Tamil Brahmin or Iyer Wedding Rituals

A wedding is the union of two people, and every culture and religion has different rituals which signify this union. The rituals and ceremonies surrounding marriage in most cultures are associated primarily with fecundity and validate the importance of marriage for the continuation of a clan, people, or society. They also assert a familial or communal sanction of the mutual choice and an understanding of the difficulties and sacrifices involved in making what is considered, in most cases, to be a lifelong commitment to and responsibility for the welfare of spouse and children. Marriage ceremonies include symbolic rites, often sanctified by a religious order, which are thought to confer good fortune on the couple. Because economic considerations play an essential role in the success of child-rearing, the offering of gifts, both real and symbolic, to the married couple is a significant part of the marriage ritual.

In India, the variety of communities and religions ensure that weddings are a glitzy affair with Hindu weddings being highly elaborate affairs, involving several prescribed rituals and in most cases, the date of the ceremony is determined by careful astrological calculations. Indian weddings are known for their grandeur and vibrance. Tamil Brahmin weddings, especially hold a special place because of their meaningful rituals and ceremonies that bring two families together. The community I belong to also has traditions and ceremonies that are unique to us and here is a small attempt to demystify them.

Tambram or Tamil Brahmin is a phrase used to refer to the Brahmins who trace their origin to Tamil Nadu. This is separate from the Palakkad Brahmins who trace their origin to the Palakkad district in Kerala and who were the brahmins who fled Tamil Nadu during Muslim invasions and were given refuge by the then King of Palakkad. While the traditional tambram wedding does not have the typical North Indian ceremonies like Mehendi and Sangeet, today’s wedding traditions have incorporated them and the result is a beautiful fusion of wedding traditions.

Tamil Brahmin wedding rituals are based on the four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. The spiritual symbolism of each ritual remains the most important and though the wedding may seem simple without much pomp, it is religious and very personal. A traditional Iyer wedding is an amalgamation of Vaidika ceremonies which are rituals as per the Vedic scriptures and various other rituals. While the core marriage rituals are Vedic, these are accompanied by a lot of other rituals that are loukika in nature, or not prescribed in the Vedas or the Puranas but are in practice due to popular acceptance over time. These loukika rituals may not be uniformly followed by all brahmin Iyers with customs and practices followed by individual families different.

Decades back, the wedding used to be a four or five-day affair and I remember my grandmothers telling me about their weddings when the whole village came together for a week to celebrate it. But today’s weddings are usually a day and a half, with many only having two half-day ceremonies and merging the previous evening’s ceremony with the reception to save time and money. The following ceremonies are followed by most of the brahmins, but some families may omit certain rituals and others have something slightly different.

Before the actual wedding date, there are pre-wedding rituals that are done after which the wedding takes place.

Nischyadaartham: In most Iyer weddings, the matching of the horoscopes of the bride and the groom is an important step. Once the marriage is fixed, the nischayadaartham or engagement ceremony is held on an auspicious day. Following a pooja invoking the blessings of Lord Ganesha to remove all obstacles, an exchange of coconut and thamboola or betel leaves and areca nuts is done in the presence of elderly members of both families. This ritual is also known as vaang nischaya or committing by word. The reading of the lagna patrika giving details about the date, day, time or the muhurtham and place of the wedding along with family details of the bride and the groom, is then signed by representatives of both the families, usually the fathers. This makes the engagement a written and signed contract and is a later addition to the nischyadaartham and has now become a part of this ceremony, over time.

Sumangali Prarthanai: Sumangali Prarthanai is a prayer done by the married women invoking the blessings of female ancestors, who would have passed away as sumangalis, aka who died before their husbands. Sumangalis, who are invited, are supposed to represent the ancestral sumangalis and are worshipped and fed as per the customs and practices prevalent in individual families. Along with the sumangalis, a kanya or a young girl who has still not attained meranche is also worshipped and partakes in the feast. Usually, the sumangali prarthanai in the bride’s family is done before the wedding so that the daughter, who will be getting married, can be a part of the ceremony and receive blessings. In the case of the groom, it is done immediately after the wedding so that the new daughter-in-law can participate as a sumangali in this ritual. This ritual is usually done before any auspicious event in the family and I had done this before BB’s thread ceremony. Also, it can only be done once a year by a family as a whole, so for multiple weddings or other such ceremonies, only the first one will be counted.

Pongi Podal: The bride and the groom are invited by their respective aunts, which will be the mother’s brothers’ wives or maamis and the father’s sisters or athais and treated to a traditional feast including Pongal and other favourite dishes. This feast is prepared by elders of the family to celebrate and bless the bride and the groom, who will then go on to form a family of their own.

Yatra Daanam: The groom and his family travel to the bride’s place of residence or the venue of the wedding after praying to Lord Ganesha and giving daana or alms to Brahmins to ward off evils. It is also considered auspicious to break a coconut before commencing the trip.

Other than these pre-wedding functions, other smaller functions also take place in the homes of the bride and groom which include praying to kula-devatas or family deities, erecting a panda kaal or a bamboo pole with plantain-covered decorations outside their homes after special prayers for the smooth conduct of the wedding and the applying of mehendi or henna for the bride and other ladies of both the families with the groom also applying some henna symbolically.

Now let’s go to the main ceremonies, which are included in the two-day event

Receiving the groom’s party: In country-side weddings in the olden times, the groom’s party used to be welcomed at the boundary of the bride’s village with the nadaswaram being played. I remember a wedding we went to when I was about six where the bride was my father’s maternal cousin and the bride was his paternal cousin. We initially stayed in a smaller town before going to the village where the wedding was to be held. Almost at the village, my grandfather wondered about the same thing, about whether there would a welcome committee at the entrance of the village since we were the groom’s party at that point. Today, the groom’s party is ceremonially received at the entrance of the wedding venue by the bride’s parents and relatives with coconuts, flowers and a thamboola with two decorated conical structures called paruppu thengai kutti which is made out of jaggery, lentils and coconut.

Vratham: This is a Vedic ritual that involves the groom taking permission from his father who is his first Guru to end his Brahmacharya Vratha or bachelor life and get married to lead the life of a Grihastha. Both the bride and the groom are made to perform certain samskaras or philosophies and a sacred string of protection called Kaapu or raksha is tied to the wrists of the bride and the groom after the chanting of Vedic mantras to protect them from all evil spirits.

The Sprinkling of Paligai: This ritual originally involved planting a row of trees by the families of the bride and the groom. Over time, the actual planting of trees has given way to germinated seeds of nine kinds of pre-soaked grains being sowed in five clay pots each for the bride and the groom’s side. These seeds are sowed into these clay pots along with the sprinkling of milk mixed with water by married women from both families with prayers for a long and happy married life for the couple and blessings for their progeny.

Janavasam: This is when the groom is brought to the mandapam or the wedding hall in a grand procession accompanied by nadaswaram and sometimes the bursting of crackers. In the days gone by, this was a chance for the entire village to see the groom and his family and if anyone had any objections to the groom or his family, they had a chance to let the bride’s family know before the wedding. The rituals done during the nischyadaartham are repeated here and the bride’s brother presents clothes and jewellery to the groom and the groom’s sister does likewise to the bride. Both are then taken to a nearby temple to obtain blessings.

Kasi Yatrai: A very unique ritual amongst the brahmins, in this ritual, the groom carries a bamboo fan, an umbrella, a walking stick, and a grantha or a book of learning like the Bhagavad Gita, wears new slippers, and sets out to go to Kashi or Varanasi for further learning. He is stopped by the bride’s father who requests him to stop travelling for learning and offers to give his daughter in marriage to him so that he can return to be a Grihastha. The groom agrees and returns to the marriage hall for further rituals.

Maalai Matral and Oonjal: After the groom agrees to get married, the bride arrives and garlands are exchanged between the bride and the groom amid cheering by family members. The bride and groom exchange garlands under the guidance of their respective maternal uncles, an important figure in the hierarchy of a Hindu Family.  In the Indian tradition, a garland worn by an individual is generally not worn by another. By making an exception to the rule, the unification of two souls and oneness of the couple brought together by matrimony are highlighted. The bride and groom are carried by their uncles and brothers and each group tries to move away from the garland. Finally, the garlands are exchanged thrice and then the groom leads the bride by holding her hand to a decorated oonjal or swing. The swing symbolises the vicissitudes of life that the couple is expected to face and cope with, in perfect harmony. While they are seated on the swing, married ladies from both families symbolically wash the couple’s feet with milk by sprinkling some milk on their feet and wiping that with the edge of their sarees. At this point in the wedding, the bride and groom are the epitomes of Lord Vishu and his consort, Goddess Lakshmi. The women then wave coloured rice balls around them and throw these balls in all four directions to ward off evil and propitiate the planets and gods representing the directions. The bride and the groom are given a mixture of milk with pieces of bananas. Women of both families sing songs for this occasion. The Oonjal is followed by the vara poojai wherein the bride’s father welcomes the groom and washes his feet with water and the groom begins the marriage rituals with a prayer to Lord Ganesha. The Gothras of the bride and the groom are announced loudly by the priest along with their lineage up to three generations.

Kanya Daanam: The bride sits on the lap of her father, who holds a thamboola or betel leaves and areca nut in his palms. She then places her palms holding a coconut on her father’s palms. As the groom receives the bride’s hand from her father, the bride’s mother pours water over her daughter’s hand, which is made to fall on the ground like a dhaara or stream. This ceremony is called dhaarai vaarthu kodukkal in Tamil. The mantras chanted by the bride’s father symbolise the groom as a personification of Lord Vishnu and Gothra or the lineage of the bride is changed to that of the groom. This can be the equivalent of the western tradition of the father giving away his daughter in marriage. In some families, they also change the name of the bride to symbolise a new beginning. While for most people, it is just symbolic, in some families, the bride will henceforth only be called by her new name.

Maanglya Dhaaranam: The groom gives the ‘koorai podavai’ – a traditional nine-yard saree to the bride that she is supposed to wear to begin her life as the missus. The groom’s sister and other ladies of his family take the bride away to help her drape the ‘koorai podavai’ for the ‘maanglya dhaaranam’. The bride’s father then, once again, washes the feet of the groom and gives him a mixture of curd, honey and ghee. The maangalya or the mangalasutra are twin pieces of gold that is one each from the bride and the groom’s side and is placed on a yellow sacred string. Once the bride is ready in the nine-yard saree, she comes back and sits on the lap of her father and is showered with gifts and blessings. This happens before the couple tie the knot where the priest places a yoke denoting harmony and coordination on the head of the bride upon a sacred grass and the gold mangalyam or the wedding chain. Water is poured amidst the chanting of hymns, praying for her happiness and prosperity. The mangalsutra is tied around the bride’s neck in three knots, the first tied by the groom and the other two knots are tied by the groom’s sister. If the groom does not have a sister, a cousin does the honours. This signifies that the bride is welcomed by the groom’s family with the groom’s sister a representative for her family. This ceremony is performed amidst the chanting of mantras and a crescendo of nadaswaram, ketti melam, akshadhai showers of turmeric smeared rice and flower petals by the family members and friends to bless the couple. I was sobbing during this ritual as it finally hit me that I would be leaving my parents and moving out. I remember S trying to wipe my tears and do the rituals at the same time.

Paanigrahanam and Sapta Padhi: The groom holds the hand of the bride amidst chanting of hymns conveying that the Gods have ordained that they live as man and wife without parting and that the groom leads the life of a householder. The Sapta Padhi or seven steps is vital for the completion of the marriage. The groom takes the right foot of the bride and makes her take seven steps with prayers for her happiness, well-being and prosperity. The chants indicate that each step signifies the essentials of a harmonious life including, food, strength, wealth and prosperity, love and affection, progeny, opportune time and lasting friendship. The bride and the groom circle the Agni and on reaching the ammi kal or grinding stone the groom takes the toe of the bride’s right leg and places it on the stone. This signifies that the bride’s mind should be rock-like, unperturbed by the trials and tribulations of life. When they return to sit in front of the fire, the bride’s brother puts two handfuls of puffed rice in her hands, which is then offered to the Agni by the bride and groom with a small quantity of ghee. This entire ritual is repeated thrice.

Arundhati Nakshatra: Another interesting ritual is when the bride and groom are asked to take a look at the two-star constellation of Arundhati and Vasishtha, part of the bigger Saptarishi or Big Dipper constellation. In this special constellation, the two stars, Arundhati and Vasishtha move in tandem while revolving around each other, just like how a married couple should be. Now the funny thing is that brahmin weddings take place in the morning, and this ritual will come around the end of the wedding rituals, so around or before lunchtime. And one cannot see the stars at this time of the day, so all couples just look confusedly when the priest points to where the stars should be and nod their heads when asked if they saw them.

At the time of completion of chanting of mantras, the groom unties the darbha rope tied around the bride. This is followed by blessings showered upon the newly-married couple by all the elders of both families.

The first visit of the bride to the groom’s place and of the groom to the bride’s place is marked with female relatives giving them paalum pazhamum or a mixture of milk with bananas. A nalangu ritual may be held either at the wedding venue or the groom’s residence, wherein the bride and the groom are made to play some fun games that are more of an ice-breaker between the bride and the groom and also between the bride and her new family. This was relevant in the days when the bride used to be very young and was played so she gets used to the groom. It’s a fun ritual, but not relevant in today’s time, which is why I decided not to have it at my wedding.

For some families, this would be the end of the wedding function, while for others, there would be a reception in the evening where friends and colleagues would also be invited.

The bride then leaves for her marital home, where she will be welcomed with an aarti to ward off all evil and asked to kick a small cup of rice before she enters the home. This is to symbolise the prosperity she will bring with her.

I hope through this post, you got a small idea of how a Tamil brahmin or specifically an Iyer wedding takes place. This post will also help me explain to GG & BB their traditions as they grow older and may want to learn more. Writing this also brought back so many memories, and I relived my wedding which was amazing!

Father’s Day: The First Superhero to his children

On Sunday, across most of the world, people will celebrate Father’s Day.

Anyone can father a child, but being a dad takes a lifetime. Fathers play a role in every child’s life that cannot be filled by others. Children look to their fathers to lay down the rules and enforce them. They also look to their fathers to provide a feeling of security, both physical and emotional. Children want to make their fathers proud, and an involved father promotes inner growth and strength. Studies have shown that when fathers are affectionate and supportive, it greatly affects a child’s cognitive and social development as well as instils an overall sense of well-being and self-confidence. A father influences the way the child sees relationships and a daughter will decide who her future partner is based on the relationship between her mother and her father as well as how she sees her father treating others. A son, on the other hand, will model himself on his father’s character because he sees his father as the role model for how an adult male should behave. And this is not just for biological fathers, even father figures play a very important role in a child’s life.

Children with sensitive and supportive fathers have higher levels of social competence and better peer relationships. Children whose fathers provide them with learning materials and speak with them frequently perform better in school and have more advanced language skills. A father also influences a child’s well-being indirectly through his relationship with the child’s mother. Conflicts between parents is detrimental to a child’s well-being, especially if the conflict is hostile and unresolved. Supportive co-parenting relationships, by contrast, are related to better self-regulation and fewer behaviour problems in children.

For centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church has appointed the second Sunday before Nativity as the Sunday of the Forefathers to commemorate the ancestors of Christ according to the flesh, starting with Adam and emphasising the Patriarch Abraham. This feast can fall between December 11 and 17 and includes the ancestors of the Mother Mary. A customary day for the celebration of fatherhood in Catholic Europe is known to date back to at least 1508. It is usually celebrated on March 19, as the feast day of Saint Joseph, who is referred to as the fatherly Nutritor Domini or the Nourisher of the Lord in Catholicism and the putative father of Jesus in southern European tradition. This celebration was brought to the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese with the Catholic Church actively supporting the custom of a celebration of fatherhood on St. Joseph’s Day from either the last years of the 14th century or from the early 15th century, on the initiative of the Franciscans. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, the celebration of fatherhood dates back to the 15th century is also observed on St Joseph’s Day, but on July 20.

The day which is mostly celebrated today originated in the United States. This day was not celebrated in that country until the 20th century outside of the catholic traditions. People started celebrating in the early 20th century to complement Mother’s Day by celebrating fathers and male parenting. After Anna Jarvis’ successful promotion of Mother’s Day in Grafton, West Virginia, the first observance of a day honouring fathers was held on July 5, 1908, in West Virginia. In 1911, Jane Addams proposed that a citywide Father’s Day celebration be held in Chicago, but she was turned down. On June 19, 1910, a Father’s Day celebration was held in Washington state by Sonora Smart Dodd to honour her father Willday and felt fathers should also have a similar holiday to honour them. Although she initially suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday in June and on June 19, 1910, the first Father’s Day was celebrated.

However, in the 1920s, Dodd stopped promoting the celebration because she was studying and it faded into relative obscurity, but she started promoting the celebrations again in the 1930s. She had the help of retailers who realised that such a celebration would help promote their products and services, which are specifically targeted at men. In addition to Father’s Day, International Men’s Day is celebrated in many countries on November 19 to honour both men and boys.

Fathers are important to children’s well-being. Sensitive, supportive, and involved fathers contribute to children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social adjustment. Fathers also influence children’s well-being in conjunction with mothers and other caregivers, making it important to understand father-child relationships as part of entire family systems.

To all my readers who are fathers and father figures, here’s wishing you a very Happy Father’s Day! And to those who have fathers or father figures, please take some time on Sunday to spend with them and wish them.

Music Appreciation: The most potent instrument of education

When I was young, most people I knew had a subscription to a local music sabha. A sabha is supposed to be a congregration or an assembly in ancient India and in the south, a music sabha is a conregration for music lovers, especially during the music season. Close to our home and very close to my grand mother’s home was the music sabha we went to. My grand parents were members and when they moved out of Bombay (when it was still Bombay and had not yet been renamed to Mumbai), my parents took over the membership.

I remember a representative from the sabha would come home once every few months and pass us the membership card along with the sabha schedule for the next few months. This was way before social media and mobile phones, so everything was done manually. This sabha was one of the most prestigiuous sabhas in Bombay at that time. It was established a few years after India’s independence with the aim of promoting the fine arts and provide a platform to showcase various artists in the various areas of the fine arts, especially music, dance and drama.

My parents and grand parents from both sides used to look forward to this programme and we would also be taken to the sabha for a dose of culture and music appreciation. Sometimes when a friend was also going there, we would not mind going, but most times we would rebel. When they could not get us to accompany them, my mum would leave us at my grandmother’s house which was just 2-3 minutes away from the sabha and go and enjoy the concert. We would enjoy the next few hours in the company of friends and when the concert ended, they would come to my grand mother’s house, have dinner and go home. Most of the concerts used to involve classical Carnatic music and dancen and when a distinguished artist was scheduled to perform, people would beg and borrow extra passes so family and friends could also listen and see the artist at play. 

When a distinguished artist was performing, we would all troop down to the sabha and any requests to stay at home would not be entertained as this would be a rare opportunity to hear and see such a distinguished performer. Relatives who stayed in other parts of the city would also make their way and I remember an aunt, my mother’s sister who was herself a singer and had learnt Carnatic music when she was younger would come down, especially if the concert was on a Saturday and stay at her mum’s place so she could attend it. I remember either attending or my parents attending performances by M.S Subbulakshmi among other celebrated artists.

When I just finished school, the sabha was unfortunately destroyed in a devastating fire and for a very long time all performances were stopped while it was being rebuilt. By then, we had all grown up and after a few more years of being members, my parents also gave up their membership and the sabha is now just a distant memory or a place for nostalgia when we pass by it.

Though I didn’t really recognise it then, this forced attendance has help me appreciate music. Though I did learn Carnatic music and my sister learnt Bharatanatyam, as did pretty much every tambram girl I knew, we did not take it up far and gave it up when school got too much for us. But those lessons and the concerts and dance performances we attended gave us a appreciation of what good music was all about. We learnt how to carry a tune and recognise when someone is out of tune. Even today, when I hear music which is even slightly out of tune, even though I may not recognise the raga being played, I know it is not correct and I wince, mostly unconsciously.

Today, research has confirmed what our parents and grandparents instinctively knew. That when you learn and listen and appreciate good music, it is extremely beneficial, especially to young children. Music is a megavitamin for the brain, the ultimate mood enhancer for emotional balance, a golden key for unlocking creativity, the secret code behind health and longevity, and the connective fiber between human beings of all races, nationalities and generations.

Musical training helps develop language and reasoning as it develops the areas of the brain related to language and reasoning. Children who are exposed to music early are more emotionally developed with empathy towards other cultures and also tend to have a higher self esteem and are better at coping with anxiety. Math and pattern recognition skills are developed with a music education and someone who has learnt music can better detect meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds. Music also builds the imagination and intellectual curiosity and help foster a positive attitude toward learning and curiosity. An artistic education develops the whole brain and develops a child’s imagination. It is universally known that music helps fight stress and can be incredibly relaxing and also develop spatial intelligence in children.

When I look back in hindsight, I am so thankful to my parents for forcing this on me, even when I could not see it then. At that time, all it meant that going to classical concerts and dance performances meant that my Saturday evenings were being wasted, and I could use that time to play with friends. But today, as I do the same to my children, I realise how much this has benefitted me. GG & BB started learning Carnatic vocal music at about the age of seven. BB dropped it when he was about 12, when puberty hit and his voice started to break, but GG has still continued to learn. When I told her she could drop it if she wanted to, she told me it was very relaxing and wanted to continue. I do believe that these forced lessons have made them appreciate good music, even if their current music taste is not classical. GG also learnt western ballet for almost a decade, but gave it up when school got too much to balance. Today GG continues to sing, both classical and other music while BB, who actually has a good voice and a head for tune, sings very casually, though he will not really admit it.

Festivals of India: Baisakhi

Today marks the beginning of the Hindu solar new year and this means its festival time! The new year is set in sync with the solar cycle of the lunisolar Hindu calendar and it falls on or about 14 April every year according to the Gregorian calendar. Across the Indian subcontinent, various communities celebrate the day as their new year. It is the New Year’s Day for Hindus in Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand and other parts of India. However, this is not the universal new year for all Hindus. For some, such as those in and near Gujarat, the new year festivities coincide with the five-day Diwali festival. For others, the new year falls on Cheti Chand, Gudi Padwa and Ugadi which falls a few weeks earlier. Essentially a spring harvest festival, in the state of Punjab, it is known as Baisakhi, Vaisakhi or Vaisakha Sankranti as it marks the first day of the month of Vaisakha.

Baisakhi is a historical and religious festival in both Hinduism and Sikhism. For Hindus, the festival is their traditional solar new year, a harvest festival, an occasion to bathe in sacred rivers such as the Ganges, Jhelum, and Kaveri, visit temples, meet friends and take part in other festivities. For the Sikhs, Vaisakhi observes major events in the history of Sikhism and the Indian subcontinent that happened in the Punjab region.

The significance of Baisakhi as a major Sikh festival marking the birth of the Sikh order started after the persecution and execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur for refusing to convert to Islam under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. This triggered the coronation of the tenth Guru of Sikhism and the historic formation of the Khalsa, both on the Vaisakhi day. The Khalsa tradition started in the year 1699, as it is on this day that the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh laid down the foundation of the Panth Khalsa, that is the Order of the Pure Ones, by baptising Sikh warriors to defend religious freedoms. This gave rise to the Vaisakhi or Baisakhi festival observed as a celebration of Khalsa Panth formation and is also known as Khalsa Sirjana Divas and Khalsa Sajna Divas. The Birth of the Khalsa Panth was probably on 30 March 1699. Since 2003, the Sikh Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee named it Baisakh or Vaisakh, making the first day of the second month of Vaisakh according to its new Nanakshahi calendar. A special celebration takes place at the Talwandi Sabo, where Guru Gobind Singh stayed for nine months and completed the recompilation of the Guru Granth Sahib, in the Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib the birthplace of the Khalsa, and at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Ranjit Singh was proclaimed as Maharaja of the Sikh Empire on 12 April 1801, which was the Baisakhi day, creating a unified political state with Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak dev, conducting the coronation. Vaisakhi was also the day when the British colonial empire official, General Reginald Dyer, committed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on a gathering, an event influential to the Indian movement against colonial rule.

On Baisakhi, Mandirs and Gurdwaras are decorated. Hindus perform a mandatory daan or charity especially of hand fans, water pitchers and seasonal fruits. A ritual dip in the Ganga river or other holy water bodies is often performed and community fairs are held at Hindu pilgrimage sites and in many areas, a procession of temple deities is taken out. Sikhs hold kirtans, visit local Gurdwaras, community fairs and Nagar kirtan processions are held, and people gather to socialise and share festive foods.

The tradition of celebrating Baisakhi among Punjabi Hindus predates the birth of Sikhism. In undivided Punjab, before India’s partition, the Hindu shrine of Katas Raj was known for its Baisakhi fair which was attended by around 10,000 pilgrims, mostly Hindus. Similarly, at the shrine of Bairagi Baba Ram Thaman, a Baisakhi fair was held annually since the 16th century, which is today in Kausar in Pakistan’s Punjab, which was attended by around 60,000 pilgrims and Bairagi saints from all over India used to throng the shrine. The most spectacular gathering of the Baisakhi fair is at Thakurdwara of Bhagwan Narainji at Pandori Mahatan village in Gurdaspur district of Punjab where the fair lasts for three days from the 1st day of Vaisakha to the 3rd day of Vaisakha. The celebrations start in form of a procession on the morning of the 1st day of Vaisakha, carrying the Mahant in a palanquin by Brahmacharis and devotees. After that, the Navgraha Puja is held and charities in money, grains and cows are done. At sunset, the Sankirtan is held in which the Mahant delivers religious discourses and concludes it by distributing prasad or holy offerings of Patashas or candy drops. Pilgrims also do the ritual bath at the sacred tank in the shrine.

According to the Khalsa Sambat, the Khalsa calendar started with the creation of the Khalsa which was 13 April 1699 and accordingly, Baisakhi has been the traditional Sikh New Year. The alternative Nanakshahi calendar begins its year a month earlier on 1 Chait which generally falls on 14 March and begins with the birth year of the Guru Nanak Dev in 1469.

Vaisakhi is an important festival among Dogra Hindus of the Jammu region. On this day, people get up early in the morning, throng the rivers, canals, and ponds and take a ritual dip on this occasion. In Dogra households, a puja or prayer is performed then and part of the food crop is offered to the deities. New fruits of the year are enjoyed with the ritual bath at the Tawi river being common in Jammu. Baisakhi is celebrated at Udhampur on the banks of the Devika river where for three days devotees enjoy folk songs. At Sudhmahadev, this festival is celebrated with great pomp and show where folk singers come down and competition of folk songs is held. You will find vendors with stalls of eatables and games during this time. People also go to the Nagbani temple near Jammu to witness the grand new year celebration. The occasion is marked by numerous fairs and people come by the thousands to celebrate the festival.

In Himachal Pradesh, Baisakhi is an important festival for the Hindus. People get up early in the morning and have their ritual bath. Two earthen lamps are lit on this day, one with oil and the other with ghee and kept in a large saucer along with a water pot, blades of evergreen turf, Kusha, Incense, sandal, vermillion and money and the household deities are worshipped with all these items. Alms are given in form of rice and pulses with small coins called Nasrawan. Fried cakes of black gram prepared a day in advance are distributed to neighbours after the prayers and other special delicacies are prepared. In the evenings’ people enjoy the many fairs organised for three days.

In the state of Haryana, Baisakhi is celebrated with a fair in Kurukshetra at Baan Ganga Tirtha, which is associated with Lord Arjuna of the Mahabharata. There is a Vaisakhi tradition of a ritual bath at the sacred tank of Baan Ganga Tirtha and a fair is held annually on Baisakhi. The Haryana government also organises a Baisakhi festival in Pinjore Gardens to commemorate this festival.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, Baisakhi is also known as Sattua or Satwahi, as Sattu, made by dry roasting and finely grinding grams is donated and consumed on this day. The common rites during this festival are bathing in a river or pond and eating sattu and jaggery.

Wishing everyone who celebrates this festival a very Happy New Year! Enjoy this day and especially the yummy food, though socialising may still not be allowed under social distancing norms in most countries.

Festivals of India: Janmashtami

Yesterday was the Hindu festival of Krishna Janmashtami, also known as Janmashtami or Gokulashtami, an annual Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. It is observed according to the Hindu luni-solar calendar, on the eighth day or Ashtami of the Krishna Paksha or the dark fortnight in Shraavana or Bhadrapad, depending on whether the calendar chooses the new moon or full moon day as the last day of the month, which overlaps with August/September of the Gregorian calendar.

It is an important festival particularly to the Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism. Dance-drama enactments of the life of Krishna according to the Bhagavata Purana, such as the Rasa lila or Krishna Lila, devotional singing through the midnight when Krishna was born, fasting, a night vigil, and a festival  on the following day are a part of the Janmashtami celebrations. It is celebrated particularly in Mathura and Vrindavan, along with major Vaishnava and non-sectarian communities pretty across India, each with their own unique spin in the festivities. This is followed by the festival of Nandotsav, which celebrates the occasion when Nanda Baba distributed gifts to the community in honour of Lord Krishna’s birth. This is a festival celebrated in the Braj region where on hearing about Krishna’s birth, all the villagers visited Nand Baba’s house to see little Krishna and congratulate Mata Yashoda. Nand Baba distributed ornaments, clothes, cattle and various other valuables among saints and sages, who bestowed blessings on Lord Krishna in return. In Vrindavan this festival is celebrated in the Radha Vallabh Temple. Panchamrit abhisheka and Maha aarti are performed in honour of the Lord’s birth. On this day people also celebrate ‘Govinda’ across many parts of India where devotees form small groups and break pots of butter called Maakhan Haandis tied to ropes on high rise buildings.

Krishna is Devaki and Vasudeva Anakadundubhi’s son and his birthday is celebrated by Hindus as Janmashtami, particularly those of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition as he is considered the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Janmashtami is celebrated when Krishna is believed to have been born according to Hindu tradition, which is in Mathura, at midnight on the eighth day of Bhadrapada month which happens sometime in August or September of each year according to the Gregorian calendar. Born in an era of chaos and rampant persecution, Krishna’s birth was seen as a threat to life by his maternal uncle King Kansa and so to foil this threat, his parents Devaki and Vasudev were imprisioned by Kansa. Immediately following the birth at Mathura, his father Vasudeva Anakadundubhi takes Krishna across Yamuna, to foster parents in Gokul, named Nanda and Yashoda. This legend is celebrated on Janmashtami by people keeping fast, singing devotional songs of love for Krishna, and keeping a vigil into the night. After Krishna’s midnight hour birth, statues of baby Krishna are washed and clothed, then placed in a cradle. The devotees then break their fast, by sharing food and sweets. Women draw tiny foot prints outside their house doors and kitchen, walking towards their house, a symbolism for Krishna’s journey into their homes.

Hindus celebrate Janmashtami by fasting, singing, praying together, preparing and sharing special food, night vigils and visiting Krishna or Vishnu temples. Major Krishna temples organize recitation of ‘’Bhagavata Purana and Bhagavad Gita and many communities organise dance-drama events called Rasa Lila or Krishna Lila. The tradition of Rasa Lila is particularly popular in Mathura region, in northeastern states of India such as Manipur and Assam, and in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat and these begin a few days before each Janmashtami.

Popularly called Gokulashtami in Maharashtra, the festival is celebrated with the breaking of the Dahi Handi the day after Janmashtami. Literally meaning “earthen pot of yoghurt”. The festival gets this popular regional name from legend of baby Krishna who would seek and steal milk products such as yoghurt and butter and people would hide their supplies high up out of the baby’s reach. Krishna would try all sorts of creative ideas in his pursuit, such as making human pyramids with his friends to break these high hanging pots. In Maharashtra, this Krishna legend is played out as a community tradition, where pots of yoghurt are hung high up, sometimes with tall poles or from ropes hanging from second or third floors of a building. Teams of youth and boys called “Govindas” go around to these hanging pots, climb one over another form a human pyramid, then break the pot. Its quite fun to watch, though can be very dangerous at times, especially when the pots are hung very high.


People in Dwarka in Gujarat – where Krishna is believed to have established his kingdom – celebrate the festival with a tradition similar to Dahi Handi, called Makhan Handi or a pot with freshly churned butter. Others perform folk dances at temples, sing bhajans, visit the Krishna temples such as at the Dwarkadhish Temple or Nathdwara. In the Kutch district, farmers decorate their bullock carts and take out Krishna processions, with group singing and dancing. The carnival-style and playful poetry and works of Dayaram, a scholar of the Pushtimarg of Vaishnavism, is particularly popular during Janmashtami in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Janmashtami is the largest festival in the Braj region of north India, in Mathura where Krishna was born, and in Vrindavan where he grew up. Vaishnava communities here celebrate Janmashtami where Krishna temples are decorated and lighted up, attracting numerous visitors on the day, while Krishna devotees hold bhakti events and keep a night vigil.

Janmashtami is widely celebrated by Hindu Vaishnava communities of eastern and northeastern India. The widespread tradition of celebrating Krishna in these regions is credited to the efforts and teachings of 15th and 16th century Sankardeva and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. They developed philosophical ideas, as well as new forms of performance arts to celebrate the Hindu god Krishna such as Borgeet, Ankia Naat, Sattriya and Bhakti yoga now popular in West Bengal and Assam. Further east, Manipur people developed Manipuri dance form, a classical dance form known for its Hindu Vaishnavism themes, and which like Sattriya includes love-inspired dance drama arts of Radha-Krishna called Raslila. The Shree Govindajee Temple and the ISKCON temples particularly mark the Janmashtami festival.  Janmashtami is celebrated in Assam at homes, in community centers called Namghars and temples. According to the tradition, the devotees sing the Nam, perform pujas and share food and prasada.

Gokula Ashtami as the festival is called in South India is celebrated in Tamil Nadu with kolams or decorative pattern drawn with rice batter. Then footprints of baby Krishna are drawn from the threshold of the house till the pooja room, depicting the arrival of Lord Krishna into the house. A recitation of Bhagwadgita is also a popular practise. The festival is celebrated in the evening as Krishna was born at midnight. In Andhra Pradesh, recitation of shlokas and devotional songs are the characteristics of this festival. Another unique feature of this festival in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is that young boys are dress up as Lord Krishna and visit neighbors and friends. Eatables along with milk and curd are prepared to make offerings to Krishna. Legend says that the Sree Krishna Idol installed in Guruvayur is from Dwarka which is believed to be submerged in the sea.

This festival is also celebrated with much joy and gusto outside of India where the diaspora lives. It is a public holiday in countries like Bangladesh and Fiji.

I used to enjoy celebrating it, especially when BB & GG were younger. We used to use them to make tiny footprints from our home’s entrance to our home altar. Since it is not a holiday here in Singapore, I didn’t make the traditional offerings, but would instead rustle up something after work and pray to baby Krishna. This year, I did make some of the traditional offering which was not too badam planning to make some of the traditional offerings, so wish me luck!