak (a freedom fighter) to spread the message of freedom struggle and to defy the British who had banned public assemblies. The festival gave the Indians a feeling of unity and revived their patriotic spirit and faith. This public festival formed the background for political leaders who delivered speeches to inspire people against the Western rule. In most of the northern India (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, Haryana etc…) and some parts of Maharashtra, Dasara is celebrated more in honor of Rama. During these 10 days many plays and dramas based on the epic of Ramayana are performed. These are called Ramlila. In Bengal, Dasara is celebrated as Durga Puja. Idols of the goddess Durga are worshipped for nine days, and on the tenth day immersed in a river or pond. In Bengal, Assam & Orissa, Durga is also worshipped as Kali Mata as a symbol of Shakti (Power). In Mysore - Karanataka, decorated elephants lead a colorful procession through the streets of the city. In some regions all the three principal goddesses - Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati are worshipped during this festival, each for 3 days of the Navaratri. In Gujarat, Rajasthan and most of Maharashtra during the Navaratri days the ladies & gents play a typical dance called Raas Garba every night. To summarise most of these festivals including Diwali, Holi and Raksha Bandan are an all India affair especially in Cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore - however the intensity of the festivals differs from area to area.
WS – How do Indian NRIs celebrate these festivals? Are they celebrating to keep up the tradition or is there any real religious fervour in the festivity?
ZC - I guess this question cannot have a simple answer like Yes or No. NRI's across the world may differ in their sensibilities. Some really hold on to their Indian roots and strive hard to keep up the tradition with religious fervor and really put effort into passing on the legacy to their children while for others it is fashionable to be called Indian and do stuff that is Indian. Which means that one is not really going about the festivities in the true spirit of the festival. However, Diwali has become a global festival today - thanks to non-resident Indians (NRIs). Wherever Hindu NRIs live in sizeable numbers, be it Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, the Middle East, South Africa, Europe, North America and the Caribbean, Diwali has the same colour, feasting, gifting and sparkle as in India, dominated by the worship of the goddess of wealth, or Lakshmi Puja. Everywhere it has some common festivity - a Diwali 'mela' or fair for shopping and relishing Indian delicacies, or a formal dinner party with top entertainment and prizes, a community gathering with firecrackers and a mass Lakshmi Puja followed by community dinner. Thousands of NRIs log on to religious websites in the run up to Diwali, thanks to a number of portals offering services like online praying and blessings. Now NRIs can perform Lakshmi Puja on the net for a fee of course. The priest performs this ritual after which one gets a CD of this ceremony with pressed flowers and 'prasad' or blessed food by mail.
Interview by Lynus Paul Misquitta