The festival of lights – Diwali or Deepavali – is the most popular festival on the Indian subcontinent. The underlying essence of Diwali revolves around light superseding darkness, or the triumph of goodness over evil. Glimmering diyas (lamps) adorn every nook and cranny of every residence in the evening, and there are also fireworks and a delicious traditional banquet.
Holi is a festival of colour and a harbinger of spring in India. The onset of Holi is marked by the burning of an effigy of Holika – an evil entity from Hindu mythology – to signify the triumph of good over evil. The night of revelry around the bonfire goes on until the embers die. The following morning kicks off with people smearing coloured powder on each other, more carousal and occasionally the consumption of bhang, an intoxicating edible cannabis preparation.
Onam is the official state festival of Kerala, and is celebrated with the utmost fervour and festivities that include traditional sports like boat races and tug of war. The legend behind the celebration of Onam concerns the homecoming of a demigod called Mahabali, and is similar to the legend of Holika and the Holi festival. In both cases, the triumph of hope over despair is celebrated, although Mahabali is regarded with the utmost respect and Holika is not. Onam is growing beyond religious frontiers and establishing itself as a religiously diverse festival in Kerala.
Shiva is the foremost deity in the Hindu pantheon and regarded as the destroyer. Maha Shivaratri, or ‘the great night of Shiva’, commemorates the supremacy of Shiva. People refrain from sleeping and instead pray to the great lord. Most dedicated disciples of Lord Shiva celebrate Maha Shivaratri by fasting and chanting the hymns to Tandava, a dance performed by Lord Shiva.
Lord Krishna has a prominent place in Hindu folklore. Krishna Janmashtami is the joyous festival celebrating the birth of Krishna, with a lot of merriment, dancing and singing. The gaiety of Krishna Janmashtami is often accompanied by competitions, notably breaking a pot filled with yoghurt that is suspended high in the air. Competitors form human pyramids in an attempt to break the pot and spill the contents, which is then formally offered as prasada (ritual offering).
Ganesh Chaturthi’s status as one of the most popular festivals in the country is partly due to its eccentricity, something the festival shares with its corresponding deity, Lord Ganesh. Ganesh is the son of Lord Shiva, the destroyer. Yet Ganesh is at odds with his father in his convictions and appearance. His face resembles that of an elephant, while his witty and playful temperament inspires devotion from people of all age groups. Ganesh Chaturthi commemorates the birth of Ganesh with the formal offering of prayers to a clay idol of the deity. The idol is later immersed in a body of water amid further festivities.