The Panchanga (Hindu calendar) is based on lunar months. One year has twelve months of 29.5 days, totaling 354 days. As a result many Hindu festivals move back 11 days on the Gregorian calendar each year. Because of this, the Hindu calendar adds an extra month approximately every three years in order to offset the difference.
It also tracks solar months, based on the sun’s movement among the zodiac signs. Lunar months are generally used to determine religious holidays, while the solar time frame is used for civil purposes.
Although the Panchanga has many regional variations, most versions have some common features. The year begins with Makara Sankranti, when the sun enters Capricorn, and consists of two halves and six seasons. In most cases, festivals fall on the full or new moon, or on the day after the moon phase.
This Hindu festival is dedicated to Shiva, one of the major deities to whom Hindus direct their devotion. The night before the fast, Hindus recite texts, sing, and tell stories in honor of this God whose dynamic cosmic dance creates, preserves, destroys, and recreates the world.
Holi is a colorful and joyous festival that welcomes Spring. It is dedicated to Krishna or Kama. Referred to as the Festival of Colors, people celebrate Holi by throwing colorful powder and colored water.
Characteristic of the Indian cultural mélange, Hindus in various states of India celebrate the new year in their own ways. And not all of these fall on the same day! People light oil lamps. They decorate the house with pink, red, purple or yellow fresh flowers which are considered auspicious colors. Rangoli design is also made on the floor outside the house, a very attractive part of New Year decorations. People get up early in the morning, bathe and wear new clothes. The Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi and lord Ganesha are brought home and people welcome them by singing songs in their praise.
Ramanavami, the birthday of Lord Rama, is one of the most important festivals of the Hindus, particularly the Vaishnava sect of the Hindus. On this auspicious day, devotees repeat the name of Rama with every breath and vow to lead a righteous life. People pray to attain the final beatitude of life through intense devotion towards Rama and invoke him for his blessings and protection.
Many observe a strict fast on this day. Otherwise, it is an extremely colorful ceremony, highly inspiring and instructive too. Temples are decorated and the image of Lord Rama is richly adorned. The holy ‘Ramayana’ is read in the temples.
Raksha Bandhan, (the bond of protection) or Rakhi is a Hindu festival celebrating the relationship between brothers, cousins and sisters. It is called Rakhi Purnima in most of India and is also celebrated in some parts of Pakistan. Hindus, Jains, and some Sikhs observe the festival.
In fact, the popular practice of Raksha Bandhan has its historical associations also. The Rajput queens practiced the custom of sending rakhi threads to neighboring rulers as tokens of brotherhood. In the central ceremony the sister ties a rakhi (sacred thread) on her brother’s wrist. This symbolizes the sister’s love and prayers for her brother’s well-being, and the brother’s lifelong vow to protect her. This festival falls on the full moon day of the Hindu month of Shravan.
Krishna Janmashtami (Srikrishna Jayanti), is an annual commemoration of the birth of Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the God Vishnu.
Hindus celebrate Janmashtami by fasting and staying up until midnight, the time when Krishna is believed to have been born. They place images of Krishna’s infancy in swings and cradles in temples and homes. At midnight, devotees gather for devotional songs, dance and exchange gifts. Some temples also conduct reading of the Hindu religious scripture Bhagavad Gita.
Ganesh Chaturthi (also called Vinayaka Chaturthi or Vinayaka Chavithi) is a 10-day festival honoring the god Ganesha. One of the best known Hindu deities, Ganesha is easily recognized by his elephant head. He is worshiped as the god of beginnings, wisdom and learning, and arts and sciences, and as the remover of obstacles.
Ganesh Chaturthi begins on the fourth day of Bhadrapada in the Hindu calendar (usually August or September of the Gregorian calendar). Throughout the festival, celebrants offer food, sweets and prayers to clay statues of Ganesha in their homes and on temporary public stages called pandals. Traditions include chanting of Vedic hymns and Hindu texts, prayers, and vrata (fasting). On the 10th day, people carry the statues in public processions and immerse them in a nearby river or ocean. As the clay statue dissolves in the water, Ganesha is believed to return to his parents, the god Shiva and goddess Parvati, on Mount Kailash.
Pitru Paksha (“fortnight of the ancestors”) is a 15–lunar day period during which Hindus honor their pitrs, or ancestors, through rituals (shraddhas), food offerings and scripture reading. Beginning on the first full moon after Ganesh Chaturthi it is also known as Pitru Pakshya or Shradh.
Shraddhas usually include three components: Pindadan, offerings of pinda (sweetened rice balls) to the ancestors; Tarpan, offerings of water mixed with kusha grass, barley, flour and black sesame; and Feeding the Brahmin, giving food to the Brahmin priests.
During Pitru Paksha, Hindus eat vegetarian food and avoid engaging in new endeavors, shaving or getting haircuts, and eating onions, garlic or junk food.
Karwa Chauth is an annual festival observed by Hindu women in the month of Kartik, four days after the full moon. It coincides with Sankashti Chaturthi, a fasting day for Lord Shiva, Parvati and Lord Ganesha. On this day, married women observe a strict fast for their husbands’ longevity and happiness for their families. Unmarried women also fast for their future husbands.
Very early in the morning, women dress in wedding finery: a red outfit, jewelry and mehndi, decorative henna designs on their hands. Starting at sunrise, they eat or drink nothing until evening. The women break their fast only after sighting and making offerings to the moon, with married women taking their first bite from their husband’s hand. Karwa (or Karak) refers to the earthen pots in which water is offered to the moon.
Four days after Karwa Chauth, mothers observe Ahoi Ashtami Vrat, a fast for the well being of their children.
Dussehra (also Dasara or Vijayadashami), the 10th day of of Navaratri, celebrates the festival’s end and the triumph of good over evil. In northern, southern and western India, the day commemorates Lord Rama’s killing of Ravana, as told in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Ravana is a follower of Shiva and a great scholar and ruler, but someone who wanted to overpower the gods. Ravana also kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita, in revenge against Rama and his brother, who cut off his sister Shurpanakha’s nose.
Across India, Hindus burn effigies of Ravana with fireworks, symbolizing the destruction of evil. Other customs include reenactments of Durga’s and Rama’s victories and processions to bodies of water to dissolve clay images of Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and other deities.
Diwali, or Dipawali, is India’s most important holiday, as vital for Hindus as Christmas is for Christians. Taking place 20 days after Dussehra, the festival usually falls in October or November. It is named for the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that are lit to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness.
Historically, Diwali marked the last harvest before winter. With India an agricultural society, people would seek blessings from Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, as they closed the year’s accounting and prayed for success in the new year. To this day, businesses across the Indian subcontinent start the new financial year on the day after Diwali.
Over time, Diwali has become a day celebrated by most Indians regardless of faith. Customs include family gatherings, fireworks, strings of electric lights, bonfires, flowers, sweets, and worship of Lakshmi.
As the goddess of wealth and prosperity, both material and spiritual, Lakshmi means good luck to Hindus. Lakshmi is the household goddess of most Hindu families, and a favorite of women. The word “Lakshmi” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Laksya” (“aim” or “goal”), and “puja” is the act of worship.
Although she is worshipped daily, Lakshmi’s special month is the festive month of October. In the Indian states of West Bengal, Orissa and Assam, Lakshmi Puja is celebrated on the full moon night of Kojagari Purnima. Most people in India, though, worship Lakshmi during Diwali.
On the evening of Diwali, when Lakshmi is thought to roam the earth. Hindus open their doors and windows and place diya lights on windowsills and balconies to welcome her. They wear their best clothes and offer pujas. Mothers, who are seen to embody the prosperity of Lakshmi, are honored by the family. Following the pujas, people light fireworks to both celebrate and chase away evil spirits, and then enjoy a feast.