Celebrated as colourfully as the festival of Holi, the festival of Gangaur is celebrated in Rajasthan as well as some parts of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal. One of the most important festivals in Rajasthan, it is celebrated by women who worship Gauri, the wife of Lord Shiva during March–April. Gangaur is a celebration of spring, harvest, marital fidelity, and childbearing. The name comes from a portmanteau of Gana and Gaur where Gana is a synonym for Lord Shiva and Gaur stands for Gauri or Parvati who symbolises saubhagya or marital bliss. For the people of Rajasthan, Goddess Parvati represents perfection and marital love and so the Gangaur festival is very important.
The festival also marks the celebration of spring and harvest. Gana signifies Lord Shiva, and Gangaur symbolises Lord Shiva and Parvati together. As per legends, Gauri won Lord Shiva’s affection and love with her deep devotion and meditation. And after that, Gauri visited her paternal home during Gangaur to bless her friends with marital bliss. The festival rituals start right after the day of Holi and attract a large number of visitors and tourists.
Married women pray for a happy married life as well as the welfare, health, and long life of their husbands while those unmarried worship Gauri to be blessed with a good husband. Migrants to Kolkata started celebrating Gangaur and this celebration is more than a century old in Kolkata.
The festival commences on the first day of the month of Chaitra, the day following Holi, and continues for 16 days. For a newly-wedded girl, it is binding to observe the full course of 18 days of the festival that comes after her marriage. Even unmarried girls fast for the full period of 16 days and eat only one meal a day. Festivity consummates on the 3rd day of the Shukla paksha of the Chaitra month. Fairs or Gangaur Melas are held throughout the 18 days.
Images of Isar or Shiva and Gauri or Parvati are made of clay and in some Rajput families, permanent wooden images are painted afresh every year by reputed painters called matherans on the eve of the festival. A distinct difference between the idols of Teej and Gangaur is that the idol will have a canopy during the Teej Festival while the Gangaur idol would not have a canopy. These figures are then placed within baskets along with wheatgrass and flowers; wheat plays an important role in the rituals as it signifies harvest. People also buy earthen pots known locally as Kunda, and decorate them in a traditional Rajasthani painting style called maandna. It is customary for married women to receive gift hampers from their parents known as Sinjara, which comprises clothes, jewellery items, makeup and sweets which are generally sent on the second last day of the festival which the women use to get ready on the final or main celebration day. The ladies decorate their hands and feet by drawing designs with Mehndi or Henna.
Ghudlias are earthen pots with numerous holes all around and a lamp lit inside them. On the evening of the 7th day after Holi, unmarried girls go around singing songs of ghudlia carrying the pots with a burning lamp inside, on their heads. On their way, they collect small presents of cash, sweets, jaggery, ghee, and oil and this continues for 10 days i.e. up to the conclusion of the Gangaur festival when the girls break their pots and throw the debris into the well or a tank and enjoys a feast with the collection made.
The festival reaches its climax during the last three days. The images of Gauri and Isar are dressed in new garments specially made for the occasion. Unmarried girls and married women decorate the images and make them look like living figures. At an auspicious hour in the afternoon, a procession is taken out with the images of Isar and Gauri, placed on the heads of married women. Songs are sung about the departure of Gauri to her husband’s house. The procession comes back after offering water on the first two days. On the final day, she faces in the same direction as Isar and the procession concludes in the consignment of all images in the water of a tank or well. The women bid farewell to Gauri and turn their eyes and the Gangaur festival comes to an end.
Celebrated throughout Rajasthan, however, the most notable festivities happen in Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Nathdwara and Bikaner. In Udaipur, this festival coincides with the Mewar Festival which takes place during the two days following it.
In Jaipur, a sweet dish called a ghewar is characteristic of the Gangaur festival with people buying the sweet to eat and distribute. A procession, with the image of Gauri, commences from the Zanani-Deodhi of the City Palace, then passes through Tripolia Bazaar, Chhoti Chaupar, Gangauri Bazaar, Chaugan stadium and finally converges near the Talkatora. Old palanquins, chariots, elephants, bullock carts, and folk performances make this procession all the grander.
In Udaipur, there is a dedicated Ghat named after Gangaur. The Gangaur Ghat or Gangori Ghat is situated on the waterfront of Lake Pichola and serves as the prime location for the celebration of multiple festivals, including the Gangaur festival. Traditional processions of Gangaur commences from the City Palace, and several other places, which passes through various areas of the city. The procession is headed by old palanquins, chariots, bullock carts and performances by folk artists. After the processions are complete, the idols of Gan and Gauri are brought to this ghat and immersed in Lake Pichola. Women try to balance brass pitchers on their heads, which is another attraction of this fiesta. The celebration is concluded with fireworks on the banks of the lake.
In other parts of the state, on the final day, colourful parades carrying bejewelled images of Goddess Parvati proceed all over the villages and cities, and this is accompanied by local bands.