As a child living in India, I rarely paid attention to festivals.
The South, with its Dravidian traditions, is quite pro-festival. It is prone to celebrating just about any event with confections and new clothes, as though there were nothing more to life than one big party. But that’s the way I like it. After all, wouldn’t it be crazy to live in a culture where the opposite is the norm?
What you’ll see during a typical festival celebration is: food, food, and more food. In fact, I’m completely convinced that Indians celebrate festivals with the excuse to make and eat silver-foil wrapped edibles more than anything else. I do love eating, so I cannot complain. And familial visits take center stage: the pressure to pay visits to relatives and wish them is high. In these technology-centric days, things are changing in that the more traditional in-person visit is gradually being replaced with an e-greeting or a text message.
When I moved to the U.S. at the age of 16, I went into a bit of a culture shock. Okay, “a bit” is putting things mildly, and no matter how well prepared you are, the sudden separation between family and self hurts. And it did. It took me a long time to get back into finding myself and my cultural DNA because living in the US made me focus less on my Indian heritage and more on learning the pop nuances of being “Western.” Now that I have darling little Erika, I find myself wondering how I’ll raise her, and the answer is to teach her both sides of the fence (after all, we’re grooming her to be a traveler, so she’ll understand and appreciate Indian culture as well as her American roots). And of course, I’m learning more about myself and my cultural DNA through this experiment. Some festivals I warmed up to during my childhood are now begging repeat visits. These include: Pongal: I grew up in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and Pongal is one of the major festivals (if not THE major festival) of the state. During this festival, homes are decorated with sugar canes, in order to give thanks to the harvest. So, this festival has great importance in the agricultural community of South India, where farmers celebrate with great joy and spirit, particularly after a great harvest. It occurs in January. Vinayaka Chaturthi: This festival occurs during the month of August, and is the birthday of Lord Ganesha (this is the funny-looking Elephant God you may have seen in numerous pictures). The Elephant God is one of the major Gods in the pantheon of deities in India, and the birthday is another great excuse to make and consume sweets meant for the idols. Navaratri: Celebrated during the month of September/October, this is a nine day festival for three goddesses: Lakshmi (goddess of wealth), Durga (goddess of valor) and Saraswathi (goddess of knowledge). This involves of placing of several beautifully painted Indian dolls on nine steps (heirloom pieces). Diwali: This “festival of lights” is likely the festival you’ve really heard off. It’s enormously popular and a bit commercialized (think of it as the Indian equivalent of Christmas) where firecrackers with pinwheels, sparklers and rockets are lit and frost the sky for hours and sometimes days. Diwali was the highlight of my year while growing up. As kids, we could not wait to buy firecrackers at the store. The ironic thing is that Diwali often coincided with the wettest month of the year, and inevitably our crackers would get soggy, much to our serious dismay. This typically occurs at the end of October/ early November.
Diwali celebrations; credit, Abhinaba Basu Photography, Flickr
Kartigai Deepam: Celebrated during the monsoon (rainy) months of November and December, this festival is truly beautiful because it involves the lighting of deepams or lights in front of and inside homes. The result is often a lace-like row of clay lamps flickering at night and a truly spectacular sight. This particularly festival coincides with Diwali (my favorite festival) and is celebrated for nine days. The oldest festival in South India, the Karthigai Deepam is believed to ward off evil forces.
With the birth of my daughter, I learned about one more Indian celebration associated with the birth of a little one: the “Naming Ceremony.” Think of it as the South Indian version of the baptism, if you will. It typically occurs on the 11th day after the child’s umbilical cord falls off. Doting parents are supposed to dress up the child and place a bangle made of dark black glass beads on the wrist (typically an heirloom). Then the mother lovingly blesses the child and officially “names” him or her.
Because my parents were visiting (they’re the administrators of all things Indian in my household), I wanted to have this special ceremony for Erika:
We used gold bangels (worn by me as an infant) and a gold necklace to adorn the little one
This is the beautiful bangle that my parents gifted Erika: it traveled all the way from Chennai to New Jersey…
Erika in her Indian dress and pacifier…
With the glass-beaded bangle: she looks puzzled…