Indian culture is pretty damn ancient and the variety of what it has to offer is quite mind-boggling. The festival of Diwali has just gone by for example, with its lights, colors, fireworks and delightful cuisine. Diwali is only one of a whole gamut of multifarious celebrations that punctuate the year in India. Let's take a look at a few of the more popular and colorful ones.
Diwali, usually celebrated in the month of October, is associated with a number of legends. One of the more popular ones tells the story of how Lord Krishna slew the demon Narakasura on this day. The story is a combination of many metaphors, of how the demon, symbolizing negativity within us such as anger, fear and hatred, is killed by Krishna, symbolizing awareness. Thus, the festival is known as the festival of light, where oil lamps are lit to dispel the darkness outside as well as within ourselves.
The festival comes with its fair share of awesome sweets and other dishes, as well as a heavy helping of fireworks and crackers, though in recent years, a more environmentally conscious population is cutting down on cracker use.
Mahashivarathri is one of the most significant festivals in India's spiritual calendar. Mahashivarathri literally translates to the great night of Shiva, and is celebrated in his honor. The festival usually falls in the months of February or March. Traditionally, it is said that staying awake throughout the night is good for one's spiritual growth, as is the chanting of the mantra Om Namah Shivaya, sacred to Shiva and considered to be of great importance on this night. Across the country, various ashrams and temples organize all-night celebrations.
The festival of colors, Holi, is all about making a splash! Friends and family (and sometimes even strangers) get together to soak each other with spray guns and powdered colors, to celebrate the onset of Spring in February-March. A bonfire at midnight sets the festival off, and is known as the Holika bonfire. Music, dance and general merriment carry on throughout the day, as a carnival of color is let loose. Once everyone's been properly doused in all shades of the rainbow, the usual practice, especially in the north of the country is to top off the celebration with bhang, an intoxicating drink made from the leaves and buds of the cannabis plant!
Guru Poornima is another major festival in India's spiritual tradition. It is an occasion when Indians celebrate their Guru or spiritual preceptor. In Indian tradition, the festival marks the day when Lord Shiva, considered the first Guru, began to transmit yoga to his first disciples. Guru Poornima is usually celebrated on the first full moon after the Summer Solstice, and can be a great opportunity to experience the spiritual underpinnings of India's culture.
Dussehra is the ten-day festival celebrated in honor of the goddess Durga in her various forms. Dussehra usually falls in October, and the first nine days of this festival are known as Navaratri, which literally means, nine nights. Various goddesses and feminine deities are worshipped during this time, and classical dance and music performances are hosted at temples and other venues. The final day of the Dussehra festival is known as Vijayadashami, the day of victory when Durga overcame her enemies.