Category Archives: f. Worship Rituals and Festivals

The Karva Chauth Vrata

Of the various duties of a women (stridharma) the most important is a religious observance (vrata), which has fasting as a central element (Denton 24-31). Usually lasting from a day or two to a couple of weeks, vratas may involve group chanting, recitation of religious stories and or the creation of elaborate designs using colorful, powdered rice, but the most important element of the vrata is the fasting component (Denton 30-31). Dharma tends to elevate one feature of stridharma above all else and that is pativrata, the worshipful service of one’s husband (Denton 32). Vratas are mostly carried out by women for their husbands (suhag), the right to preserve their auspicious married state (saubhagya), or for their children (Pearson 78).

Although it may seem as if women are performing these vratas for the well-being of their family, that is not typically the case. According to the Manusmrti, being born a woman is considered the result of sins committed in one’s past life or lives. Being born sinful, a women is thought to be weak and impure, thus women should be “protected” at all stages of her life by male guidance who play an authoritative role in their lives. For example, when a girl is born, she is protected by her father and when she is married she is protected by her husband. Therefore, the Manusmrti declared that no sacrifice, vrata, and fast should be performed by a woman without her husband (Pearson 79-80). Nevertheless, women are considered ardhangani, or “half the body” of a male. The three goals of a householder dharma, artha, and kama are incomplete without the cooperation of one’s wife and therefore a women is essential to the welfare and dharmic duties of the male householder (Pearson 80). After marriage, women are considered to be responsible to perform all types of special vratas for the welfare of one’s husbands.

Taking place during the fall, Karva Chauth is an important observance followed by married Hindu women of Northern India. On this day, prayers are offered to Siva, Parvati, Ganesa and to Chandrama (God of the Moon) in return for the welfare, prosperity and longevity of their husbands. This vrata consists of a daylong fast obtained by the woman, where one is not allowed to consume water nor food (Melton 497). Over the years, this vrata is being recognized as a joyous occasion celebrated by all members of the family, as opposed to a duty forced upon women. Every year, on the fourth day of the waning moon in the Indian Hindu month of Kartika (October in the Western/Gregorian Calendar), the Karva Chauth festival is held. Women wake up early in the morning, before dawn, and enjoy a bite to eat with the other women of the household. Throughout the day, more preparations are made for the evening (Melton 497-498).

Henna is an important factor of this vrata. In some societies, henna is considered to be a very sensual, beautifying agent. Throughout this vrata, moments of one’s wedding day are reminisced. On wedding days, brides’ arms and feet are decorated with henna. Henna is said to bring good luck. In some societies henna is also seen as a cleanser to ritually “clean” the bride during the week of celebrations prior to the wedding. In the old days, henna was said to be emblematic of the blood stained sheets of the virgin bride after the consummation of her marriage (Monger 150). Amidst the preparations for the evening, applying henna to your arms is of significance to this vrata. It has been passed down for generations that the longer the henna stays on the girl’s hands, the longer her husband will love her (Monger 150).

Among these preparations, gift-giving among family members, especially the spouses, has become a common gesture. Mothers of wedded women will give gifts known as “Baya” (Melton 498). A husband giving a piece of jewellery or some kind of other gift to his wife is also common nowadays. The Karva Chauth vrata becomes a celebration by the evening. Women from neighboring homes and families related to the household come over and together the rest of the activities are carried out. Women adorn themselves in their finest jewellery and either dress up in their wedding dresses or in a new dress that is comparable to their wedding dress. After everybody is ready, before the moon comes out, women gather in a circle around the storyteller, who recites the story behind the vrata of Karva Chauth.

The Karva Chauth vrata is associated with many myths. The most popular myth is called The Kings Daughter (Beck and Claus 48-49). This myth consists of betrayal, repent, and sorrow. There was once a king with seven sons and the youngest of them all was a daughter who was very dear to everyone, especially her brothers. As would happen to any individual, the daughter grew up and got married. When the day came to keep a vrata for her husband, the daughter did as any other married women was to do, but the daughter was very delicate and weak and soon she became pale. This sight was unbearable to her brothers, so they hatched a plan to help their sister out of her misery. The brothers managed to create a fake moon, and the trick their sister into thinking it was the real moon so that she would break her fast and eat. The princess, unfortunately, believed her brothers and broke the fast by completing all the necessary rituals, but as fate has it, the next day her husband fell very ill. As days passed on his health got worse and no medication was effective. When she had no choice, the princess called the priests and asked what else could be done. The pandita (religious priests) informed the princess of how she had broken her fast before the moon had arose and therefore, her husband fell ill and has been waning since. Before leaving, the pundits advised the princess to wait until the next fourth day of the waning moon in the month of Kartika. They informed her to complete the vrata this time, fully. The princess did as she was told. She kept the fast until the moon was up and her husband’s health started getting better. The princess and her prince then lived happily ever after. [There are many interpretations of this myth depending on the region in India. One version, different from the one provided can be found in Melton (2011)].

In the evening the women of the house gather for the final rituals of the fast. Surrounding them will be a metal urn (karva) filled with water, a mud pot which is symbolic of the deity Ganesa, a statue of Parvati (Gaur Mata) and food items to offer the gods as well as the person selected to tell story (Melton 498). While waiting for the moon to arise, the women will listen to a version of the myth. The myth is told by a chosen older women with experience of the vrata. Upon seeing the moonlight, the women pass around the karva and offer water to Chandrama and ask for his blessings. These women then pray for their husband’s well-being and then worship their husband as if they were worshipping a deity (Melton 498). After worshipping their husbands, the husbands help break their fast, and they then enjoy a meal. During this time, and out of appreciation for their full day’s efforts, husbands tend to gift their wives jewellery or a new article of clothing (Melton 498).

The Karva Chauth vrata is undoubtedly one of the harder vratas due to the no consumption of food or water rule, which lasts from dawn until moonlight. Married Indian women are deemed to be responsible to complete vratas. Completing vratas is considered a way of cleansing one of their sins but according to the Manusmrti, for a women, there is no way to completely purify yourself. According to the Manusmrti the biggest sin is being a women.  (Pearson 79-80). Women were considered completely impure, and bad luck, which explains why in the older days baby girls were immediately disposed of after their birth. Nowadays women are more in power due to the growth of feminist point of views. With this, views on women have changed. Nowadays in bigger cities, women will be less interested in keeping vratas for their husbands. Women of this generation might worry about their body or may not believe in the concept of vrata. As time passes by, the role and rituals of women have changed. There are many women that still live in India that perform this and many other vratas for the well-being and safety of their husbands. Even people who live outside of India perform this vrata as it is not a difficult to perform. Karva Chauth is one of the more important vratas that is to be fulfilled or accomplished by women of an Indian household.



Beck, Brenda E. F (1987) Folktales of India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu Tradition: Rules, Roles, and Exceptions. Oxon: Routledge.

Channa, V.C (1984) Hinduism. New Delhi: National Publishing House.

Denton, Lynn Tesky (2004) Female Ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. New Jersey: Associated University Presses.

Monger, George P (2004) Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoons. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Pearson, Anne Mackenzie (1996) Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the
Religious Lives of Hindu Women.
Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2007) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rinehart, Robin (2004) Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, Culture, and Practice. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Teej Festival
Hindu Calendar System
Saivite Community
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Article written by: Nidhi Patel (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.


Thaipusam is a religious festival celebrated by Tamils that originated in South India, but is now particularly popular in Malaysia and Singapore. It is one of the largest festivals in Malaysia, even though Indians make up less than 10% of the population (Ward 317). It begins on the first day with a full moon during the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar (January to February) and lasts for three days. This time of the year is a powerful occasion due to the austerity associated with the astrological signs of the full moon.

There are several versions of how the celebration originated, but the most widely accepted one includes the defeat of the evil demon Surapadma by the god Murugan, son of Parvati and Siva. It was believed that Surapadma victimized and hurt people, so the people asked Parvati to send her son to help them. However, she was unable to grant their request because Murugan was practicing asceticism in isolation. Not deterred by this, the people proceeded to where Murugan was living, who was touched by their journey and decided to help the people. On the day worshippers now celebrate Thaipusam, Parvati had given him a sacred lance to use as a weapon that aided in his defeat of Surapadma (Collins 63). Another, less popular, origin story claims that Murugan was taken away from his place of asceticism to be married in a temple. By accident, the priest polluted the auspicious ceremony by sneezing, so the marriage had to be postponed until the following year (Collins 77). Even though Hindus have differing opinions on how Thaipusam originated, they collectively celebrate it in the same way.

The celebration comprises of a three-day festival and has a particularly busy schedule for followers. Before the sun rises on the first day of Thaipusam, a Pandaram, a non-Brahmin priest, meets other festival committee members at a shop-house, which holds a chariot and a murti (image) of Murugan. The festival usually begins at 4:00AM when the Pandaram performs puja (worship) on the image, anointing and dressing it, and passing flaming lights before the image (arati). At 8:00AM, a chariot procession begins. Behind the chariot, about twenty men and a couple of boys carry wooden arches called kavadis on their shoulders with a pot of milk suspended at either end. They walk without shoes because of the sacred journey they are beginning. Large throngs of worshippers gather around the chariot to make offerings to Murugan and to touch sacred ash to their bodies.

While the chariot, murti, and the garments worn by celebrants are physically and elaborately decorated, the festival is also embellished artistically through dance and music. Along the journey, kavadi dances (kavadi attam) take place, where dancers form in circles and seem to enter a trance as the music intensifies and their dancing becomes more complicated. Sometimes, individuals are seen dropping to the ground in a faint, overcome with the spiritual presence of the god. Fan-bearers follow, along with musicians playing drums and other instruments (Collins 62-68).

The procession is usually finished by 10:00PM and the murti is brought into the innermost chambers of a temple, where it is kept for two days. Immediately after the murti is placed there that night, devotees make a pilgrimage up a large hill or temple steps. In Malaysia, a full night of walking takes Hindus up almost three hundred steps to the Batu Caves, an essential component of Thaipusam.  The caves serve as shrines and relate to the story of how Murugan conquered Surapadma. The second day of the festival is spent at this sacred place, where Murugan is worshipped and vows are received (Ward 319). That night, they make their way back down and the Pandaram, temple committee, musicians, and other worshippers take Murugan’s image out of the temple. They proceed back to the shop-house that holds the chariot, murti, and kavadis where the festival started. There, one last puja is performed before the festival is over and everyone heads home (Collins 88).

Prior to their time in the Batu Caves, Hindus will make vows in anticipation that they will be fulfilled symbolically through the act of the rituals performed throughout the length of the festival. Rituals encourage festival celebrants to leave material pursuits in preference for spiritual devotion and thanksgiving, representative of Murugan’s asceticism. Most Hindus are motivated by these vows, where they make an offering for a specific period of time and in turn, their vows are fulfilled. Thaipusam devotees often ask for requests that involve marriage, health and financial concerns, and educational wishes (Ward 318-319). Asceticism has many expressions, ranging from generic rituals to the more radical rituals. One simple ritual often associated with Thaipusam is head-shaving (pirarttanai mudi), which allows the devotee to become free of sin by removing hair, which acts as a pollutant.  More complex rituals usually include body piercing. Worshippers will sleep on the ground in the temple courtyard the night before the festival, then take a ritual bath and have incense passed before their faces, ensuring that the presence of Murugan is strong. They will go into a trance and have hooks and skewers inserted into their bodies. The power of Murugan is believed to be the reason why blood is rarely shed and celebrants report that they feel little to no pain during mortification of the flesh. The most extreme part of this ritual an individual may perform includes pulling a chariot by the hooks pierced into one’s back, while carrying milk pots from the chest and from a six foot long lance, pierced through the cheeks (Collins 80-82).

The trances can affect humans biologically, psychologically, and physiologically. Similar impacts from trances are seen wherever they are practiced, even across different cultures (Simpson 21). This altered state of consciousness is defined as a change in the typical pattern of how an individual mentally operates (Ward 308). It can occur in many different ways, with forms including religious ecstasy and spirit possession more difficult to study empirically compared to forms like sleep and hypnosis. However, trances are typically demonstrated by changes in facial expressions and posture of the individuals, and there is still a conscious awareness of their surroundings, posing little harm to themselves or others (Kiev 134).

During Thaipusam, trances are strongly induced by sensory stimuli. Sanskrit prayers are heard chanted by religious followers and a pujari (temple priest), while burning incense is in the air. Trances are also aided physiologically by the feeling of light-headedness from fasting before the festival (Ward 320). Field observations suggest that the chanting, music, and dancing stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain and disrupt the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic system will dominate, causing muscle tension and decreases in breathing rates. This is responsible for inducing and maintaining the altered state of consciousness (Ward 312, 323). Individuals often report that after coming out of their altered state of consciousness, which is also associated with feelings of floating and extreme emotions, they experience a sense of exhilaration and rejuvenation (Ward 322). This lack of pain that they feel is suggested to be from the release of endorphins, blockage in the sympathetic nervous system, or modification of the physiological process from previous experience (Prince 310-311).

Positive psychological benefits of trances include prestige and respect paid to the individual by others, in addition to the ability to release emotions that may have been previously held in due to shame.  Interpersonal relationships across different classes that would otherwise be frowned upon can also be formed. On a more encompassing level, these trances can encourage cohesion within a subculture by tightening social structure and interaction between the community and individuals (Ward 316-317). Despite possible pain and bleeding, both individuals and groups of people can benefit from the piercings as a release of emotions and a way for a community to fulfill status needs (Ward 331).

Individuals have had to find different ways to personally worship Murugan because of the politics in Malaysia throughout history. During the colonial period, the British administration banned all Malaysians from celebrating Thaipusam, worried that it could be used as a cover for violent acts. In the 1960s, the ban was retracted because the authorities viewed religion as a way to bring peace (Collins 89). While these celebrations are still banned in India, over the years there has been a significant increase in the number of people celebrating Thaipusam in Malaysia (Ward 324). In a matter of only 20 years, beginning in 1980, the number of people participating at the Batu Caves increased from 500 to over 3 000 (Collins 89). There are several reasons for the increase in number, one being that it provided a more egalitarian aspect. A festival to an Amman (village goddess) was meant for vow fulfillment and celebrated in various Malaysian cities. Everyone had an important role, including the Untouchables, to ensure that the community did not bring disgrace to their goddess. Gradually, as more estate owners discouraged participation in the festival, labourers headed to the Thaipusam festivals for a sense of equality with others (Collins 91-92). In addition, temples eventually became accessible to “Untouchables” and transportation was more widely available, resulting in the resurgence of people worshipping Murugan (Clothey 115-116).

Furthermore, an increase in crowds due to tourism has been observed at Thaipusam festivals. While it can be an attractive tourism activity for foreigners, it is meant to be a sacred religious time for devotees, and the challenge is to balance both of these aspects (Weidenfeld and Ron 358). The possibility of a large amount of profit should not affect the spiritual acts of worship and celebration; however, domestic travel in Malaysia alone has increased just from Hindus travelling to the Batu Caves for a few days every year. While some practitioners report that they do not mind tourists, others think that their presence can be disrespectful, especially when tour operators and foreigners are said to not have the consideration to dress appropriately or to abstain from smoking on temple grounds. Tourists often come to the celebration to witness the remarkable event, and worshippers may feel pressured to meet those requirements, which could lead them to stray away from the authenticity of the festival. Another negative force on the worship from the increase in the festival’s popularity is the large number of crowds in the limited space at the caves. The Batu Caves are particularly popular; followers explain that the environment of being surrounded by people at a splendorous temple, elevated high on a hill, makes them feel closer to their god. In order to alleviate congestion in these temple centres, better management on transport could be implemented, or people could be encouraged to visit the other various temples spread throughout the country (Kasim 444-452).

The festival has generated controversy among different groups of people in today’s society. In recent years, the authorities in Singapore banned music from the festival altogether. Celebrants argue that both music and dance are essential in religious expression (Kong 241-242), and it is noted that the loud beating of drums in the lion dance performed on the streets on Chinese New Year is still allowed. However, people may argue that the Thaipusam ceremonies focus on the ostentatious aspect of body piercing. Some devotees spend up to $300 for kavadis, and there have been regulations put into place in Malaysia, specifically Penang, prohibiting the use of cheek skewers longer than eight feet (Ward 325). Piercing bodies with hooks and skewers also raises questions about the safety of participants. During the 1970s and 1980s, the methods of body mortification became more dangerous, like wearing shoes made out of nails (Jegindo et al. 174). To what extent should the authorities control the acts of religious worshippers for the safety of everyone? Even with these differing opinions, the festival becomes an increasingly popular time of year when over a million Hindus take part in both the joyous and sacred aspects of the festival dedicated to Murugan.



Clothey, Fred (2005) The many faces of Murukan: the history and meaning of a South Indian God. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Collins, Elizabeth (1997) Pierced by Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Jegindo, Else-Marie, Lene Vase, Jens Jegindo, and Armin Geertz (2013) “Pain and Sacrifice: Experience and Modulation of Pain in a Religious Piercing Ritual.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 23, No. 3: 171-187.

Kasim, Azilah (2011) “Balancing Tourism and Religious Experience: Understanding Devotees’ Perspectives on Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia.” Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management, Vol. 20, No. 3-4: 441-456.

Kiev, Ari (1961) “Spirit Possession in Haiti.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 118, No. 2: 133-138.

Kong, Lily (2005) “Religious Processions: Urban Politics and Poetics.” Temenos, Vol. 31, No. 2: 225-249.

Prince, Raymond (1982) “The Endorphins: A Review for Psychological Anthropologists.” Ethos, Vol. 10, No. 4: 303-316.

Simpson, George (1964) “The Acculturative Process in Trinidadian Shango.” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1: 16-27.

Ward, Colleen (1984) “Thaipusam in Malaysia: a psycho-anthropological analysis of ritual trance, ceremonial possession and self-mortification practices.” Ethos, Vol. 12, No. 4: 307-344.

Weidenfeld, Adi and Amos Ron (2008) “Religious Needs in the Tourism Industry.” Anatolia, Vol. 19, No. 2: 357-361.


Related topics for Further Investigation


Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves








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Article written by: Michelle Kwan (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sraddha: Death Rituals and Ancestral Rites

Sraddha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘faith’ and can be perceived as a state of mind employed when performing Vedic rituals (Cush, Robinson and York 822).  There are in fact two different meanings for the term sraddha, which differentiate themselves by the position of the long vowel on the ‘a’. To best understand the term sraddha, it is essential to highlight the associations between the two words, as they are to an extent intertwined. Sraddha, without intonation of the ‘a’ has been found in many Vedic writings, including a Vedic hymn where sraddha is referred to as a “goddess whom fire is kindled and offerings made, who is invoked at morning, noon, and sunset” (Cush, Robinson and York 822). It can be noted, that sraddha in this instance is referred to as a goddess, to whom ritual offerings are expected to be made morning, noon, and sunset. The Sanskrit commentator Ramanuja in the Bhagavagita describes sraddha as “zeal in a course of action, based on confidence that it will produce a desired result.” (Cush, Robinson and York 822). This is a reference to ‘faith’ in a desired ‘result’, alluding to the second meaning of sraddha as an ‘action’ with the same result. As mentioned in the Mahabharata and Visnu Purana, sraddha is the daughter of daksa and wife of dharma, who represents generosity to brahmanas. This example emphasizes the representation of sraddha as the giving of gifts or offerings to the brahmana who symbolize the dead. These periodical offerings to the dead occur twelve days after a death and annually on the anniversary of the death. This meaning of sraddha that is the topic of this article, the first given with the intonation on ‘a’,is translated to ‘belonging to sraddha’ refering to the ritual offerings to the deceased but also intertwined with ‘faith’ in the goddess sraddha, who can be understood as the source of these rituals (Cush, Robinson and York 822).

Furthermore, sraddha can be understood as rites for the dead or ancestral worship, consisting of texts, prayers and food offerings, and oblation of pindas (rice balls) to the deceased and their forefathers (Krishan 97). Sraddha rituals can thus be perceived as comparable to the last of the samskaras or life-cycle rituals, akin to antiyesti or the ‘final sacrifice’ of a ‘twice-born’ Hindu male.  Sraddha is regarded as inauspicious, meaning a certain level of impurity surrounds a deceased person. Impurity is thought to develop through direct contact with the body,that connects the living family members to the spirit of the deceased as they are buried (Nicholas 374). Impurity, pollution, and release from these apprehensions are the questions that surround the sraddha rites.

To fully understand sraddha one must first investigate the significance behind death and what it symbolizes in the Hindu religion. Belief in bhutas and pretas, meaning spirit and soul respectively, is the base of the sraddha rite. It is believed that after death, the soul wanders the earth aimlessly, unable to attain rebirth or reach the realm of the ancestors (pitr-loka) until the prescribed rites are performed (Krishan 97). Death is understood as one of the single most polluting actions that will affect the deceased and their relatives. Sraddha is used to amend this, as it prescribes the appropriate purifications of the corpse, cremation as an offering to the sacred fire, and the appropriate ritual actions to be performed after death. Rodrigues states that “in a world view that sees existence as cyclical, death marks a transition to another state of existence, and as such needs to be commemorated and guided through ritual action” (Rodrigues 87). This emphasizes the importance of sraddha in death, guiding ritual action.

Certain restrictions surround sraddha rites, including who may perform and receive them. The rites may only performed for those who have died a natural death, yet even then women and children are not as likely to be honored as are adult males. Through sraddha, the natural dead become ancestors sustained through annual rituals and sacrifice until they are reborn. Some Hindu cults ‘deify’ those who were victims of violent deaths, died prematurely, or who sacrificed themselves which qualifies as dying a ‘hero’s death’. This differs slightly from classical sraddha ceremony, but is still similarly intertwined, as the family moves from worship of an ancestor to worshipping the deceased as though they are god-like. In this case, ancestral shrines evolve into cult centers for clan gods. Sraddha rituals are often deemed more complicated than the details of ritual god worship (Crooke 265). Deification offers insight into the interpretations that people of different regions and backgrounds may take towards ancestral worship, similar to the fine lines and restrictions that surround the sraddha practice itself.

To further expand upon the specific details and goals of the sraddha ritual, the decacesed person or preta, is in need of a bodily vehicle to continue its transcendence into the realm of the ancestors. The rites themselves are thought to be auspicious, as sraddha is performed for the benefit of the deceased. The pinda (food offering) is fed to the spirit or preta, giving it strength for its upcoming journey to the ‘next’ realm. If the spirit is not properly fed, then it will linger in the human realm, reminding the living of their presence (Nicholas 374). This body or vehicle known as pinda, made of barley or wheat flower, symbolizes the various body parts or bodily needs of the preta, ranging from finger nails to legs, and hunger to thirst. The sraddha ritual is meant to span a year but has since been condensed to twelve days. It is prescribed that the pinda be prepared for each of the twelve days after cremation, but often the ritual offering is performed only on the tenth day. Many symbolic actions ensue, including the release of a bull or cow that symbolizes the freeing of the preta to cross over to the next realm. Priests of particular jatis are often invited to these rites and asked to eat part of a pinda containing some of the diseased relatives ground up ashes and bones to aid in removing the sinfulness or impurity of the deceased spirit (Rodrigues 88). In doing so, it symbolizes that the priest takes on and transmutes any of the sinfulness that remained in the dead person.

There are three principal types of sraddhas. Parvana sraddha or anvaharya sraddha is the first model of sraddha in which Brahmins are given the food offerings made monthly by male descendants of the deceased. Ekoddista sraddha differs from parvana: the ritual is perfomed monthly for a full year after the death of the individual, Brahmins are not invited and the ceremonies can be performed by women. Finally, sapindikarana is a mix of parvana and ekoddista sraddha (Krishan 97).

The sapindikarana rite, which takes place on the twelfth day after death, has been highlighted by multiple scholars. This sraddha can be described as the blending of the deceased with his forefathers (Knipe 111). The symbolization of sapindikarana has been emphasized as elevating the preta from disembodied spirit to member of the ancestral realm. By elevating the newly deceased spirit, the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are each moved up, pushing the latter beyond the ancestral realm. Each ancestor, aforementioned, receives a pinda, including the newly deceased which symbolizes the bodily vehicle of the ancestor. These pindas are divided into three and joined equally, symbolizing the preta being joined or merged with the other three ancestral spirits, acknowledging the newly received preta with ancestral status. Once this status is received through sapindikarana, the ancestor is no longer at risk to wander the world of the living, to haunt the living, or to fall into a demonic realm or an unfortunate rebirth. The ancestor is eligible to receive worship regularly, typically at the anniversary of their death and specified days during the year, including Pitr-Paska which occurs September and October (Rodrigues 88). The cycle begins with death and cremation, and ends with the deceased release.

Impurity and pollution are apprehensions that surround death rituals and ancestral rites and have been considerably investigated by scholars. In the family, births and deaths are both impure actions. Impurity does not always affect all the members of a family, sometimes only a select few. Birth mainly affects the mother, while death can follow all the relatives of a family wherever they may be, thus providing a reason for the cleansing rituals and worship that embody sraddha. Like most samskara or life-cycle rituals, rites vary regionally, by caste, socially, and linguistically. The impurity (asauca) that surrounds sraddha rites is not an exception.  Duration for birth-impurity and death-impurity vary between castes or varnas. For the Brahmins, impurity lasts ten days, in the Kshatriya caste twelve days, in Vaishya caste fifteen days and in Shudra caste thirty days (Nicholas 368). These time periods would qualify as full-impurity, where partial-impurity can also occur in shorter durations. Special cases of impurity durations ensue in accordance with different kinds of deaths. If a women miscarries a baby, it is only the mother that is affected by impurity for the duration of the time of her pregnancy. For the death of a child, impurity varies on caste and time of death of the child. If the child dies shortly after birth during the birth-impurity time then the parents have only one day of impurity. Differences in impurity due to sex are also noted. A girl is considered less closely related to her relatives and ancestors than a boy would be, so the rituals would incorporate less of her kinsman (Nicholas 372). As exemplified, impurity can touch all members of a family for variable amounts of time due to death but the appropriate performance of sraddha rites cleanses the deceased of impurity and, therefore, the relatives of the deceased.

Overall, the sraddha rituals are rich in tradition and unmask the Hindu conceptions towards death, impurity, and what realms lie outside of the living. Sraddha rituals are an establishment of the relationship between the living and the deceased. With death comes initial shock, quick preparations of the body, followed by cremation, and resolved finally with sraddha rituals the following day. The rituals begin with symbolic assembly of the deceased body as vehicle for travel into the ‘next’ realm, followed by the appropriate prayers and ritual offerings for the prescribed amount of time. The sraddha rituals provide the family with a means and a sanctioned period of time to mourn their loss. They provide assurance that the deceased will successfully transition into the realm of the ancestors, where they will continue to be remembered and appropriately worshipped for generations to come.

References and Further Recommended Readings:

Crooke, William (1909) Death; Death Rites; Methods of Disposal of the Dead among the Dravidian and other Non-Aryan Tribes of India. Sankt Augustin: Anthropos Institute.

Cush, Denise, Catherine Robinson and Michael York (2008) “Sraddha (Faith)” Encyclopedia of Hinduism (p. 822). New York: Routledge.

Knipe, David M. (1977) “Sapindikarana: The Hindu Rite of Entry into HeavenIn Frank E. Reynolds, and Earle H. Waugh eds., Religious Encounters with Death (p.111). London: Pennslyvania State University Press.

Krishan, Y. (1985) The Doctrine of Karma and Sraddhas. Pune: Bhandakar Oriental Research.

Ralph, W. Nicholas (1982) “Sraddha, Impurity and relations between the living and the dead” In: Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont (p.368-374). New Delhi: Montilal Bonarsidass.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Noteworthy Websites of Related Topics:


Related Topics for Further Investigation:



Sapindikarana Sraddha




Parvana Sraddha

Ekodistana Sraddha

Article written by Elisha Hunter (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Festivals and Vratas of the Hindu month of Kartik(a)

Kartik(a) is the eighth month of the Saka Calendar, the calendar employed in India, falling between the Western Calendar months of October and November (Melton 398). Kartik is seen by some Hindus as one of the three most popular and widely anticipated months of the Hindu calendar for its hospitable weather and religious importance (Pintchman 2004;23). The term vrata appears in various Hindu texts including the Vedas, first appearing in the Rgveda, the Puranas, and is even discussed in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata (see Pearson 1996;45-84). In the Rgveda, vrata is associated with maintaining the cosmic order (dharma), and may be different from one person to another, or from one god to another (see Pearson 45-46). Vrata are viewed as a way to express one’s faith and attain auspicious benefits (Pearson 62).  Auspiciousness is a very important attainment in Hinduism and is related to health and happiness and may be achieved through partaking in certain vrata (Pintchman 2003:330). Generally, vrata is defined as a religious vow or observance requiring abstinence, or restriction, from various activities, such as eating (Pintchman 2004:23). However, vrata may also require the performance of certain behaviors or activities, such as snana (bathing) (Pintchman 2004:23).

Vrata performed during the auspicious Hindu months of Kartik (Skt. Kartika), Vaisakh (Skt. Vaisakha) and Magh (Skt. Magha), are perceived to yield more benefits than vrata performed during other months (Pearson 91). As a result a great multitude of vrata, especially month-long vrata, are emphasized and practiced during these months (Pearson 91). The month long vrata include ritual bathing (snana), Hindu worship (puja), recitation of religious texts, or of texts that contain a narrative specific to the vrata or puja, charity, and abstinence from food (fasting) (Pearson 91). A great number of vrata and puja practiced during Kartik are specifically dedicated to the Hindu deity Krsna, a popular avatar of Visnu. However, there also exists puja dedicated to other Hindu deities, such as Laksmi (Hindu goddess) and Lord Brahma during Kartik.

A great number of vrata are largely conducted by women, which has to do with the connection between women and vrata. Though men and women are both equally allowed to partake in vrata, women tend to take over the carrying out of the vrata because of the connection between vrata and maintaining the health and well being of the family, which is largely the role of women in Hindu society (Pearson 126). Popular Kartik vrata include the Kartik puja and Kartik snana, which are done in observance of the Kartik vrata. These specific puja and snana are widely performed in the Indian city of Banares and are largely conducted by female votaries and dedicated to Krsna. During the month long Kartik vrata in Banares, women perform daily snana (bath) in the Ganges before sunrise, as this is dictated to increase meritorious benefits (Pintchman 2004:23). This portion of the vrata is viewed to be crucial to the Kartik vrata, even more important than the fasting portion of the vrata (Pintchman 2004:23). After the daily snana, a portion of female votaries partake in Kartik puja, which is also done in observance of the Kartik Vrata and includes the construction of murtis, singing, offerings and ends with the marriage of Krsna to Tulsi, the basil plant goddess (see Pintchman 2004:23-24). After the snana, female votaries build murtis (icons) of Hindu deities, including Krsna, while the other murtis constructed are also seen to partake in worshipping Krsna alongside the votaries (Pintchman 2004:24). For the first portion of the month long vrata Krsna is viewed as an infant, and the women see themselves as the gopis (female cowherdesses) who looked after Krsna during his childhood in Vrindavan (Pintchman 2004:24). The Kartik puja includes replicating the Krsna rasa-lila, a mythological dance circle in which Krsna multiplies himself and then has intercourse with each of the gopis, and singing and bathing the icons in the Ganges (Pintchman 2004:24). This replication of Hindu mythology is a part of many puja and vrata, and is referred to as vrat-kautha, the story of the vrata (Pintchman 2003:150). Halfway through the month of Kartik the women bring in a Brahmin priest, the first involvement of a male in the vrata, to perform the sacred thread ceremony on Krsna (Pintchman 2004:24). The sacred thread ceremony marks Krsna’s transition into manhood, and for the occasion the women make a new brass murtis of Krsna (Pintchman 2004;24). For the second half of the Kartik vrata Krsna is understood to be a man, no longer an infant, and the women spend the remainder of the month planning Krsna’s marriage to the Tulsi, the basil plant goddess, who is also viewed to be auspicious (Pintchman 2004:24). The wedding between the two Hindu deities takes place on Prabhodani Ekadashi, the day that Visnu awakens from a four month long slumber, which also contributes to the auspiciousness of Kartik as a month (Pintchman 2004:24). The month long Kartik vrata ends on the last day of Kartik, the night of the full moon (purnima) on which Krsna and Tusli depart for Krsna’s parents’ home (sasural) and consummate their marriage (Pintchman 2004:24).

Other ceremonies performed during Kartik in specific worship of Krsna is Gyana Panchami, also referred to as Knowledge Day, a day of Jain worship which occurs on the fifth day during Kartik (Melton 454). The worship includes visiting temples and reading Jain scripture (Melton 454). Another celebration during Kartik is Kartika Purnima, told in Matsya Purana and centers on the first avatar of Visnu, Matsya (Melton 493). A popular vrata observed on the fourth day of the waning moon in Kartik is Karwa Chauth, when married women pray for the health of their families, specifically their husbands, and includes fasting for the day (Melton 497-498).

Though Kartik is largely known as a Hindu month, there also exists a Hindu warrior deity Kartik, whom has specific puja dedicated to him. A group of women perform the puja, Usha Bhasani, during the month of Kartik in observance of this deity (Choudhury 341). The puja is performed in the Cachar district of Assam and takes place on the last day of the month of Kartik (Choudhury 341). Usha Bhasami includes a Brahmin priest, but primarily focuses on the growing of a miniature garden in which an effigy, a figurine made of dirt or cloth and, in this case, made to look like a crude bride, is hidden in the garden (Choudhury 341). The effigy is placed alongside a picture of Kartik (as the Hindu warrior deity) and then immersed in the closest body of water (Choudhry 341). Usha Bhasami includes vrat-kautha, a narrative of the mythology behind the puja. Single women are not allowed to partake in the puja.

Although a large portion of puja conducted during Kartik center on Krsna, there are puja dedicated to other Hindu deities, such as Laksmi (Hindu goddess) and Lord Brahma. Laksmi puja is performed in Benares during Kartik, again by women votaries, and includes cleaning and white washing the home (Pearson 87). The women will then take rice powder and trace footprints with the powder leading from the door of the household to the center of the house (Pearson 87). The footprints are seen as outlines of the goddess’ feet, and are drawn leading into the home to try and entice the goddess into bringing her auspiciousness and good fortune into the home until the next Laksmi puja is conducted in the following year (Pearson 87).

Another observance during Kartik is Bhaiyaduj, or “Brother’s Second”, in which sisters pay tribute to their brothers (Pearson 87). The Karva Cauth Vrat is usually observed during this time as well, and is conducted by women for the well being of their husbands (Pearson 87).

While Kartik is widely known for the many vrata and puja carried out during the month, a large number of festivals and celebrations are also carried out during the month. Kojagari is festival occurring on the first night of the Kartik full moon (purnima) and is done in honour of Laksmi (Pintchman 2003:330). The festival involves both men and women, with participants staying up well into the night to receive blessings from Laksmi, who travels the night asking “ko jagarti”, which translates to “Who is awake?” (Pintchman 2003:330). Divali is another popular festival conducted during Kartik which takes place between the dark and light fortnights in the middle of Kartik (Pintchman 2003:330). During the festival, Laksmi re-roams the earth and observers light lamps to guide the goddess, once again, into people’s homes (Pintchman 2003:330).

A large pilgrimage, the pilgrimage to Pushkar Lake for the Kartik Full-Moon Fair, also takes place during Kartik and includes snana, competitions, circuses, holy men and a large amount of sociabilizing (see Jacobson 8-14). The pilgrimage follows the creation story of Pushkar Lake, which was created by Lord Brahma (creator of the universe) when he cast a lotus blossom to earth creating the lake [Pushkar also means lotus] (Jacobson 8). Pushkar is considered a sacred place and in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, the ideal pilgrimage is dictated as beginning at Pushkar (Jacobson 8). The pilgrimage and festival brings together various groups of Hindus, and has a highly celebratory atmosphere, including the a performance of the Murwarj Khel, a dramatic musical based on traditional Hindu stories (see Jacobson 8-14). The festival culminates on Kartik Purnima [full moon], and during that day, before the full moon, participants take what is considered a very auspicious snana early in the morning (see Jacobson 8-14).

Kartik is an auspicious month in which a multitude of vrata, puja, festivals and even pilgrimages occur. These religious and festive events help to strengthen the Hindu community, uniting worshippers together through religious observances, specifically through the practice of vrata. These practices help to re-affirm valued Hindu institutions, such as marriage, and to celebrate the roles of women in Hindu society, such as the role of women as protector of their family’s health and well being (see Pintchman 2003:23-32).



Choudhury, Sujit (1997) “Kartik worship in the Cachar district of Assam.” Folklore 18 #11       (November): 341-347.

Fruzzetti, Lina (1982) The Gift of a Virgin: Women, Marriage, and Ritual in a Bengali society.    New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Jacobson, Doranne (1979) “Pilgrimage to Pushkar.” Asia 2 #3 (September-October): 8-14

Melton, J. Gordon (2011) Religious Celebrations; An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals,  Solemn Observances and Spiritual Commemorations. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mishra, Nihar Ranjan (2004) Kamakhya; A Socio-Cultural Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Pearson, Anne Mackenzie (1996) “Because It Gives Me Peace Of Mind,” Ritual Fasts in the             Religious Lives of Hindu Women. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2004) “Courting Krishna on the banks of the Ganges: gender and power in a            Hindu women’s ritual tradition.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the  Middle East 24 #1: 23-32

____(2003) “The month of Kartik And Women’s Ritual Devotions to Krishna in Benares.” In The Blackwell Companion To Hinduism. Gavin Flood (ed.). Pintchman: Blackwell. pp. 327-342.

Pintchman, Tracy (2003) Guests At God’s Wedding: Celebrating Kartik Among The Women of           Benares. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2011) Woman and goddess in Hinduism: reinterpretations and re-envisionings. New York: Palgrave Macmillon.

Pintchman, Tracy (c2007) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press.

Rhodes, Constantina Eleni (2010) Invoking Lakshmi; The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony. Albany: State University of New York.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Lord Brahma


The Mahabharata




Aksaya Navami Puja

Krsna Lila



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Stephanie Blencowe (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Thaipusam Festival

Every year in late January or early February, Hindu worshippers celebrate the festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a popular event that draws out crowds of people, as they are spectators or participants in this Hindu festival. Thaipusam is celebrated throughout various regions of Malaysia; The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpar is the most widely recognized site of Thaipusam. However, it is celebrated in various Malaysian states including Penang, Perak, and Melaka. It is said to be the biggest, and most intense religious event to take place in Malaysia (Kasim 449). Devotees of the Hindu deity Murugan gather together as they are pierced in various parts of their bodies (including tongue, cheeks, forehead, and back) and barefooted, they carry a statue of Murugan, an altar prepared for him, or a chariot, up to a sacred temple to worship and give offerings, such as milk, coconut, flowers, and incense to this supreme deity (Collins 80).

Although Thaipusam was traditionally festival of the Tamil people, it now draws in many different groups: Hindus from various backgrounds, Sikhs, members of the Sinhalese community in Malaysia, as well as Chinese devotees (Kasim 446). It continues to grow each year in popularity. More devotees are attending the festival, as well as more curious onlookers. They gather in late January or early February, depending on the time of the full moon; this is known as the Hindu month of Thai (Collins 79). Numbers attending the festival have grown over the years. Approximately one million people gather for this yearly event (Kasim 445).

One must ask, what is the importance of Murugan? Why has it become an annual tradition to celebrate this Hindu deity? The creation of Murugan is explained in a myth that contains Siva, Parvati, asuras [demon enemies of the gods], and the pleas from various other gods.

Separated from Parvati, Siva granted the asura brothers the power to rule the universe as they pleased. The asuras took power in a destructive way that oppressed other Hindu gods. The oppressed gods pleaded with Siva to create a son who would be able to destroy the asura brothers. Siva agreed, and Murugan was created. Parvati returned to Siva’s side and helped to raise the new god. As a child, Murugan was said to be playful, and exhibit great force. As he aged into manhood Siva and Parvati equipped Murugan with weapons including the vel, which is widely recognized today as a symbol of Murugan. Murugan is always pictured with his vel: a sharp spear-like weapon that is said to be strong enough to destroy an illusion, and help man to understand his truth. As the myth has it, Murugan, armed with weapons, and his vel, managed to annihilate the asuras and restore cosmic order. He was then worshipped as a supreme deity (Handelman 134-135). It has also been documented that Murugan is a deity who is associated with many various aspects, including hunt, war, love, and divine beauty. His name is said to stem from the word muruga meaning “tenderness, youth, beauty” (Collins 19).

When asked the significance and what Thaipusam means to them, devotees express that it is a joyous day, which allows them to be reborn, renewed from past sins, and purified (Kasim 447). Before the festival, the devotees participating in the pilgrimage endure a month-long cleansing period. This cleansing period is said to allow the devotees to prepare themselves for the endurance required for the festival. During this month they are denied sex, alcohol, and tobacco, and they meditate more frequently. This prepares them to mentally prepare for the journey that lies ahead (Kasim 447). In the days before the festival, devotees can be found sitting silently in temples, sharpening the hooks and skewers that will be used during the festival. Some devotees construct elaborate kavadi, which are square based altars that rest on a person’s shoulders and are secured around their waists with a belt. A picture of Murugan is placed in the altar, which is then decorated with various ornaments. Others construct small chariots, known as ratam, which are pulled through the pilgrimage attached to the devotees back by hooks that penetrate their skin (Collins 80). They begin their three-day procession, which starts by escorting a statue of Murugan to the temple, shrine, or cave.

One can easily spot a devotee who is partaking in the pilgrimage of Thaipusam. They are dressed in saffron colored cloth, and have white ash put upon their bodies. The devotee stands in a stance of prayer that is interrupted when a priest comes and passes incense in front of their face. This is said to invoke the presence of Murugan. The devotee then goes into a state of trance. During this trance some devotees begin to wildly dance, some faint, some grow rigid, and others remain calm. Once the devotee is in a calm, controlled trance, they are pierced with a vel, which resembles the vel of Murugan. Curiously, it is said that no blood is drawn while their skin is being penetrated with hooks and skewers. While being pierced, the devotee appears to feel no pain and shows no suffering that one may suspect would follow the extreme body piercing (Collins 80-81). Once pierced and prepared, the devotees, in their state of trance, will make a pilgrimage to show their devotion to Murugan. During this pilgrimage many of the devotees carry their offerings to Murugan attached to the hooks and vels that are penetrating their skin. For example, men will attach pots of milk to hooks that penetrate their chests. When a devotee of Murugan offers milk to the deity, it is a supposed symbol of a mother’s love. This is suggesting that just as an infant is in need of a mother, a human soul is in need of, and longs for a god (Collins 151-152). However, it is important to remember that symbols can be interpreted many different ways. How one individual interprets something can be completely opposite from how another would interpret it.

Why do the devotees pierce themselves with Murugan’s vel? The piercing of the body with Murugan’s lance demonstrates that the devotee is worthy in the eyes of God. It also displays Murugan’s power over his devotees (Collins 102). “Devotees who are pierced with the lance/vel of Murugan thus symbolically represent their victory over the demonic part of the self. However, this symbolic act may have different meanings for particular individuals” (Collins 131). It is in honor of Murugan’s famous weapon, his lance, that influences these devotees to allow their skin to be penetrated with hooks and skewers. Whether pierced through their cheeks, tongue, forehead, or back, the different piercings are said to have different meanings. For example, piercing of the tongue symbolizes control over sexual desires. The tongue is believed to be a phallic symbol, related to one’s sexuality and desires. “The fact that it is a red pointed organ, with dangerous potentialities, capable of self movement, usually discreetly concealed but capable of protrusion (as in the defiant and forbidden exhibitionism of children), which can emit a fluid (saliva) that is a common symbol for semen” (Collins 145). Elizabeth Fuller Collins writes that for some devotees, piercing of the tongue with a vel may symbolize that the devotee has been able to control, deny, or destroy unacceptable sexual desires (Collins 145). The main symbolism associated with the act of piercing the body in Thaipusam is the subduing of inner demons (Collins 176).

While piercing is one extreme form of vow fulfillment, there are vow fulfillments in the Thaipusam festival that are said to be less spectacular. For example, many parents bring their babies to the festival to have their heads shaved. These parents, and many other Hindus, believe that hair is a form of pollution and a symbol of sin. Thus they believe that shaving the head will help to purify the individual. When a child’s life is threatened by illness, or the birth of another child is desired, some parents make the pilgrimage to the shrine carrying their child in a sling that is suspended from sugarcane stalks, supported by their shoulders. If a woman or girl is making a milk offering, she will usually carry it in a brass pot upon her head. Some women make a vow to prepare cooked sweet rice or curry to feed the worshippers. Piercing of the women is not as extreme as the piercing of the men, but some women are pierced in areas such as the skin of their forehead or their tongues (Collins 82-83).

Once pierced, the devotees begin their trek to the temple, which is said to be the highlight of the event. It is a long trek that requires endurance; however, due to the trance that the devotees are under, the journey does not seem to tire them nor pain them. The journey’s length can be measured in different ways. Kasim provides us with the knowledge that the journey to the Batu Caves is two hundred and seventy-two steps long (Kasim 446). Once the pilgrimage has been completed, offerings are made to Murugan and his devotees worship him in the sacred temple.

Once the journey is finished, the devotees come out of their trance. Some do not remember their pilgrimage, while others remember only glimpses of the activities. How well they have performed their worship is important to the devotees. Whether they remember their adventure or not, the devotees are pleased with themselves that they have done what they believe to be the proper worship for a supreme deity.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Collins, Elizabeth Fuller (1997) Pierced By Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press

Handelman, Don (1987) “Myths of Murugan: Asymmetry and Hierarchy in a South Indian Puranic Cosmology.” In History of Religions . Vol.27, No.2 pp 133-170. The University of Chicago Press.

Kasim, Azilah (2011) “Balancing Tourism and Religious Experience: Understanding Devotees’ Perspectives on Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia.” In Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management. Vol. 20, No. 3-4. Taylor &    Francis Group

Kent, Alexandra (2004) “Transcendence and Tolerance: Cultural Diversity in the   Tamil Celebration of Taipucam in Penang, Malaysia”. In International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol.8, No.1/3 pp 81-105. Springer

Singhan, E.V. (1976) Thaipusam. E.V.S. Enterprises


Related Research Topics





Hindu Festivals

Batu Caves





Hindu Symbolism


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Shannon Jarvie (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Holi: A Hindu Festival

Hinduism contains a number of different festivals. The festivals are often used to celebrate pivotal occasions that have occurred in the lives of the gods. The festivals also celebrate locations and specific dates that are important to farmers. Hindu festivals are full of colour and are meant to be enjoyed by the celebrants (Mayled 14). The importance of Hindu festivals in everyday life can be seen reflected by the actions of the provincial governments, which recognize certain festivals as general worship and declare public holidays allowing for the closure of public offices. The observance of public holidays varies throughout India with some festivals observed as public holidays throughout most of India and some only being observed locally. Festivals are marked by different characteristics that include but are not limited to: fasting, feasts, purification rituals, singing and object worship. The number of celebrants can be limited to a small group of people or a single village or there can be hundreds of thousands of people celebrating together (O’Malley 121-122).

Holi, also known as the festival of colors, is one of the festivals celebrated in the Hindu tradition that takes place every year in the month of Phalguna (February—March). Holi, originally celebrated in the spring as a fertility festival (Ghosh, Bandyopadhyay & Verma 1385), is a celebration to mark the coming of spring (Basak 97). Holi is very popular and is characterised by the use of different colours in different types of mediums such as powders, pastes and water. Traditionally, different types of flowers considered to have valued medical properties are used as ingredients to produce the colours needed for the festival. Today technology has allowed for the development of inexpensive and synthetic colours that can meet the large demand in today’s world. There are many different colours with many different ingredients; Mica dust is used to add sparkle, black contains lead oxide, blue contains Prussian blue, cobalt nitrate, indigo and zinc salts and red contains mercury sulphate. The colours are smeared on the face as well as thrown at other people and can be diluted in water and used in water balloons and water guns as delivery devices (Ghosh, Bandyopadhya & Verma 1385).

Preparing for the festival can vary from area to area but the Hindu lunar calendar plays an important role in marking when the festival begins and on the full moon of Phalguna the festival starts with a fire (Crooke 56). The communal fire is prepared by taking wood from any sources available (trees, houses, fences) and if a piece of wood is removed unknowingly from personal property and is placed in the fire then the owner is unable to remove it (Crooke 294). The bonfire marks the start of the festival by celebrating the cremation of Holika (Marriott 24). Holika was the sister of Hiranyakasipu who is said to have lived in a palace in Deokali in the District of Jhansi. The story tells of Hiranyakasipu being a ruler who tried to kill his son Prahlada because of his worship to Visnu. Prahlada was a firm devotee of Visnu and performed many miracles, this made his father angry and with the help of his sister Holika he tried to kill his son many different times but Prahlada was saved by Visnu each time. Finally, a fire was prepared and Holika tried to tie herself and Prahlada together in an attempt to kill him. Visnu once again intervened and saved Prahlada from the fire while Holika burned to death instead. Another story accounting for the origin of Holi is of the witch Pootana who, under orders from Kamsa, tried to kill the infant Krsna by offering her poisoned nipple. A third story tells of Holika or Holi as the sister of Sanvat and when Sanvat died, Holika’s love for her brother was so great that she threw herself on his funeral pyre and he was restored to life (Crooke 293-294). All of the stories represent good over evil and the burning of the Holi fire is seen as a way to prevent harm being done to the crops and the ashes of the fire are used against diseases (Crooke 296). Whichever story is believed to have been the origin of the festival, to commemorate people dance around the fire and mothers carry their babies around the fire clockwise asking the god of fire Agni to bless them. Certain foods such as coconuts, popcorn, dates, and lentils are roasted and eaten (Mayled 15). Everyone is able to participate in Holi and around the fire all different castes can be seen together including Brahmin priests. The homes of the celebrants have extinguished fires and when they return to their homes they carry with them coals from the bonfire to restart the fires in their homes to represent the New Year. Throughout the night groups of younger people will shout “Holi”, running after each other and even throwing large mud bricks. In the morning old pots are broken, usually thrown against a house, and young men will push and shove each other to embody Krsna’s cowherd companions (Marriott 25).

The day after the bonfire is marked by the throwing of coloured powders (Crooke 295). The throwing of colours is associated with Krsna commemorating his play with milkmaids (gopis) and cowherds while they threw red power (kum-kum) at each other (Mayled 15). When celebrating Holi the idea of “play” is important as it is meant to invoke lila, “the divine presence on earth” (Sandford 41). In consequence, Holi is usually described as “being played” (Marriott 24) or “playing with Holi” (Ghosh, Bandyopadhya & Verma 1385) than as being celebrated. When celebrants play at Holi there is not a prescribed set of rules or instructions as there would be in a regulated game, rather people must participate in the festival and experience what is happening (Marriott 24). Holi is a time when social barriers are temporarily lifted and different types of people can be observed engaging in nonconventional behaviour (Sanford 40). During Holi women can be seen hitting men of high standing, such as the Brahmin, who are important figures in the community. Men and women of lower status in the community engage in hitting the wealthy or those with a higher status. A latrine sweeper can hit a Brahmin man and it is all part of the festival’s role reversal. The role reversal is not seen as a burden nor is revenge supposed to be sought out later; the targets of the beatings can be seen to encourage the behavior and appreciate the prominence that arises from the attention of being sought out (Marriott 27). Throughout the day there are songs, dances heavy with sexual innuendo, and special drinks made from almonds, sugar, curds of milk, anise, and juice from the hemp leaf (bhang) (Marriott 26).

Playing Holi is not without consequence and can result in injuries from the beatings, enthusiastic mobs and flying objects (Marriott 25). Even skin problems can arise because of the colourful powders used during the festival. The substitution of natural dyes for the less costly synthetic dyes, the drying properties the powders can have on skin and the amount of scrubbing it can take to remove the powders from the body are all possible culprits that can create skin problems such as: lesions, scaling, abrasions and cause pre-existing skin conditions to worsen (Ghosh, Bandyopadhya & Verma 1386). These consequences do not keep people from participating in Holi but are seen as part of the festival. Even the injuries and bruises can been seen as “expressions of love” (Marriott 26).

Holi is associated with Krsna (Mayled 15) but it is the breaking down of social constraints during Holi that gives the festival another name “The Festival of Love” (Marriott 28). The conventional expressions of love and respect between parents and children, siblings, neighbours, and different castes are all shattered and take on a new intensity. The festival of love is meant to represent limitless love and dramatize the concept by acting it out with as much joy and passion as possible. Even though Holi can differ from area to area there is a general theme of balance between destruction, renewal, pollution and purification (Marriott 28).




Crooke, William (1983) “The Holi – It’s Origin and Significance.” Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, Vol. 2: 293-297.

Ghosh, Sudip, Bandyopadhyay, Debabrata and Verma, Shyam (2012) “Culture Practive and dermatology: the “Holi” dematoses.” The International Society of Dermatology, Vol. 51: 1385-1387.

Marriott, McKim (1978) “Holi: The Riotous Rites of Love.” Asia, Vol. 1, No. 4: 24-32.

Mayled, Jon (1987) Religious Festivals. East Sussex: Wayland Limited.

Morgan, Kenneth (1953) The Religion of the Hindus. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

O’Malley, L (1935) Popular Hinduism. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation.

Sanford, Whitney (2010) “Don’t Take It Badly, It’s Holi: Ritual Levity, Society, and Agriculture.” In Sacred Play. Selva Raj and Corinne Dempsey (ed.). Albany: New York Press. pp. 37-56.

Sarma, Deepak (2008) Hinduism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Tribhuwan, Robin & Tribhuwan, Preeti (1999) Tribal Dances of India. New Delhi: Discovery    Publishing House.


Related Topics


Festival of Color

Festival of Love







Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: JenniferAnn Morrison (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.




The festival of Holi is an annual Hindu celebration beginning on the day of the full moon in March. It is often referred to as the festival of colours and is celebrated throughout the Hindu world, but predominately in Northern India. Taking place at the same time in Southern India, is a festival in honour of Kama the god of love; both are a celebration of spring’s arrival and of love (Reiniche 4081). Though Holi is celebrated in many different ways, the main ritual centres on the lighting of a bonfire, with the rising of the full moon. This ritual symbolizes the burning and subsequent annihilation of the demoness Holika, and the survival of young Prahlada, an earnest worshiper of Lord Krsna [an incarnation of Visnu] (Reiniche 4081); thus, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. Furthermore, the cheerful spirit of Holi has spread throughout the globe and is celebrated in numerous cultures in a variety of ways.

The festival begins on the last full moon of the Hindu lunar month of Phalguna, usually occurring in late February or early March. The end of Phalguna marks the end of the winter season and announces the commencement of spring (Crooke 55-56). William Crooke describes the spring season as a joyous and hopeful period indicating a time of leisure from field work, as crops from the spring harvest begin to reach their maturity (56). Furthermore, Hindu poets commonly regard the season as jubilant and fertile, as it represents the season of marriages. Thus, the festival of Holi is a time for celebration and rejoicing. Generally, the celebration extends over three days, but various regions have differing observances: approximately twenty days in Mumbai, fifteen days in Pune and a week or more among the Bihl people of Western India (Crooke 56-57).

Celebrations of Holi vary and range widly in different villages and so forth however, the spirit of fellowship remains constant. Primarily, the festival takes place in the Northern states of India, but celebrations are observed all around the country (Reiniche 4081). The region of Braj located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, holds particular significance for the festival as it is associated with the birth place and childhood of Lord Krshna (Marriott 106-107). Though not as grand as the Northern celebrations, the states in Southern India do display a communal harmony, and participate in festivities. The Southernmost state of Tamil Nadu celebrate Holi around the myth of Kamadeva, the god of love (Reiniche 4081). Thus, Holi is a celebration of love in addition to the arrival of spring.

The literal meaning for the word ‘Holi’ is ‘burning’ (Reiniche 4081). There are numerous myths regarding the orgin of the word, the most notable however is the legend of the demon king Hiranyakasyapa and his son Prahlada. Much to Hiranyakashyap’s dismay, Prahlada became a devout worshiper of the Hindu god, Visnu, who his father hated severely (Wilkins 150). As a result of his unconditional devotion to Visnu, Prahlada refused to worship his father. Enraged by his son’s persistent apparent betrayal, Hiranyakashyap’s condemned Prahlada to death (Wilkins 151). Wilkins goes on to describe the demon king’s subsequent attempts of killing his son, who is continually unaffected. From bites by poisonous serpents, to being trampled by elephants, Prahlada emerges unharmed, professing his belief in Visnu each time (152). Finally, Hiranyakashyap summoned his demoness sister Holika, who had been granted a boon [a wish] that prevented her from being harmed by fire (Marriott 99). She was commanded to sit in a bonfire with Prahlada on her lap in the hope that this attempt would finally kill him. However, it was unknown that the boon only allowed Holika to withstand flames, if entered alone. Thus, as Prahlada chanted Visnu’s name, he was saved from the flames, while Holika burned to death for her evil desires (Marriott 99). For this reason, the festival of Holi is a celebration symbolizing good over evil and the power of devotion.

From this legend comes the symbolic Holi tradition of ‘Holika Dahan’, which refers to the lighting of a bonfire (Reiniche 4081). Typically, preparations for the fire begin days in advance of the full moon, such as the gathering of wood and cow dung piles. Subsequently, the fire is lit with the rising of the full moon, marking the beginning of the festival (Reiniche 4081). In addition to it symbolism of the Holika legend, the fire often represents the foretelling of the coming harvest by the direction of the flames. Additionally, coals and embers are taken from the Holi fire to rekindle household hearths, as the ashes are believed to be sacred and protect against evil forces and disease (Reiniche 4081).

Another legend prominent in the celebration of Holi is of Krsna and his beloved wife Radha (Williams 239). Young Krsna was envious of Radha’s fair complexion, as his was dark; mischievously, one day Krsna applied colour to Radha’s face to make her more like himself. As a result of this myth comes the ritual of the ‘playing of colours,’ symbolizing the immortal love of Krsna and Radha (Marriott 107). Colour playing, perhaps the most notable feature of the Festival of Holi, begins on the day following the bonfire and consists of drenching others in various coloured waters and powders, in addition to mud and cattle urine (Reiniche 4081). The colours are often composed of gulal, a natural powder, and abeer, fragrance, and are sold by street vendors.

Holi is a festival accompanied by pranks and tricks in the spirit of Krsna’s “roisterous personality” (Marriott 106), and is often observed as violent. For example, McKim Marriott recounts his Holi experience and portrays the initial night following the Holika Dahan, as one of chaos and pandemonium (101): mobs throwing cow dung, smashing pots and breaking through loose doors are just some recollections by Marriott (101). Additionally, the women’s harassment of the men is another common observance of Holi. Women will drag, beat with sticks and dress the men in female attire yet, all in the playful spirit of Holi (Reiniche 4081). Marriott’s recollection illustrates this practice: “I know that I witnessed several hysterical battles, women rushing out of their houses in squads to attack me and other men with stout canes…” (104). The festival is also occasionally regarded for its erotic nature; erotic dancing takes place in the streets, as a symbol of spring’s connection with fertility (Jackson 203).

Perhaps most unique of the festival of Holi is its encouragement of social role reversal. Marriot suggests the festival provokes leniency for typical Hindu inter-caste and inter-sex norms. For example, “the servile wife acts as the domineering husband, and vice versa; the ravisher acts the ravished; the menial acts the master; the enemy acts the friend; the strictured [sic] youths acts the rulers of the republic” (110-111). For the duration of the festival an overflowing of the usual traditional hierarchies of age, sex, caste, wealth and power are replaced with love and indifference (Marriott 110).

As a result of globalization, today the Festival of Holi is observed in various forms all across the world among the Hindu population, and also other various races and religions (Reiniche 4082). As the trees traditionally used to make natural coloured powders have become increasingly rare, synthetic, chemically produced dyes have been manufactured (Biswas, et al. 204). Consequently, controversy has recently emerged over the use of these chemicals used in modern powders and dyes, and their potentially severe health impacts (Biswas, et al. 204). Nevertheless, Holi has had a considerable impact on various cultures, as the playing of colours has appeared in numerous settings. Notably in North America, is Colour Me Rad: a five-kilometer race where participants begin in all white attire and are doused in a different vibrant colour every kilometer. Various expressions of the Festival of Holi have appeared all across the globe, differing significantly from place-to-place; however, remaining persistent throughout all practices is the joyous, celebratory spirit of Holi.















Biswas, N.R., S. Ghose, T. Velpandian, K. Saha, A.K. Ravi, and S.S. Kumari. (2007).

“Ocular hazards of the colors used during the festival-of-colors (Holi) in India—Malachite green toxicity.” Journal of Hazardous Materials. Vol. 139, No. 2: 204-208.

Crooke, W. (1914) “A Vernal Festival of the Hindus.” Folklore. Vol. 25, No. 1: 55-83.

Jackson, Robert. (1976) “Holi in North India and in an English city: Some adaptations and anomalies.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Vol. 5, No. 3: 203-210.

Marriott, McKim (1966) “Holi: The Feast of Love.” In The Life of Hinduism, by John

Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan, 99-112. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Reiniche, Marie-Louise (2005) “Holi.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 6, No. 2: 4081-4082.

Wilkins, W. J. (2009) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Williams, George M. (2008) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford

University Press.


Related Research Topics For Further Investigation









Holika Dahan

Gulal and abeer


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Article written by Alayna Small (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.


Murti is a Sanskrit term that typically refers to sacred images of Hindu deities. However, the term also represents an anthropomorphic embodiment or a manifestation of different forms of a deity that illustrate the infinite attributes and aspects that are beyond the perception of our senses (Sugirtharajah 74). In this way, murtis serve as images of deities that do not only help Hindus establish and enhance a legitimate relationship with God, but it also allows the worshipper to concentrate the mind and attend to the deity with a deep sense of respect, adoration and meditative awareness. In fact, the Hindu ritual tradition darsana, which translates to ‘seeing’, is a central form of worship in which crowds of people in India gather at temple sights to simply stand in the presence of a murti and gain the blessings of the divine by seeing the deity and be seen by it. Understanding the importance of murtis in the Hindu religion allows one to realize that the act of worship in the religion is not just a matter of making devotional offerings and praying, but it also involves a deep focus on expressing honor and affections for the deities (Eck 36).

The origin of murtis goes back to Vedic times but evidence of this cannot be verified with solid affirmations because many of the scripts and literature of the Indus Valley culture is still a mystery until today (Banerjea 42). However, many scholars have debated over the question of whether Vedic Indians made images of their gods (murtis) and whether they knew and practiced image worship or not. From a negative perspective, scholars like Max Muller argued that image worship was not known during the period of Vedic Indians. In fact, other scholars went as far as to say that images, idols, and temples were not even mentioned in the Rgveda (the earliest existing literature of the Indo-Aryans). From the complete opposite perspective however, other scholars used specific passages, mainly hymns that contained anthropomorphic descriptions of different deities (Banerjea 48), from the same Rgveda text to suggest that the practice of making murtis was well known among the early Vedic culture (Banerjea 43). Though the issue is still controversial and not much is of certainty because very little literature of the Vedic period survived, it can be argued that it was not until the fourth century CE that the notion of murtis became to be systematically and officially accepted (Tartakov 6240). It is important to note however, that prior to the fourth century murtis worshipping may have been practised by early settlers. [For further details on the origins and development of image worship (murtis) in India see Banerjea (2002)]. Why the notion of murtis even began has many reasons, a few of which are as follows: first, murtis took the same role that the sacred fire (agni) takes in Vedic rituals to create a union with the divine. That is, just as the fire was a way of transporting sacrifices from a worshipper to the God Agni, a murti was the medium in which the worshipper transferred his devotion with a specific deity. Secondly, murtis were also a way of practicing worship in one’s own home, especially for women at the household stage of life (Banerjea 78). And lastly, murtis were established for temples and public altars where it became common to use them in public worship, festivals, and celebrations.

Certainly not all murtis depict the same god nor does it depict every god in the same way. In fact, the same deity can have more than one murti that reflects different aspects, features, and roles of it. For example, the god Siva is depicted in his daksinamurti as a teacher; but in another murti, he is standing as Pasupati protecting animals and humans (Kramrisch 4323). Additionally, the metaphysics of these murtis are of great importance because Hindus use a wide variety of distinct features that are significant to the deity it represents. In fact, the precise shape, posture, dimension, material, colour and gender vary from one murti to another, and each of these aspects symbolizes a (usually divine) feature of the deity that it characterizes. There are also specific instructions and implements that must be followed when creating a murti, such as the system of measurements and units of proportions for each body part. “The appropriate postures, the appropriate number of arms, the gestures of the hands, the emblems and weapons to be held in the hands, and the appropriate animal mount” (Eck 39) are all specified to be done in certain ways in ancient Hindu texts such as the silpasastras (‘texts of artists’). [Also see ‘canonical manuals of Hindu religious art’ for further information about the instructions of creating a Murti]. Also, in the ancient Vedic text, Bhavisyapurana, seven main types of materials from which murtis can be used are mentioned: stone, metals such as gold, silver and copper; wood, earth or clay, sand, paint, and gems (Banerjea 209). In this way, it is evident that the notion of murtis certainly has a complex system and very detailed work is put in every feature of a murti. Hindus do not simply paint an image of a god and worship it, which is a common accusation usually applied to Hindus by Western religions, but they developed a whole system that is based on the human sense of vision (going back to the idea of darsana) (Eck 33). In fact, the essence of this system has roots which are deeply connected to the divine realm and it cannot simply be ignored or dismissed when learning about Hindu worship.

Throughout India, Ganesa (or Ganapati) is one of the most popular Hindu deities that is worshipped and is represented with many forms of murtis. The name Ganesa simply translates to ‘the lord of hosts’ and he is worshipped for being wise and having the power to remove obstacles; thus many Hindus invoke his blessings at the beginning of any life endeavours such as starting a new career or even buying a new house (Kramrisch 4326). Even though Ganesa is visible in numerous different murtis, there are common features that are usually employed in his classical murtis that make him unique. To begin with, he is in the form of a human but has the head of an elephant; this half human half elephant form represents the cosmic and human dimensions of existence (Sugirtharajah 93). His large round human-like pot-belly is the entire world of creation and it is also a symbol of Ganesa’s prosperity. His elephant head is sometimes disfigured where the tusk is broken and most commonly he is depicted with only one tusk, but sometimes more. More importantly however, according to many sources when the Mahabharata was transmitted by Badarayan Vyasa, he asked Ganesa to record down the oral transmission. So Ganesa is said to have broken off his tusk to write with so that in return Vyasa would narrate the epic in one continuous sitting without pausing; and that is why many of his depictions show a broken tusk (Bae 46). Furthermore, in Mumbai many Hindus worship the god Ganesa each year for ten days leading up to the final festival. In the festival, a large murti of Ganesa is brought to be celebrated and offered prayers to while at the same time ritually disposing the murti in a body of water (Eck 42). This divine festival again illustrates that murtis are an embodiment that become a valid vehicle to allow for a transitory union with the divine, but once the deity departs the murtis, it is no longer appropriate or valid to worship it and in fact it must be disposed of in certain ways (See Bae 45-50).

Another popular deity that is commonly worshipped throughout India is Visnu, the preserver and sustainer of the universe. Like Ganesa, Visnu is popularly depicted in a variety of murtis where his posture is sometimes standing, sitting or reclining. Actually, in South India each murtis, with a different posture, occupies its own space in many of the three-storied temples, and are sometimes each worshiped separately (Kramrisch 4325). The common features in most of his murtis however are his anthropomorphic form and the four arms with each holding a white conch, a rotating wheel, a golden mace and a lotus flower. As is usual with most Hindu murtis, each of these items has an enormous significance and symbolizes the main characteristics of the god. The white conch signifies the origins of existence and the elements of creation (Bae 103), the rotating wheel is a symbol of the cycle of time (i.e. the cycle of birth and death) and it is also believed that Visnu has used the rotating wheel to conquer demons and preserve the world, hence he is known as the sustainer of the universe (Sugirtharajah 79). In the third hand, the golden mace is held and it is symbolic for Visnu’s power and authority as it is a weapon of destruction; and lastly, the lotus flower is the purity and perfection as it is commonly used with many Hindu goddesses (Bae 103).

Ganesa and Visnu are only two common deities among the thousands other gods and goddess that are worshipped in Hinduism, and already numerous types of murtis have been created just to embody and manifest each deity. This clearly indicates that the concept of this type of worship is regarded with a high degree of devotion, seriousness and importance; in fact, great respect, honor and devotion must be firmly present when treating and worshipping any murti of any deity. Moreover, a murti of a supreme lord “may be seen, bathed, adorned, touched, and honored” (Eck 35) by any of its devotees. In fact, it is common to find in a home of a strictly devotional family, sometimes even in temples, that murtis are treated in the same way that a servant would treat his master. That is, “gestures such as bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and in the Hindu world, touching the feet of revered superior” (Eck 35) are consistently performed during a worship. Another important practice that is also mandatory during the worship of a murti is making offerings of sacrifices such as flowers, food, cloth, and incense; also, some deities require that the sacrifice be of meat, liquor, and/or be smeared with blood. The act of making these offerings became a significant part of worship because it was inherited down from the Vedic fire ritual of Agni; in which throwing sacrifices into the fire was a mandatory part of the ritual. Overall, the notion of murtis is an important one in the Hindu religion; in order for sincere worshipers to establish a true union with the divine deity, they must be able to firmly focus their attention on that deity. The way that this state of concentration can be perfected is through the human sense of vision, in which a Hindu is able to see the divine in a physical form and more importantly also be seen by it.




Bae, James H. (2003) In a world of Gods and Goddesses: The Mystic Art of Indra Sharma. Novato: Mandala Publishing.


Banerjea, Jitehdra Nath (2002) The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.


Eck, Diana L. (1981) Darsan, Seeing the Divine Image in India. Chambersburg: Anima Publications.


Kramrisch, Stella (2005) “Iconography: Hindu Iconography” In Lindsay Jones, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 4323-4327. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.


Sugirtharajah, Sharada (1994) “Hinduism” In Jean Holm and John Bowker, Picturing God, p. 70-109. New York: Pinter Publishers.


Tartakov, Gary Michael (2005) “Murti” In Lindsay Jones, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 6239-6240. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Badarayan Vyasa




Ganesa/ Ganapati

Hindu worship

Hindu deities



Lotus flower






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic




Article written by: Maye Awad (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ganesa Chaturthi (Ganesh Chaturthi)

Ganesa Chaturthi

Ganesa Chaturthi is an annual festival celebrating the birth of the god Ganesa. It is celebrated on the chaturthi, or the “fourth day” after the new moon, in August/September (Hinduism Today 196). Ganesa is an elephant headed, short, pot-bellied god who is the immortal son of Siva and Parvati [Also known as Shakti]. Ganesa is said to have only his right tusk, as his left one was chopped off. For this he is known as Ek Danta (one-toothed) (Verma 44). Ganesa is believed to be the destroyer of obstacles (Vighna Vinashaka); the harbinger of happiness and joy (Sukha Kartha); the absorber of sorrow and misfortune (Dukha Hartha); and one who makes wishes come true (Siddhi Vinayaka) (Bhalla 18).

Ganesa is usually seen sitting on a padma lotus flower. He has four arms, each holding a different weapon. He carries around an axe (parasu), lasso (pasa), hook (ankusa) and a lotus flower. On his left side sits his vahana (that which carries) a mouse (Musakavahana). This mouse is usually seen eating a modak (sweet dumpling). His trunk is usually curved to the left and he is wearing a dhoti (cloth wrapped into pants). His head represents atman and his corpulent body the things of the earth (Brockman 226). He is the supreme lord of dharma and we pray to him for guidance and direction of our lives.

There are two myths on how Ganesa was born. The most common one suggests that “ disliking Lord Siva’s surprise visits during her baths, Parvati formed a human figure out of clay and water into a man’s figure and gave it life” (Verma 43). This figure had come to be known as Ganesa. Ganesa’s mother, Parvati, then put Ganesa on guard as she went to go bathe. Oblivious he had a father, Ganesa, came upon an Aghori-like man holding a trident. This man was none other than his father, Siva. Upon Siva’s arrival from samadhi, he tried to enter the house to see Parvati, but Ganesa would not let him in. Siva enraged, takes his trident and cuts off Ganesa’s head. As Parvati returns from her bath she sees her son headless. She questions Siva as to what had happened and explains to him that Ganesa was their son.

To ease Parvati’s grief, Siva promised to cut off the head of the first living thing he would see and attach it to Ganesa’s body (Bhalla 18). The first thing Siva came upon was an elephant, therefore, Ganesa has an elephant’s head. Ganesa was thus restored to life and rewarded for his courage by being made lord of new beginnings and guardian of entrances (Bhalla 18).

The second myth is about Parvati and Siva having a son together. Every god had come to see this new born except one, Sani (Lord of Saturday). Sani desisted from it because he was under the curse that, whomsoever he had beheld will be burnt to ashes (Verma 44).  Parvati had thought that if everyone came to see Ganesa, then Sani should have to. Sani then agreed to see Ganesa, but as soon as he did, Ganesa’s head burnt and fell off. Parvati, being short-tempered, was starting to give Sani a shraap (curse). But Brahma interrupted and said that if they had found a head, it would not be to late to reattach it. So Visnu set forth on his Garuda [Vishnu’s mount who has the body of a bird and the head of a human] in search of it and the first creature he found was an elephant sleeping beside a river. He cut off its head and it was fixed on Ganesa’s body (Verma 44).

People who are starting a new beginning worship Ganesa, because he is known as the “Lord of new beginnings” and “Lord of Obstacles”. Ganesa Chaturthi is a festival that many people are engaged in before they start their new beginnings. Ganesa Chaturthi is a festival that lasts 10 days. Initially a private celebration, it was first turned into a public event by the Indian leader Lokmanya Tilak who used it as a means of uniting people in the freedom struggle against British rule (Bhalla 18).

Two or three months before the Chaturthi, people start making idols of Lord Ganesa. These idols can range from three quarters of an inch up to 25 feet. They then bring the idol to their house and set it on an elevated platform. The murti (idol) is then placed facing east in the padma (lotus flower) with uncooked rice underneath. The priest then invokes life into the idol amidst the chanting of mantras. This ritual is called pranapratishhtha (Bhalla 18). Followers of Ganesa then decorate their house to make it appealing to the lord. Author of Loving Ganesa states, “we decorate the temple and home shrine with banana leaves, sugarcane and strings of mango leaves, making it look like a small forest” (Subramuniya 300). Pandit Arunachalam notes,

“In Karnatak, India, young people make a ritual of seeing 108 Vinayakas on this occasion, so they go about visiting their friends’ and relatives’ houses on this day…the worship of Ganesa on this day is supposed to confer advancement in learning to the young student and success in any enterprise undertaken” (Festivals of Tamil Nadu, p.110-121)

Right after the devotees bring food, fruits, and sweets to offer to Ganesa. Modak (sweet dumpling) is often offered to Ganesa, for it is Ganesa’s favorite thing to eat. During this time special pujas (prayers) are done. The idol is anointed with red unguent (rakta chandan). Throughout the ceremony, Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda and Ganapati Atharva Shirsha Upanishad, and Ganesa stotra from the Narada Purana are chanted (Bhallah 18). One popular chant is “Ganapati Bapa Moriya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya” (Oh father Ganesa, come again early next year). Devotees of Ganesa usually fast during this ten-day period if they have a wish to ask for.

The Ganesa Visarjana (a Sanskrit word meaning “departure”) takes place after the 10 days of the Ganesa Chaturthi. In some places, the Visarjana is done on the same day as the Chaturthi. The clay idol is taken from the house to the river and then it is submerged. In bigger cities, idols up to 25 feet are taken to the sea while chanting “Ganapati Bapa Moriya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya.” They then immerse the idol into the water. “We honor His departure with a grand parade, as we carry Him on a palanquin bedecked with flowers and accompanied by puja, music, dancing and celebration” (Subramuniya 301).

The Ganesa Chaturthi has started to become a global festival. In 1988 Ganesa broke new ground in his public relation when Visarjana was held in the United States. It was the first large scale interdenominational public Hindu festival held in US history (Subramuniya 303). In San Francisco, California almost 2000 people had come together on September 25 to celebrate Ganesa Chaturthi. The idols were submerged into the Pacific Ocean. Following this, places like Sydney, Australia had started celebrating as well.

The Ganesa Chaturthi is a very important festival in the Hindu religion. It signifies the birth of Lord Ganesa and it is not only celebrated in India, but it is celebrated worldwide. From the early ages up till now, the deity Ganesa has been known as the Lord of Obstacles. He is the one who is always worshiped at the beginning, and ending of a prayer. Ganesa Chaturthi is a very beautiful event that everyone should one day be a part of. It is very enjoyable and to sum it up into a sentence: It is a ceremony of fond farewell to a beloved god (Subramuniya 301).


Bhalla,  Kartar Singh   (2005)   Let’s Know Festivals of India.   New Delhi:   Star Publications.

Gupte,   B.A   (1994)   Hindu holidays and ceremonials. New Delhi:   Asian Educational Services.

Editors of Hinduism Today   (2007)   What Is Hinduism: Modern Adventures Into a Profound Global Faith. India: Himalayan Academy Publications.

Subramuniyaswami,   Satguru Sivaya   (2000)   Loving Ganesa: Hinduism’s Endearing Elephant-Faced God.   India: Himalayan Academy Publications.

Brockman,   Norbert C.   (2011)   Encyclopedia of Sacred Places.   USA: ABC-CLIO.

Verma,   Manish   (2007)   Fasts and Festivals of India.   Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Related topics for further investigation











Article written by Ajay Parekh (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Rath(a) Yatra

The Ratha Yatra

The Ratha Yatra, also known as the Ratha Jatra, is the Hindu chariot festival. It takes place every year during the Hindu month of asadha, which is in the months of June and July. The Ratha Jatra is a festival of renewal. The deities are renewed and therefore it is said that the people, the land, and the kingdom are also renewed (Apfell Marglin 199). The main deity involved in this festival is Jagannatha, who presides over the temple in Puri, a city in the state of Orissa in Eastern India (Beck 116). During this festival Jagannatha, his brother Balabhadra, and their sister Subhadhra are taken on chariots from the main temple in Puri to the Gundica temple, about two miles north of the main temple (Apfell Marglin 207). Approximately every twelve years, or whenever the extra lunar month occurs in the month of asadha, an enlarged version of the festival takes place. This enlarged festival is called the festival of the new body. During the festival of the new body, the old wooden deities are replaced by new ones. It is said that “the old deities ‘die’ and new ones are ‘born’” (Apfell Marglin 199). The main participants in Ratha Jatra are the daitas, devadasis and other temple servants. Daitas are the ‘blood relatives’ of Jagannatha and the devadasis are the wives of Jagannatha. These are the only two kin of Jagannatha while all others are servants (Apfell Marglin 199). The king also plays a major role in the rituals involved in this festival. He acts as the sacrificer and in turn, he receives renewal and prosperity for his kingdom and his people (Apfell Marglin 200). The Ratha Jatra consists of more than just the journey from the main temple to the Gundica temple. There are many festivals and rituals that occur to make up the entire Ratha Jatra.

The first festival of Ratha Jatra is the bathing festival, known as Snana Jatra (Mahapatra 21). This festival takes place two weeks before the pilgrimage journey on the full moon day of the month of Jyestha (May-June). Daitas move the images of Jagannatha, Balabhadra, Subhadhra and Sudarsana one by one from the inner sanctum of the temple to the bathing platform, called the Snana Mandap or Snana Vedi (Apfell Marglin 200; Mahapatra 21 -22). This procession includes gongs, large decorative umbrellas and fans (Apfell Marglin 200). The bathing platform faces the main square and is raised approximately 30 feet so it is easily visible from the street (Apfell Marglin 201; Mahapatra 22). Once the images are on the bathing platform, temple servants retrieve water and place it in 108 pots. Some of the water is poured on deities from above while other temple servants throw it from below. The four images are ‘bathed’ at the same time. The water that has run over the images is blackened by the paint. Some temple servants collect this water and walk through the crowd. The crowd eagerly tries to get a few drops as the water is seen as the leftover of the deities.  After this bath pilgrims, who are now allowed on the platform, climb up in an attempt to touch the images. Pilgrims are then cleared from the platform and a representative of the king, or the king himself, sweeps the platform with a gold handled broom; a ritual called “sweeping” (Apfell Marglin 201). At the same time, temple servants sprinkle the platform with water and sandalwood powder. The deities are then put into “Ganes dress” which consists of the images being covered by large masks in the shape of an elephant. The curtain that is usually drawn is now open making this the only time of the year that cooked food is offered to the deities in public. The deities are offered the regular sixteenfold offering (Apfell Marglin 201). After the offering, people are once again allowed onto the platform. After this, the images are taken back into the temple in the same manner as they were brought out. This time, however, they are placed in the corridor between the inner and outer sanctum instead of in the inner sanctum. They are set against wooden braces in a semi-reclined position. This marks the end of the bathing festival and the beginning of the period of illness (Apfell Marglin 202).

The period of illness takes place during the dark fortnight. During this time, the gate to the dancing hall is closed. Only the daitas and the Pati Mahapatra, a member of the cooking division, are allowed into the area where the deities are reclining (Apfell Marglin 202). All auspicious sounds are stopped during the period of illness. This includes the banging of gongs and sounding of trumpets and conch shells. Very few people visit the temple during this time, as it is silent and deserted (Apfell Marglin 202). The offerings to the deities during this time are said to be in “tribal fashion” (Apfell Marglin 203). Instead of cooked meals, daitas bring raw fruit and milk products. They peel and taste the fruit to make sure that it is ripe before serving it to the deities. The peels are not removed from the room, but left on the floor. The deities are also served an herbal medicine. The daitas stay with the deities, eating and sleeping there. The images of the deities have been damaged during the bathing festival so they are repaired during this time. The old cloth is replaced with new cloth and covered with a coat of resin and paint. Once this outer layer has been repaired, one of the daita paints the details of the deities’ faces, except the pupils of the eyes. The painter’s work does not begin, however, until the night of the thirteenth day. On the twelfth day of the dark fortnight, the daitas bring the king plates with the old cloth covering from the deities, one for each member of the king’s family. The cloths are the leftovers of the deities. The king then gives the daitas saris, which are tied around their heads at the main gate of the palace. Once these saris have been tied around their heads, the daitas go for a viewing of the king at which they bow to the king. The king then instructs the daitas how to properly manage the car festival. On the thirteenth day of the dark fortnight, some pasted chalk and gum, which will be the first coat of paint on the images, is offered to the king (Apfell Marglin 203). The king then once again advises the daitas how to smoothly run the festival. The painter daita then begins his work and finishes painting by the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight. The fifteenth day marks the end of the period of illness. The dancing hall is opened and pilgrims are allowed into the temple for ‘the viewing of the new youth’ of the deities (Apfell Marglin 204).

After the viewing of the deities, the deities and the temple are purified. Following the purification, three puja pandas paint the pupils on the deities, which is called the ‘festival of the eye’ (Apfell Marglin 204). After the painting of the pupils, a representative of the king comes to perform a welcoming ritual. After this welcoming ritual, the deities are given traditional offerings. The images are still in a reclining position, as during the period of illness (Apfell Marglin 204). The next day, the second day of the bright fortnight of asadha, marks the beginning of the car festival. Pilgrims go to the sea to take a purifying bath and then return to the temple. During this time, Vedic Brahmins perform rites on the chariots to purify them. The chariots themselves are built new each year. The chariot built for Jagannatha is called Nandighosa. It is 33 feet cubits high, has sixteen wheels, painted yellow and covered in red and gold cloth. The chariot of Subhadhra is called Devadalana. It has twelve wheels, is just over 31 feet cubits high, painted black and covered in red and black cloth. The chariot of Balabhadra is called Taladhvaja. It has fourteen wheels, is just over 32 feet cubits high, painted blue and covered in red and green cloth (Mahapatra 17). The wooden images of the deities are moved in a procession from the temple. The procession is preceded by beating gongs. The first deity to be brought out is the wooden pillar of Sudarsana, which is run around the chariot of Subhadra three times before it is carried up to the platform. Balabhadra is brought out next, followed by Subhadra and finally Jagannatha. A group of about twenty temple servants carry the images (Apfell Marglin 205). Daitas and the cooks carry the actual images while puja pandas and simharis hold thick silk ropes, which are tied to the images (Apfell Marglin 205-206). In front of the images are two rows of men dressed in bright red sashes and beating gongs. There are also people bearing umbrellas and fans and others blowing trumpets and conch shells. Once the images are placed on the platforms, everyone waits for the king. The king is brought from the palace on a chair carried by men and is followed by the palace elephant. The king is given a gold-handled broom. He walks around the platform three times, sweeps it once and sprinkles it twice with perfumed water. This sweeping ceremony is called the Chera Panhara (Mishra 146).  He does this on all three chariots in the same order that they were brought out. He then returns to the palace in the same way that he came. After this, the ramps to the platforms are removed and four ropes are fastened to each chariot. The car caller gives the call to start pulling. When this call is given, the crowd pulls on the ropes, moving the chariots (Apfell Marglin 206). As the chariots move through the streets, things are thrown onto the chariots from the crowds. Once all three chariots reach the Gundica temple, the cars remain there until an auspicious hour when the deities can be moved from the chariots to the temple. This may be up to 24 hours later. During this time of waiting, pilgrims surround the chariots chanting prayers, making offerings, and climbing onto the platforms to touch the deities (Apfell Marglin 207).

The deities are carried from the chariots to the temple in the same way they were transported from the main temple (Apfell Marglin 207-208). Once inside the inner sanctum of the temple the deities and the temple are purified. The deities stay at the Gundica temple for seven days. On the second day of their stay, Laksmi is brought from the main temple on a palanquin carried by brahmin temple servants to the Gundica temple. The procession includes torches, gongs and a conch blower. Once they reach the Gundica temple, Laksmi’s palanquin is placed in front of Jagannatha’s chariot. Here a brahmin performs a short worship of Laksmi. After this worship, the devadasis sing a song and perform a ritual with the daita in charge of the image of Jagannatha (Apfell Marglin 208). Laksmi is then brought into the inner sanctum of the temple. After a brief ritual in the inner sanctum, Laksmi is returned to the main temple. The other three chariots are turned to face south, in the direction of the main temple (Apfell Marglin 209).

On the tenth day of the bright fortnight of the same month, the deities begin their journey back to the main temple, called the Bahuda Jatra (Mishra 148). This journey is conducted in the same way as the first journey, but takes from the tenth to fourteenth or fifteenth day. This journey is slower because most of the pilgrims leave Puri immediately after the first journey, as well as the poor road conditions often caused by the rainy conditions common during this part of the year (Mitra 129). The images are transferred to the chariots, the king sweeps the platforms, and the crowd pulls the chariots. The chariot of Jagannatha again makes a stop on the journey, this time at the king’s palace. Here “the meeting of Laksmi and Narayana” takes place (Apfell Marglin 209). Once this ritual is complete, the chariot of Jagannatha is pulled to the main temple. A sixteenfold offering is then given on all three chariots and on the evening of the eleventh day, a special offering is given. At this time, the deities are given ‘the golden dress’ which consists of solid gold forearms, hands and feet that are attached to their unfinished arms and legs. They are also given golden crowns adorned in gold jewelry. After the deities are dressed in this way, pilgrims walk around the chariots. The gold dress is then removed and the deities are taken back into the temple (Apfell Marglin 210). The three deities are returned to the inner sanctum, Jagannatha going through another ritual first. Purifying rights take place and after this, the temple is once again open for regular worship (Apfell Marglin 211).

References and Further Recommended Readings

Apffel Marglin, Frédérique (1999) “Time Renewed: The Place of the Daitas and Devadasis in the Famous Ratha Jatra Festival of Puri.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 7(2), 131-173.

Beck, Guy L. (2005) “Indian Subcontinent: India: CITIES: Puri.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World 5. 116-117.

Jagannatha. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend, Thames & Hudson. Credo Reference. Web. 10 March 2012.

Mahapatra, Sri Sara Ch. “The Car Festival of Lord Jagannath.” Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, Puri. Ed. Sri Sarat Chandra Mahapatra. Orissa, India: Sri Jagannath Research Centre, 1994. 15-31. Print.

Mishra, Rajkishore. “Rituals and the Role of Functionaries during Chariot Festival.” Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, Puri. Ed. Sri Sarat Chandra Mahapatra. Orissa, India: Sri Jagannath Research Centre, 1994. 15-31. Print.

Mitra, R.L. “Ratha Jatra.” Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, Puri. Ed. Sri Sarat Chandra Mahapatra. Orissa, India: Sri Jagannath Research Centre, 1994. 127-140. Print.

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Article written by Kayla Giebelhaus (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.