Starting mid-August, I would regularly hear my Indian friends discuss upcoming Hindu festivals. This is because the last few months of my stay in India were known as “festival season”. Hinduism is an incredibly diverse religion so I was always interested to hear my Hindu and Muslim coworkers’ interpret each festival. My friends and coworkers all have different knowledge and family traditions associated with each holiday and I found it interesting to piece together their understanding of the historical and cultural context of each festival.
As I began to learn more about the different festivals, I began to recognize the signs of an upcoming one. Just like before any major holiday in Canada, the streets and shops of Ajmer (a city in the state of Rajasthan where I spent the majority of my internship) would fill with decorations; shopkeepers would sell colorful statues of gods and big brands would use upcoming festivals to promote products.
Being able to participate in and learn about different festivals and celebrations was one of my favorite parts about living in India. In this blog, I want to highlight one of the festivals that I participated in and explain what I found most interesting about it. While I did have the opportunity to learn about and participate in a few festivals, my understanding of them remains surface level. Additionally, while the festival I discuss in this blog is celebrated as part of the Hindu religion, Islamic holidays are also widely celebrated across India.
Ganesh Chaturthi festival starts on the fourth day of Hindu lunar-solar calendar month Bhadrapada, which typically falls in Gregorian months of August or September. While I was in India, the festival fell in August. The festival is a ten-day celebration to honor the god Ganesh. Ganesh provides good fortune, prosperity, and success and is represented as an elephant. Members of different castes celebrate Ganesh festival differently. Some people celebrate the festival over a multi-day period, while others only celebrate a single day.
During my time in Ajmer, I was invited to celebrate with a friend and his community. In honor of Ganesh, a temporary temple with a stage, known as a pandals, was constructed in my friend’s neighborhood. For ten days straight, men, women, and children would gather together to dance, play games, and pray in honor of Ganesh. While I only attended two out of the ten evenings, I was able to participate in one of the games, which was reminiscent of musical chairs, and dance with the women. Both evenings were really fun for me to participate in, but they also highlighted some interesting dynamics within my friend’s community. For instance, nearly an equal number of men and women attended the evening festivities. Now women are involved in many of the festivals, but I had not seen such a large number of women actively participate in an evening event since being in India.
While I am generally cognizant of how women use space, I think my senses were particularly heightened during the festival as all the women and girls were dressed in formal traditional clothing. Furthermore, the young girls performed traditional Rajasthani dances, which were clearly choreographed in advance. In contrast, the majority of men wore casual clothing and while men and young boys did perform, they all chose to recreate contemporary forms of dance instead of something reflective of their Rajasthani heritage. The diverse forms of performances were fun to watch and were well received by the community. It was interesting however, to see how the women were associated with traditional Rajasthani culture, while the men preformed modern dance and wore western casual attire. After games and dance performances, a final offering to Ganesh was made before the evening wrapped up.
While I attended two evenings, the festival lasted ten days. On the final day, the stature of Ganesh was ceremoniously transported, with music, chanting, and dance, to a body of water. This symbolizes the return of Ganesh to Mount Kailash (The headwaters of the sacred Ganges River) and honours the goddess Parvati (the female goddess of fertility and love) and Shiva (the destroyed of evil). As Ganesh statues are traditionally made of sandstone, the stature is supposed to dissolve upon contact with water.
While I did have the opportunity to participate in a number of festivals, including Dussehra and Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi was one of the most memorable for me. A festival that is celebrated over ten-days reflects its importance to the community and particularly the respect people have for their gods. As someone who has had limited exposure to Hindu traditions and who leans best through experience, the ability to participate in Hindu festivals helped me understand the role of religion and celebration in India.
Photo information: A statue of the god Ganesh is carried into water. This particular picture is from Mumbai, but similar ceremonies are performed (at different scales) across the country, including in Ajmer. Credit: unknown