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India loves to celebrate. You could probably find a festival of some sort going on somewhere in India every day of the year. Festivals are the celebration of togetherness in India, often joining people of different traditions and religions in the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.
There are many auspicious days in India, most of which are celebrated with great zest and full-blown sensory experiences. Some last for a day, others go on for weeks. Let’s look at a few of the main ones, and the ways in which you can enjoy them, even if you don’t have plans to travel to India.
Rakhi is a festival, meaning "a knot of protection.” On this day, a sister demonstrates her love and affection for her brother by tying a thread on his right wrist and praying for his prosperous future. In return, the brother blesses her with good wishes and pledges to protect and guide her for the rest of his life. Nowadays, this has extended beyond family members, and Rakhi threads and gifts are exchanged as a sign of friendship.
According to the Hindu mythology, it is believed that on this day the deity Yamuna used to tie a sacred thread on her brother Yama's (God of death) wrist. Yama was so touched by the custom that he declared that whoever got a Rakhi tied from his sister would become immortal.
How to Celebrate: On this day, tie a colored string around the wrist of those with whom you share brotherly or sisterly love.
When to Celebrate: August 18, 2016 and August 7, 2017
Navaratri, or the Nine Days of Mother Divine, is a celebration of good over evil, which parallels our own threefold spiritual journey of preparing the way, setting our intention, and living Truth.
The festival honors a mythological battle between Mother Divine and the forces of ignorance, which raged for nine days until the Light illuminated the darkness. The nine days are divided into three sets of three days each, during which you may choose to enliven different archetypal energies within you.
During the first three days, focus your intention on removing impurities and actions that no longer serve you. Honor the Goddess Gurga by putting your personal life in order, cleaning your home, paying the bills, etc.
Now that you have cleared the path, for the second set of three days, focus your intention on abundance in your life. This can be material, physical, emotional, or spiritual. Also express gratitude for all the blessings you are constantly receiving. During these days, you honor the Goddess Lakshmi.
During the final three days, your attention should be on cultivating Wisdom, Truth, and Purity in your life through inner reflection, sacred readings, and study. These actions honor the Goddess Saraswati.
How to Celebrate: The final tenth day is Victory Day, a time for celebration and welcoming new beginnings.
When to Celebrate: October 1-9/10, 2016 and September 21-29/30, 2017
Diwali is one of the most beautiful and joyous times in the Indian calendar, filled with love and rejoicing. It is a festival of new beginnings, light, abundance, and fulfillment—a celebration of wisdom over ignorance, enjoyed by everyone.
Diwali marks a time for clearing out the old to make room for the new, a time for assessing your strengths and weaknesses. Homes and offices are thoroughly cleaned but it is also a time for inner reflection. Diwali is when you look into your own heart and mind, and ask, “What cleaning needs to be done here?” It’s a time to let go of old grudges, angers, and judgments, and to make room for compassion, forgiveness, and love.
During the festival, it is customary to decorate your home with lights. This represents the light to dispel the darkness of ignorance and the light that shines from within your own heart to illumine the coming year.
Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama from exile, when the people of his kingdom lit lamps along the road to welcome him home. Diwali is also the welcoming of Maha Lakshmi Devi, the goddess of abundance, purity, grace, and beauty, who is asked to lavish Her blessings of prosperity on all aspects of our lives.
How to Celebrate: During Diwali, take some time for your own inner reflection, recognize the Divinity within, and light a candle or lamp in your window to welcome new beginnings. Diwali is also a time for giving gifts, especially sweets and candies.
When to Celebrate: October 30, 2016 and October 19, 2017
Also known as the festival of colors, Holi celebrations start on the night before with a bonfire, where people gather to release whatever no longer serves them, into the flames. The next morning is celebrated as a free-for-all carnival of colors, where participants chase and color each other with dry powder and colored water. Anyone and everyone is fair game—friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children or elders.
Holi signifies the arrival of spring, the end of winter, and, for many, a day to meet others, play and laugh, forget the past, forgive, and repair broken relationships.
This ritual is said to be based on Krishna's playful splashing of the milkmaids with water, but mostly it celebrates the coming of spring with all its beautiful colors and vibrant life.
How to Celebrate: Visit special friends on this day and, if you’re in India, be sure to wear your oldest clothes!
When to Celebrate: March 13, 2017
As archetypal energy, Shiva represents Pure Space, Silence, and Potentiality—the core aspects of your essence. Maha Shivaratri, or the “Night of Shiva”, is an inner journey of meditation. Legends says it marks the wedding day of Shiva and Parvati. Some also believe that on this night, Shiva as Nataraj performed the ‘Tandava’ dance of the primal creation, preservation, and destruction. Another legend tells that it was on Shivaratri that Shiva manifested himself before Brahma and Vishnu as a column of Light with no beginning or end, and was recognized as Lord of the Universe.
Shiva supposedly is in such a good mood on this day that he will grant any wish so long as the devotee only eats fruit, drinks milk or water, and stays awake all night chanting his mantras.
Many miracles are said to happen on this night. The sick can be healed, saints levitate or walk on water, some fly magically, and many receive Divine revelations. Married women pray to the Goddess Parvati for the well-being of their husbands, while unmarried women pray for a spouse like Shiva, the ideal husband.
If you can’t stay awake all night, chant Om Namah Shivaya a few times before bed.
When to Celebrate: February 24, 2017
The relationship between a disciple and his/her Guru is very special. Guru Purnima is the day when students express their deep gratitude for the blessings they have received from their Guru and the Guru pledges his/her spiritual support for the coming year. On this day, disciples will travel from all over India to bring gifts to their Guru.
How to Celebrate: If you have a Guru or a special teacher, offer your love and gratitude.
When to Celebrate: July 8, 2017
The Kumbh is the greatest congregation of human beings on the earth. Some say India is like going to another planet—well, the Kumbh is like going to another universe! Great saints, gurus, sadhus, some in beautiful costumes, others naked, many of whom are rarely seen outside of their forest or mountain hermitages share their blessings with millions of pilgrims over a two-month period.
In mythological times, there was a great battle between the gods and the demons over ownership of the pot (Kumbh) containing Amrit, the nectar of immortality. Fortunately, the gods won and the nectar was safely carried to heaven. During the struggle, four drops of nectar fell to the earth in India. Each of these four places (Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain), now hosts a Kumbh every 12 years.
Huge tent cities are set up on the banks of the holy rivers to accommodate and feed up to 70 million visitors. Sacred chants and ceremonies continue round the clock and the river is said to flow with nectar, washing away lifetimes of karma for all who bathe in it.
When to Celebrate: The next Kumbha Mela will be in Haridwar in 2022, but each January through February a smaller (3 to 4 million people) Marg Mela is held in Allahabad.