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Kashi: Important Fairs and Festivals

Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana
1. The World of Festivities

Banaras is considered to be a veritable jungle of fairs and festivals with respect to variety, distinction, time, sacred sites, performers, overseers and side-shows. The popular saying that there 13 festivals happen in the 7-days of a week express that richness. “Every day is a great festival in Banaras”— so says the tradition. The yearly cycle is divided into six seasons (ritu), and for each season a specific holy city is mythologized as the sacred abode (puri) where religious functions are to be performed. Banaras is the city where all the six puris are spatially manifested (re-established), which is how Banaras becomes a city of all seasons (cf. Table 1).

Table 1. Varanasi. Seasons, Sacred Cities and their replicas

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The details of the auspiciousness and astronomical conjunctions for festivities are given in the Panchanga (Hindu Lunar almanac). Based on the Lunar cycle, each month is divided into two fortnights (paksha), i.e. krishna-paksha (the waning, “dark fortnight”) that moves toward the new-moon night (amavasya), and shukla-paksha (the waxing, “light fortnight”) that moves toward the full-moon night (purnima). Whereas a solar day may be described by its name, such as Monday (Somavar), a lunar day is described by its position in the fortnight, such as “5th day of shukla-paksha”. The cycle of lunar days and weekdays are governed in the Hindu cosmogony by those heavenly orbs by which time is reckoned. Each solar day, as in the Western calendar, has its own heavenly governor, and all are represented in a form of Shiva linga named after the heavenly body (planet, graha; cf. Table 2).

Table 2. Varanasi. Weekdays and Cosmogony

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The time and schedules of a religious journey as mythologized and prescribed follow the path of the moon. The path of the moon is the path of souls. That is why the Hindu calendar accepts the cycle of the moon as central in performing any ritual, rite, festivity or pilgrimage. The moon symbolises the universal sense of “becoming” by waxing, waning and disappearing, and it also serves as a universal measuring gauge — it measures and also unifies. Sacred times, seasons, and festivals are calculated by the lunar calendar, and every ‘32 months, 16 days and 4 hours’ (i.e., every third year) an extra month of 29.53 days must be added to the lunar calendar in order to square it with the solar calendar. This intercalary month of the leap year is called Purushottama Masa or Mala Masa. According to Hindu tradition each month has its own spiritual merit, but some have relatively higher merit. The Mala Masa is prescribed as giving the most spiritual merit to devotees, especially through Panchakroshi pilgrimage. No other auspicious activities are performed in Mala Masa. During this period of Mala Masa, falling every third year, a grand festivity and celebration takes place at Rajgir in Bihar. Almost all the fairs and festivals in Banaras are primarily religious, and are the occasions of gathering for rejoicing, public worship and cultural interaction.

2. Hindu Festivals 
(see Table 3, Hindu Festivals, 2021-2025).

Makara Samkranti (always on 14th January). This marks the Hindu version of Winter Solstice (21 December) and is celebrated during the sacred moment of time associated with the Sun’s passage into the zodiac-house of Capricorn (Makara). This is a bathing festival and considered to be the dividing line in the cosmic rotation of the Sun god to his northerly retreat (uttarayana). Holy bathing and offering Ganga water to Sun, Shiva and Vishnu images are common. The popular customs of the day, however, include making sweets with sesame seeds; eating khichari, a staple food of rice cooked with 5 varieties of lentils and several vegetables (especially cauliflower and potato); and above all, flying kites.

Vedavyasa Mela (Magha, January-February). Every Monday in Magha in Ramanagar a fair is held in honour of Vedavyasa, the legendary compiler of the Vedas and writer of the Mahabharata. The temple of Vedavyasa in the Ramanagar Fort, along the bank of Ganga, is the centre of these activities.

Maha Shivaratri (Phalguna, February-March). On the 14th of the dark fortnight of Phalguna falls the marriage day of Lord Shiva. Varanasi is Shiva’s abode, which is how this especially charming festival comes to be celebrated here. In all the Shiva temples, grand decorations (shringara) and celebrations are held, but the Vishvanatha (Golden), Vishvanatha in B.H.U., Adi Vishveshvara (Bansphatak), Mritunjaya (Dara Nagar), Trilochana and Kedareshvara temples are the most popular. Vishvanatha and Mrityunjaya temples are obviously attended by a million devout Hindus to have a glimpse of the special shringara. During the festival a procession is taken out from Mrityunjaya to Vishvanatha temple. On the following 11th day of the light fortnight the yearly decoration of Vishvanatha temple takes place, called Amalaki or Rangabhari Ekadashi. Pilgrims also sprinkle coloured red powder on the Shiva linga. This is the starting point and initiation of the Holi festival. On the occasion of Maha Shivaratri a musical assembly at Tulasi Ghat, called Dhrupada Mela, is organised.

Holi (Chaitra, March-April). Holi falls on the 1st day of the dark fortnight of Chaitra. On the eve of Holi, the full moon night of Phalguna (Purnima), the festivities begin with the burning of the many neighbourhood Holika fires. The dawn of the day of Holi brings the saturnalia, the ritual reversals, and the social levelling, all together marking the springtime and welcoming the New Year. In the streets and in the courtyards of houses, people drench one another with buckets of coloured water and smear one another’s faces with wet colours. In the noontime the scene changes with bathing and a fresh change of clothes, followed by visits to friends where guests and hosts offer each other dry coloured powder and sweets. On this special day the important deities of Banaras are offered a variety of dry and wet colours.

Table 3. Varanasi: Hindu Festivals with Tithi & Roman Dates, CE 2021-2025

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on the 14th/15th (in 2050) January; transition of the Sun into the zodiac of Makara rashi (Capricorn) on its celestial path.
Lunar month: D, Dark Fortnight (waning, krishna), L, Light Fortnight (waxing, shukla); F, Full Moon; N, New Moon. By & fully © Rana P. B. Singh and Dr Pravin S. Rana

Burhva Mangala (“The Old Tuesday”). After Holi, the first Tuesday that falls after at least five days is celebrated as the concluding festive day of the period of colourful Holi. Burhva Mangala stands for the subtle pleasures of Chaitra: a combination of outdoor life, moderate temperatures, and all-night festivity. Since the late 16th century, it has been a tradition to play with dry colour on decorated boats and bajaras (house-boats) accompanied by musicians and performers singing special seasonal folk songs known as kajari, along with lively folk performances. Mir Rustam Ali, the Governor of Banaras, gave the festival a well-organised shape in 1735, and later on King Chet Singh also patronised it. Boats are decorated with flags and carpets, even with chandeliers. The riverfront from Asi to Panchaganga, becomes a floating musical festival. After 1922 this festival was no longer celebrated, but thanks to the spirit of the citizens of Banaras it has been revived since 1994.

Chaitra Navaratri (Chaitra, March-April). This marks the beginning of the New Year, and is celebrated by the worship of the Goddess, called Gauri (“White Goddess”), for the first 9 nights of Chaitra light fortnight. On the first day many Hindu families perform introductory rites by the installation of sacred pitchers in their home. During the 9 days, countless Hindu devotees perform the circuit of 9 shrines of Gauri. Special arati (‘ritual of offering oil lamps’) is performed in these shrines. Nearby to these shrines devotional songs and group singings in the evening are the main attraction. A special fair is also held at Durgakund.

Samvatsara On the first day of Chaitra Navaratri to welcome the New Year, Vikrama Samvata, a celebration is also held at Rajendraprasada Ghat. This is organised by the joint efforts of many religious trusts and social organisations in the form of cultural event in the evening. Since last two years the State Government of Uttar Pradesh is involved in the arrangement of various programmes that include musical performances, dances, rituals, religious discourses and seminar on these topics. The involvement of government officials makes the celebration a show at grand scale, however the spirit behind the festival is losing its power.

Rama Navami (Chaitra, March-April). The last day of Chaitra Navaratri is celebrated as the birthday of Lord Rama in most of the temples related to him. Rama Ghat is specially preferred for sacred bathing, followed by a visit and rituals at the nearby Rama temple (Rameshvara Shiva) where musical instruments (e.g. drums, bells, and conches) are played in tune with thousands of melodious voices. For the most part this is a family level festival and quite a large number of people celebrate it in their home. The devout Hindus who perform special worship of goddesses during the nine nights (navaratri), pay visit to the temples of Maha Lakshmi (Lakshmi Kunda) or Siddheshvari Devi (near Sankatha Ghat). Since 1987, with a view to reviving the old tradition, a procession of about twenty boats anchored and decorated, carrying scenes and performances based on the story of the Ramayana moves in the evening around 16.30 hrs. Known as Ramakatha Mandakini Shobhayatra, this procession of floating boats starts at Asi Ghat and goes to Raj Ghat, while stopping at Rajendraprasad Ghat in the middle of the way. Along the ghats a great mass of people watches this.

Narasimha Lila (Vaishakha, April-May). This festival of scenic presentation is based on the life of Narasimha (“Man-Lion”), the 4th incarnation of Vishnu, and it started in the early 18th century. This is held for a 6-day period, starting on the 10th of the light fortnight and concluding on the full moon day (Buddha Purnima), every late evening (22.00-00.30 hrs) at Prahlada Ghat. During the day Jhanki (‘scene’) are shown including Vishnu resting on the snake-bed in the Ocean of Milk (1st day), the fight between Vishnu’s Boar Form and the demon Hiranyaksha, and the birth of the great devotee Prahlada (2), the education of Prahlada and punishments by his father (3), the incarnation of Narasimha who kills the demon Hiranyakashyapa (4), rest on the following day (5), and finally a scene of the Ten Incarnations (Dasha Avataras) of Vishnu, and special arati (6).

Buddha Purnima (Vaishakha, April-May). The full moon day of Vaishakha marks the most sacred day for Buddhists because the birthday, the day of enlightenment and the day of parinirvana of the Buddha, all fall on the same day. This festival is celebrated with grandeur and gaiety at Sarnath, and is attended by a large mass of followers. A large fair is also held in Sarnath and relics of the Buddha are taken out in procession for public viewing on this day. A day before Buddha Purnima, i.e. the 14th of Vaishakha, Hindus celebrate Nrisimha Chaturdashi, when special celebration takes place at Bade Ganesha (Lohatia) temple and at Prahlada Ghat in honour of Nrisimha (“the Man-Lion form of Vishnu”).

Ganga Dashahara (Jyeshtha, May-June). The 10th of the light fortnight of Jyeshtha is celebrated to remember the descent of goddess Ganga to the earth, and is considered her birthday. All along the ghats, a huge mass of devotees takes holy dips and pay visits to the Ganga shrines, especially at Dashashvamedha and Panchaganga ghats. The clay image of Ganga riding on a crocodile is floated in the river as a way to glimpse her in human form. Also in the morning some of the worshippers who have taken a special vow will cross the river in boats trailing long garlands of flowers to decorate the goddess waters. Unmarried girls immerse their sacred dolls into the Ganga river. For the last ten years, in the evening oil lamps burning on the ghats from Dashashvamedha to Trilochana attract dwellers and visitors for the beautiful atmosphere. In the evening at Rajendra Prasad Ghat cultural performances are also held. On the next day, called Nirjala (Bhimaseni) Ekadashi, thousands of lamps illuminate Panchaganga Ghat in the evening.

Sankhudhara Mela. This is held on Karka Samkranti, i.e. 14th of June (Hindu’s day of Summer Solstice) at Sankhudhara Kunda in Khojawa, in the southwestern part of the city. A rich person, Babu Sangam Lal, in 1839-49 granted money for making the stone stairways to the Kunda and for repairing the attached Dvarakadhisha Temple. Presently, this festival is almost forgotten.

Ratha Yatra (Ashadha, June-July). On the 7th day of the light fortnight of Ashadha, a chariot procession festival (Ratha Yatra) that lasts for 3 days attracts a huge mass of visitors. This festival presents an abbreviated form of the world-famous Ratha Yatra of Puri (Orissa), and was started by the chief priest of Puri, Svami Brahmachari, who came to Varanasi in exile in 1790, and later died here in 1815. With the support of Beni Ram and Vishambhar Ram, two prominent and rich citizens of the Bhonshala estate of Nagpur living in Banaras, the Svami built a temple honouring Jagannatha in 1802. A few years later in 1806 they started this festival. The procession is taken out of Jagannath Temple (near Asi Ghat) by carrying the images of Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra to Ratha Yatra Crossing on the Godaulia-Mahmoorganj Road. For a 3-day period, the road is crowded with people gathering from the neighbouring countryside. Many temporary shops adorn both sides of the road and are known for special cookies like nan-khatai, a crisp and very soft biscuit.

Durga-Ji Ka Mela (Shravana, July-August). On every Tuesday in the Hindu month of Shravana, a fair is held in the neighbourhood of the Durga Temple and Tulasi Manasa Temple, Durgakund. The streets are lined with the cars and mats of makeshift merchants, and are swarming with worshippers and celebrants, whose numbers increase as the month progress. The last Tuesday is the climax when over fifty thousand people offer their obeisance to goddess Durga, and at Tulasi Manas and Sankatamochana temples. This is continued well into the night.

Naga Panchami (Shravana, July-August). On the 5th of the light fortnight of Shravana, this festival represents one of the most ancient forms of serpent worship. On this day Naga (snake) images are painted or pasted on either side of the doorways of houses, and they are propitiated there with offerings of milk and puffed rice. A famous and ancient fair is held at Naga Kupa (ancient name Karkotaka Vapi). The chief attraction of the fair is wrestling, athletic bouts in the afternoon when the athletes of Banaras seem to emerge at the place. Old athletes cheer on their pupils and grand-pupils, who exhibit their skill in a large number of bouts till late in the evening.

Raksha Bandhana (Shravana, July-August). On the full moon of Shravana every brother goes to his sister, or vice versa, to tie a brightly coloured band around his wrist — a symbolic assurance that he will be her protector throughout life. Sisters tie rakhis (colourful amulet) on their brothers’ wrists and priests upon their patrons. If the brother (by birth or through informal adoption) is far away, the rakhis can be sent by mail.

Krishna Janmasthami (Bhadrapada, August-September). On the 8th day of the dark fortnight falls the birthday of Krishna (the 8th incarnation of Vishnu), which is celebrated in the Krishna related temples, most notably the Gopala Mandir, Chowkambha. Home altars throughout the city display elaborate scenes of Krishna with his cowherd and milkmaid friends, with tiny cattle and trees, with toys and swings for his pleasure. Distribution of special prasada (sweets offered to God) to as many visitors as possible is popular. Soon after midnight, when Krishna was born, visitors in thousands move from temple to temple and from house to house to offer their obeisance to the deity at these places. In most of the neighbourhoods Hindu shrines and temples dols (decorative scenes of Krishna’s life) are installed.

Lolarka Chhatha Mela (Bhadrapada, August-September). On the 6th day of the light fortnight, a great Sun festival is held at Lolarka Kunda. This annual fair attracts tens of thousands of Hindu villagers from the surrounding countryside. Devout Hindus, mostly women, start coming early in the morning. First, they take a bath in the Ganga, followed by a ritual bath in the Lolarka water pool. The purpose of this festival is to give birth to sons. Couples without male progeny bathe in the water pool, and those who have succeeded in this effort bring their sons back for a celebratory bath. Devotees end the celebration by visiting, worshipping and performing rituals at the Krimi Kunda (Ravindrapuri), where the tomb of Saint Kina Rama is the centre of activities. All along the main street of Bhadaini displays are laid out by hawkers and merchants of bangles, cosmetics, and trinkets for women, as well as special articles necessary for the bathing ritual.

Sorahia (Lakshmi Kunda) Mela (Bhadrapada-Ashvina, August-October). Beginning on the 8th day of the light fortnight of Bhadrapada a 16-day fair in honour of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) starts at Lakshmi Kunda, just west of Godaulia on Luxa Road, which attracts about a million visitors in the period. Devout Hindus, mostly women, daily bathe in the water pool. The climax of the festival is reached on the 8th day of the dark fortnight of Ashvina (September-October). This final day is known as Jivitaputrika/Jiutia when almost all Hindu mothers observe a fast for the well-being of their children, and in the evening perform celebration at Lakshmi Kunda.

Durga Puja – Dashahara/ Vijai Dashmi (Ashvina, September-October). The fall month of Ashvina begins with a dark fortnight for ancestral worship, pitri paksha. While it is observed widely in India, this period has a special force in Kashi and two other holy cities, Allahabad and Gaya. As the light fortnight begins, the fall Navaratri, “the Nine Nights”, of goddess Durga starts; this is called Durga Puja. Clay images of Durga with elaborate details, ranging from 1 to 2.5 m, are installed in decorated pandals (canopies) at over 500 places and are opened for public worship. Civic and religious organisations sponsor the construction of these clay images. On each of the 9 days, devout Hindus visit the prescribed temple of Durga. For example, on the 3rd day the Durga called Kushmanda at Durgakund is visited. And on the last day Mahalakshmi at Lakshmi Kunda is visited. On the 10th day of the fortnight, called Vijaya Dashami (or Dashahara), these images are taken out in procession to the Ganga and then they are submerged into the river. To participate in the procession and to watch the immersion are unique experiences.

Rama Lila (Ashvina, September-October). The theatrical form of the life story of Rama as narrated in the Ramayana is one of the oldest continuing performances in the city. This is performed always in the evenings. There are four types of periods of celebration, i.e. 7-day, 17-day, 22-day and 31-day; however, the climax of all of them falls on the 10th of the light fortnight of Ashvina, when Lord Rama kills the demon Ravana. There are held about 120 Rama Lilas at different places, organised by voluntary organisations and religious trusts. The most famous among these is the Rama Lila at the Maharaja’s city of Ramanagar, which starts at the 14th light fortnight of Bhadrapada (August-September); the killing of demon Ravana is performed around the 27th day. This Lila was started in 1830 by King Udit Narayan Singh, and is a form of environmental theatre where sites are scattered in the area around 6 km long and 2 km wide; permanent stages, buildings and settings are established. With the arrival of the Maharaja the performance starts with the ritual of arati (offering oil lamp), and it ends by about 21.30 hr. It is estimated that on the last day around 50,000 visitors take part. The other important sites where Rama Lilas are performed are at Asi Ghat, Khojwa, Shivpur and Chitrakut Talab.

Another important day of festivities is the Bharata Milapa (“Reunion with Bharata”), falling the very next day of Vijaya Dashami when Lord Rama meets his brother after returning from an exile of 14 years. The Bharata Milapa at Nati Imali near the Sanskrit University usually attracts the largest crowd of any of the Kashi’s melas, reaching nearly half a million. By the climax of the period, the players actually become Lord Rama and Brother Bharata in the eyes of the people, and seeing the play is indeed the auspicious viewing (darshana) of the divinities. The king of Kashi in royal flavour attends this festival.

The Nakkataiya (“Cutting the Nose”) scene refers to another episode of the Ramayana. This is the episode of the epic where the sister of Ravana tries to influence Lakshmana to marry her but instead Lakshmana chops off her nose. On hearing this Ravana vows revenge against the brothers. This was one of the reasons why Ravana abducted Sita. This is held on the 4th day evening of the dark fortnight of Karttika. The Nakkataiya of Chetganj is celebrated at a grand scale and attracts over a hundred thousand visitors. It is famous for the long procession accompanied by lagas (models, scenes and clay images) with moving sideshows and marching elephants, camels and horses.

Hanuman Jayanti (Karttika, October-November). The 14th day of the dark fortnight of Karttika is celebrated as the birthday of Hanuman, the Monkey-servant of Lord Rama. This is also a day of Yama, God of Death. All the Hanuman shrines celebrate the festival. The 5-day long festivities, performances and musical concerts are held at Sankatamochana (Hanuman) Temple, lying in the southern part of the city.

Dipavali / Divali (Karttika, October-November). On the next day after Hanuman Jayanti falls the festival of lamps and lights. In fact, Dipavali starts a day before Hanuman Jayanti, with a festival called Dhan Teras, which is famous for the display of metal utensils in shops and purchase by many visitors. The birthday of Dhanvantari, the father of Ayurveda (Indian system of medicine), is also celebrated by physicians on Dhan Teras. On the night of Dipavali every lane is decorated with rows of oil lamps, candles and electric bulbs. On this day the local Bengali community performs Kali Puja in the late hours of the night. Clay images of Ganesha and Lakshmi are on sale, and many people bring them home and replace the old ones on this occasion. Special design of clay and wooden toys are also sold only that evening.

The day after Dipavali is Annakuta (“the Mountain of Food”), associated with the legend of Krishna. Krishna is worshipped as Lord of Govardhana, the mountain he lifted up to protect the cowherd folk from the wrathful rains of Indra (king of the heaven). The temples of Gopala Mandir, Vishvanatha and Annapurna are the special places for decoration, celebration and offering of foodstuffs. At Gopala Mandir 56 types of bhogas (edible offerings to the God) are offered, and a 3-day festival is performed there.

Krishna Lila and Naga Nathaiya (Karttika, October-November). Tulasi started Krishna Lila, the theatrical form of the life of Krishna, in the late 16th century at Tulasi Ghat. Since then this 2-week performance has continued. On the evening of the 14th day of the dark fortnight the climax of the play arrives when a ring is placed on the nose of a king snake, called Naga Nathaiya. The scene shows Krishna jumping into the Yamuna infested by a large snake and subduing it. A strong stamen of Kadamba tree is planted on the bank of Ganga at Riwa/Tulasi Ghat and a small boy acting as Krishna jumps from the top of it into the Ganga, and soon after appears standing on the hood of a giant snake. The representation is so realistic that many believe that the aura of Krishna descends on the little boy on this occasion.

Yama Dvitiya (Karttika, October-November). On the next day of Annakuta, the main religious attention of the city shifts to Panchaganga Ghat, where for the rest of the month of Karttika the activities continue. People offer oil lamps at the bank in honour of Yama, the God of Death. The special scene of the day is the making of images of Bhisma, the grandfather of the Five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata, along Rama Ghat, fashioned from a ton of silt and clay collected from the ghat steps, covered with a final layer of mud, and painted with his clothes. He lies flat on his back and is pot-bellied. He is honoured here as a deity in the month of Karttika. Such images, though smaller in size, are also found at Asi, Kedara, Shitala, Panchaganga and at Trilochana ghats. On the 11th day of the light fortnight of Karttika, called Prabodhini Ekadashi, the final offering of holy water, flowers, green grasses and other ritual items is made in the morning, and later the image is destroyed.

Surya Shashthi, Chhatha (Karttika, October-November). On the 5th day of the light fortnight, a 3-day festival of Sun worship starts. This is the most popular festival in Bihar, the neighbouring State, where it is celebrated on a grand scale. With respect to deep involvement, faith, and devotional strength, this festival is unparalleled. The 5th day starts with introductory rites, daylong fasting and singing devotional-folk songs. The 6th day is a day of complete fasting, avoiding even water. This day devout Hindus, mostly women, young and old, a million in number, offer the holy water of Ganga to the dawning Sun on the bank. Ladies carrying decorated small bamboo-baskets filled with flowers, fruits, cookies, sugarcane pieces, coconut and lightened oil lamps stand with their feet in the water and watch the sunset. Colourful clothes also decorate their sitting place on the bank chosen by families, laid with carpets, flowers and other items carried there. After passing about 3 hrs at the bank the devotees return home and perform domestic rituals. On the next day (the 7th) early morning, at around 04.00 hr, the family members, companions, friends and children all proceed in procession to the ghat and mostly occupy the same places where they were the previous evening. By offering holy water of the Ganga and all the ritual items (cookies, fruits, flowers, coconut, germinated chickpeas) to the rising Sun god, the festival comes to an end. And, by distributing the prasada (sweets and cookies offered to God), the festival is completed. At this moment the vow-taking devotee will break the fast by taking prasada and Ganga water.

Karttika Purnima (Full moon day, October-November). This is the biggest bathing festival, when in the morning a million devout Hindus rush to one of the ghats for a holy dip in the Ganga River. In the evening, with myriad of lighted lamps along the ghats and floating on the river face and slowly moving in varied formations, the festival reaches its climax. Close to the Panchaganga Ghat two conical stone pillars with 108 sockets to hold the wicks are lighted on this evening. Hundreds of akashadipas (“sky lamps”) are hung each evening in little wicker baskets at the top of tall bamboo poles. During the period from the 11th (Prabodhini Ekadeshi) to the 15th (Purnima) day of the light fortnight of Karttika a festival called Ganga Mahotsava is organised at Rajendra Prasad Ghat. A revival of this evening festival called Deva Dipavali begun in 1985. During this period of five days musical performances are arranged in the evening, which are attended by a large mass of people. On about four dozen boats, scenes from the Ramayana are presented by devout Hindus and professional artists. One scene is presented on each boat, all arranged into a narrative sequence, starting at Asi Ghat and passing slowly to the Panchaganga Ghat. 

Many of the festivals are transformed into modern versions while others are on the verge of decay. Efforts have been made several times to revive them, but the impact of consumerism, individualism, the ever-increasing cost of living and the consequent lack of affordability by the common man have put serious obstacles in the way of such revivals and celebrations. Recently the UP Tourism and the Department of Culture, Govt of UP have made successful efforts to revive many of the festivals. However, they are not revived in a traditional manner but are conducted only so as to attract tourists and to get superficial popularity at the cost of putting on a big show that consumes a huge amount of public money.

3. Sikh Festivals

Of course, the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) actually denounced both caste and the common apparatus of religion like pilgrimage, ritual bathing, priests and dietary laws. However, over the course of time all these have been established and accepted as the norm of Sikhism. Most of the Sikhs also celebrate the major Hindu festivals, though they also have their own four main festivals (see Table 4). The first one, Sikh Jayanti, refers to the birth of the Sikh religion and is celebrated on the occasion of Mesha Samkranti, always falling on the 14th of April when the sun leaves the house of Pisces and enters into Aries. This is close to the Vernal Equinox (21 March). Guru Nanak Jayanti (birthday) is celebrated on the full moon day of Karttika (November-December). Shahid Divas is celebrated as the day of commemoration of Guru Tegh Bahabur’s death in 1675, when he was brought to Delhi by the Mughal authorities and was killed. The birthday (Jayanti) of his son, Guru Govind Singh (1675-1708), who was the 10th and last Guru, is celebrated as the day of the origin of the Khalsa, the brotherhood of all true Sikh believers.

Table 4.  Sikh Festivals (Lunar month), 2021 – 2025

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L, Light half period (Shukla, waxing).

4. Muslim Festivals

The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The year is divided into 12 lunar months. Being shorter than the solar, every year it decreases in comparison to the solar calendar. The major festivals are prescribed in the Holy Quran, and are further elaborated in the book of Hadiths. In span of time all the festivals were modified and slightly transformed to cope with the historical changes and cultural interaction. Among the general list of forty festivals related to both the Muslim groups, Shia and Sunni, seven are the most important with respect to participation, celebration and faith (cf. Table 5).

Muharrum refers to the first Islamic month. The 10th day of this month is celebrated by the Shia group of Muslims as mourning day, commemorating the martyrdom of Ali and his two sons, Hasan and Husain. This mourning period starts on the first day and ends on the 10th. A temporary house or hall (asur-khana) is made with pictorial decoration. On one side of this place stands the taziyas (taboots), structures made of wood covered with tinsel and profusely ornamented with costly costumes. The Taziya is a model of the tomb of Husain, a prophet of Madina who was killed in the war of Karbala. The number of Taziyas surpasses over 410 and its regional presence varies with respect to the concentration of Muslim population. Every evening a large crowd of people assembles there and takes part in group singing in honour of martyred Husain. On the 5th and 6th days, an over-night procession of singers, musicians, dancers and followers move from the starting places in procession with models and images and finally conclude the march at the Imambaras (“burial ground”) at Fatman, Dalmandi or Lat Bhairav. The internationally known shehnai-maestro ‘Bharat-Ratna’ Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) had to play shehnai continuously for the whole night while marching with the procession.

Table 5. Important Muslim Festivals, 2021 – 2025

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(* Sometimes the festival day varies + / - one day, subject to visibility of the Moon at the place)

Chehaluum marks the 40th day of the death of Imam Husain, and refers to his last funeral rites. This is mainly a family-level festival that is celebrated by fasting in the day and offering food to the poor in the evening. On the 12th day of the month of Rabiuul-awwal falls Barawafat which is believed to be the day of the Prophet Mohammed’s death. This day is celebrated among Sunni Muslims as “feast of the noble birth of the Prophet” (Jashn-i-milad-i-sharif). Celebration of Barawafat is not prescribed as a compulsory duty.

 Barawafat, popularly known as Mawlid-Un-Nabi is a festival of the Muslim community all over the globe, which signifies the birth of the prophet Muhammad. It is celebrated in the third month of the Islamic calendar with éclat and enthusiasm. The date of Barawafat varies between Shia and Sunni believers It is the traditional commemoration of the birth of Muhammad. Apart from Islamic majority countries, Mawlid is also celebrated by Muslim in other countries too. People are gathered in streets for processions on this day. The homes and mosques are decorated beautifully with light and colourful flags.

Shab-e-Barat is celebrated at the family level as to mark the night of the Miraz when Mohammed visited the other world. All Muslims pay a visit to their ancestral burial ground and ask for the blessing of a good life. Special cookies and food items are prepared on that day. This is fully narrated in the book of Hadiths. The last Friday in the month of Ramadan (“month of fasting”) is celebrated as ‘Al-wida’ (good bye) to the period of fasting, though in actual practice the fasting is continued till the full moon.

Idul-Fitr (“the feast of breaking the fast”), called Id, refers to the end of the period of fasting and the first day of the month of Shawwal. This is celebrated on a grand scale with shows, meetings, group feasts, and joie de vivre. This is the festival when Muslims invite their Hindu friends for group feasts. Special prayers (namaz) are organised at most of the historical mosques. Idul-Zuha, or Bakr-Id, refers to the 10th day of Jill-hizza when Prophet Ibrahim was ordered to offer that thing which was the dearest to him and finally, he had offered his son Ismael for sacrifice. In memory of this incident, sacrifice of cattle is performed. Thousands of goats, sheeps, rams and even buffaloes are killed for meat on this occasion. During this period the Muslim neighbourhoods where the butchering takes place become mired in slaughterhouse debris, particularly offensive to vegetarian Hindus.

The Ghazi-miyan ka Mela (“the fair of Ghazi-miyan”) is a Muslim festival, but is celebrated on the first Sunday of the Hindu month of Jyestha near the replica-tomb of Syed Salar Masud Ghazi, known as Ghazi-miyan, adjacent to the Bakaria Kund near the City Railway Station (Fig. 16). He was the nephew of Mahmud of Ghaznavi, who invaded and plundered most of the important cities of north India during the early 11th century. Ghazi-miyan came with him as a young soldier, and in 1033 was killed by the joint armies of Kalchuri King Gangeya Deva of Central India and King Suhaladeva of Bahraich. He died in Bahraich where on the same day a great fair takes place at his tomb. The fair lasts for the whole day, and the afternoon is spent in mass kite flying. Respectable persons are as a rule absent from this fair, and only persons belonging to the lower strata of both Hindus and Muslim society take part in it. Hindus and Muslims also share equally in opening stalls and shops. There is a great deal of Dafali-music and dance, which sends some women into hysterical trance and ecstasy, when they make prophecies and bless the persons who try to propitiate them at the time.

5. Other Festivals

The Christian community celebrates the three major festivals, viz. Easter, Good Friday and Christmas. These respectively refer to Jesus’ resurrection, crucifixion, and birthday on the 24th night. The birthday of Buddha (Vaishakha, full moon day), and the day he preached his first sermon at Sarnath are the two major festivals of the Buddhists. Among the Jain festivals, the notables are the birthday of Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara, on the 13th day of the light fortnight of Chaitra, and his death on the 15th day of the dark fortnight of Karttika, the Mukuta Saptami on the 7th day of the light fortnight of Shravana, Ratnatraya Vrat on the 14th day of the light fortnight of Bhadrapada, and Oli on the 6th day of the light fortnight of Ashvina.

Among the secular festivals of national importance are Independence Day (15th August), Republic Day (26th January), and the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi (2nd October), the Father of the Nation, and of Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Basic Sources

Singh, Rana P.B.  2009. Banaras, Making of India’s Heritage City. Planet Earth and Cultural Understanding, Series: 3. Cambridge Scholars Publishing Newcastle u. Tyne U.K.  

Singh, Rana P.B. 2009. Banaras, India’s Heritage City: Geography, History, & Bibliography.     [including Bibliography of 1276 sources, Hindu Festivals, 2006-15]. Pilgrimage and Cosmology Series: 8. Indica Books, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B. 2013. Hindu Tradition of Pilgrimage: Sacred Space and System. Dev Publishers, New Delhi.

Singh, Rana P.B. and Rana, Pravin S.  2021.  Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide. Pilgrimage & Cosmology Series: 1. Indica Books, Varanasi. 2nd Edition.

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