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Friday, October 22, 2010


The most remarkable feature about tribal life in the hills of Assam is the fundamentally democratic basis of their social and administrative organizations. With minor exceptions, the land belongs to the community and not to any individual. Although in the Garo Hills the Nokma (the head of a clan or a village), in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills the Siem or the Doloi or the Raja, and in the Lushai Hills, till recently, the Chief was the nominal proprietor of all lands within his jurisdiction, every villager could cultivate his plot of land anywhere as a matter of right. In society, there is no distinction between high and low. Wealth and income do not confer social privileges. The once powerful Lushai Chief and the Khasi Siem, who were regarded by neighboring peoples as Raja or King, were as much commoners as the humblest of the humble. The rich is always ready to help those of their co-villagers who are in need and the strong is similarly inclined to the weak. In fact the Lushai Chief, who wielded enormous authority over his subjects, was the de jure father of the villagers over whom he ruled. In times of scarcity, if the villagers committed robbery of grain from the Chief's granary, they committed no offense.
This democratic spirit was strongly reflected in the indigenous tribal administrative organizations. The Khasi Siems were constitutional monarchs. They can hardly ever give any decision independently. It is his myntries (ministers) who generally decide all matters for him. Although the Lushai Chiefs were more powerful and sometimes autocratic, they could disregard the advice of their upas (village elders) only at their own risk. Thus, in spite of the Chiefs and the Siems being chosen on the hereditary principle their administration was thoroughly democratic. In other areas, such as the North Cachar Hills, both the hereditary and the elective principles are followed side by side by different tribes in choosing the chief or the leader. Disputes are heard in open court where all the male members of the village take part. In some areas even the women are allowed to be present at the trial of cases. The judgment passed on an offender is regarded as a judgment of the whole village and not merely of the chief and his advisers. This system of administration suited the genius of the people and they were happy under it. The British, with their experience of administration over half the world, were wise enough not to interfere with the indigenous administrative machinery. Administration was left almost entirely to the village headmen and the elders, the Deputy Commissioner and the Sub-Divisional Officer merely sitting over them as superintendents and intervening only in serious matters, such as a dispute over the boundary between one village and another, or cases of a seriously criminal or political nature.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


It may be stated that the greater number of the Khasis, especially in certain siemships, viz. Cherra, Nongkren and Mylliem, still regard the thlen and the persons who are thought to keep thlens, with the greatest awe and that they will not utter even the names of the latter for fear some ill may befall them. The superstition is probably of very ancient origin, and it is possible that the Khasi sacrifices to the thlen demon may be connected with the primeval serpent god which characterized the religion of the Cambodians, which Forbes says was 'undoubtedly the earliest religion of the Mons.'"
Such extraordinary local variations of religious practices not withstanding, the animistic religion of the hill-tribes have the common feature of having strong affinity to Hinduism. They all believe in a Supreme Being (e.g. the Pathian of the Lushais and Tatara Rabunga of the Garos), subordinate to whom there are numerous gods and spirits who have to be propitiated with sacrifices of animals and birds for warding off evil and calamities. From these beliefs and practices it would be safe to assume that the Tantrik form of Hinduism, which originated in the plains of Assam around the temple of Kamakhya, greatly influenced the tribal religions. To put it in another way, this form of Hinduism contains features which are tribal and which were probably adopted by Brahmin priests for winning over their tribal neighbors, the most characteristic feature of Hinduism having been throughout the ages assimilation rather than conversion. There never was on the part of Hindus any overt effort at any time to convert others to their faith. There is little doubt that but for the advent of the British, and in their wake that of Christian missionaries, all the tribes would have been assimilated into the Assamese Hindu fold like numerous other tribes before them, who came and settled in Assam, the Kacharis and the Ahoms being the most notable examples.


The practice of human sacrifice among the Khasis is an extra ordinary institution. There is a superstition among the Khasis about a gigantic snake called 'U Thlen' which has to be appeased by the sacrifice of human victims. The following account taken from Colonel Gurdon's book will give an idea of this blood-curdling institution:
"The tradition is that there was once in a cave near Cherrapunji a gigantic snake, or thlen, who committed great havoc among men and animals. At last one man, bolder than his fellows, took with him a herd of goats and set himself down by the cave and offered them one by one to the thlen. By degrees the monster became friendly and learnt to open his mouth at a word from the man to receive the lump of flesh which was then thrown in. When confidence was thoroughly established, the man, acting under the advice of a god called U Suid-Noh (who has as his abode a grove near Sohrarim), having heated a lump of iron red-hot in a furnace, induced the snake, at the usual signal, to open his mouth, and then threw in the red-hot lump and so killed him. He proceeded to cut up the body and sent pieces in every direction with orders that the people were to eat them. Wherever the order was obeyed, the country became free of the thlen, but one small piece remained which no one could eat, and from this sprang a multitude of thlens, which infest the residents of Cherra and its neighbourhood. When a thlen takes up its abode in a family there is no means of getting rid of it, though it occasionally leaves of its own accord and often follows family property that is given away or sold. The thlen attaches itself to property and brings prosperity and wealth to the owners, but on the condition that it is supplied with blood. Its craving comes on at uncertain intervals and manifests itself by sickness, by misadventure or by increasing poverty befalling the family that owns the property. It can only be appeased by the murder of a human being. The murderer cuts off the tips of the hair of the victim with silver scissors, also the finger nails, and extracts from the nostril a little blood caught in a bamboo tube, and offers these to the thlen. The murderer, who is called u nongshohnoh, literally 'the beater', before he sets out on his unholy mission, drinks a special kind of liquor called, ka 'iad tang-shi-snem (literally, liquor which has been kept for a year). This liquor, it is thought, gives the murderer courage and the power of selecting suitable victims for the thlen. The nongshohnoh then sets out armed with a short club, with which to slay the victim; hence his name nong-shohnoh i.e. one who beats; for it is forbidden to kill a victim on these occasions with any weapon made of iron, inasmuch as iron was the metal which proved fatal to the thlen. He also takes the pair of silver scissors above mentioned, a silver lancet to pierce the inside of the nostrils of the deceased, and a small bamboo or cylinder to receive the blood drawn there from. The nongshohnoh also provides himself with rice called u khaw tyndep' , i.e. rice mixed with turmeric after certain incantations have taken place. The murderer throws a little of this rice over his intended victim, the effect of which is to stupefy the latter, who then falls an easy prey to the nongshohnoh. It is not, however, always possible to kill the victim outright for various reasons, and then the nongshohnoh resorts to the following subterfuge. He cuts off a little of the hair or the hem on the garments of a victim, and offers these up to the thlen. The effect of cutting off the hair or the hem of the garment of a person by a nongshohnoh to offer up to the thlen is disastrous to the unfortunate victim, who soon falls ill and gradually wastes away and dies. The nongshohnoh also sometimes contents himself with merely throwing stones at the victim or with knocking at the door of his house at night, and then returns home, and, after invoking the thlen, informs the monster that he has tried his best to secure him a prey but has been unsuccessful. This is enough to appease the thlen for a time, but the demon does not remain inactive long and soon manifests his displeasure for the failure of his keeper to supply him with human blood, by causing one of the latter's family to fall sick. The thlen has the power of reducing himself to the size of a thread, which renders it convenient for the nong-ri-thlen, or thlen-keeper, to place him for safety in an earthen pot or in a basket which is kept in some secure place in the house. When the time for making an offering to the thlen comes, an hour is selected generally at dead of night, costly clothes are spread on the floor of the house of the thlen-keeper, all the doors are opened, and a brass plate is laid down on the ground in which is deposited the blood, or the hair, or a piece of the cloth of the victim. All the family then gathers round and an elderly member commences to beat a small drum, and invokes the thlen, saying, 'ko kni ko kpa (Oh, Maternal Uncle Father), come out, here is some food for you: we have done every thing we could to satisfy you and now we have been successful; give us thy blessing that we may attain health and prosperity.' The thlen then crawls out from its hiding-place and commences to expand, and when it has attained its full serpent shape, it comes near the plate and remains expectant. The spirit of the victim then appears and stands on the plate, laughing. The thlen begins to swallow the figure, commencing at its feet, the victim laughing the while. By degrees the whole figure is disposed of by the boa constrictor. If the spirit be that of a person from whom the hair or a piece of his or her cloth has been cut, directly after the thlen has swallowed the spirit, the person expires. Many families in these hills are known, or suspected, to be keepers of a thlen and are dreaded or avoided in consequence. This superstition is deep-rooted amongst these people, and even nowadays, in places like Shillong or Cherrapunji, Khasis are afraid to walk alone after dark for fear of being attacked by a nongshohnoh. In order to drive away the thlen from a house or family, all the money, ornaments and property of that house or family must be thrown away, as is the case with persons possessed by the demon Ka Taroh, in the Jaintia Hills. None dare touch any of the property, for fear that the thlen should follow it. It is believed that a thlen can never enter the Siem's or Chief's clan, or the Siem's house; it follows, therefore, that the property of the thlen keeper can be appropriated by the Siem. A Mohammedan servant, not long ago in Shillong, fell a victim to the charms of a Khasi girl and went to live with her. He told the following story to one of his fellow-servants, which may be set down here to show that the thlen superstition is by no means dying out. 'In the course of his married life he came to know that the mother of his Khasi wife kept in the house what he called a bhut (devil). He asked his wife many many times to allow him to see the bhut, but she was obdurate; after a long time, however, and after extracting many promises from him not to tell, she confided to him the secret and took him to the corner of the house and showed him a little box in which was coiled a tiny snake, like the hair spring of a watch. She passed her hand over it and it grew in size till at last it became a huge cobra with hood erected. The husband, terrified, begged his wife to lay the spirit. She passed her hands down its body and it gradually shrank within its box."


Besides hunting, fishing etc., a popular pastime of the Garos and the Nagas till recent times was head-hunting. Apart from killing human beings in their raids on the plains for sheer fun, human victims were required for sacrificial purposes also. Head-hunting was effectively stopped in the Garo Hills as late as 1876 only. In that year as many as two hundred skulls were surrendered by the Garos to the Deputy Commissioner in his camp at a place called Rongrengiri, a few miles from Tura, the district headquarters.
There is no evidence of head-hunting having been practiced by any of the other tribes except perhaps the Kukis. The Lushais also raided the plains frequently before their land was occupied by the British, but they were satisfied with carrying off captives and were not after heads. Human sacrifices were, however, common in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, especially among the Jaintias who might have borrowed the practice from Tantrik Hindus of the plains. Such sacrifices are known to have been practised in the temple of Kamkhya near Guwahati and particularly by the Hinduised Miris, in the temple of the dread goddess Tamreswari near Sadiya. Colonel Gurdon, however, expresses the opinion that these sacrifices were originally made to the river Kopili, which the Jaintias worshipped as a goddess. The stone on which the victims were decapitated can still be seen on the bank of the Kopili river near Garampani in the Jaintia Hills.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Apart from hard work in their fields and seeking relaxation and recreation in zu-drinking, singing, dancing, feasting, hunting and fishing, which are habits common to all, each tribe has peculiarities which mark it out from the others. For example, as a Deputy Commissioner of the Garo Hills aptly observed, "Every Garo's life is spent in giving (or refusing) and demanding dai (compensation). A man's great-grandfather was killed fifty years ago; he demands dai from the heir of the murderer, and if it is not paid his heir will still demand it in turn and so on until it is paid". Although most disputes in the other hill districts also are decided by awarding compensation to the aggrieved party, the system is not carried there to extremes as in the Garo Hills.
Marriage customs, laws of inheritance etc. also differ from tribe to tribe. The most distinctive feature of Garo and Khasi societies is their matriarchate. Descent is claimed from a common ancestress and it goes down through the females. It is the husband who, after marriage, has to go and live in his wife's house and not vice versa. Property is inherited by the youngest daughter. Amongst the Garos, when the son-in-law comes to live in his wife's parents' house, he becomes his father-in-law's nokrom, i.e. to say a kind of representative of the father's clan. After the death of the father-in- law the nokrom marries the widowed mother-in-law, thus becoming the husband of both mother and daughter. This custom is rather extraordinary and there is nothing comparable to it among the other tribes.
All the other hill tribes are patriarchal. The Lushais, Zemi Nagas and Kukis have to buy their wives by paying a marriage price. The price is calculated in terms of a number of mithans (wild bulls or cows). If divorce takes place as a result of a lapse on the wife's part, her father has to return the marriage price. If on the other hand, it is the husband's fault which brings about a divorce, he looses the price. The custom of demanding marriage-price for girls among the partiarchal tribes is easy to appreciate when we take into account the fact that a woman's life in the hills is harder than a man's. While an unmarried buck, except for being compelled to put in his share of work in the field, is allowed to go about freely hunting, fishing, drinking, singing, dancing and making love to his heart's content, a girl has to help her mother from dawn to dusk in running the household and catering to the needs of the menfolk. It is no wonder, therefore, that an unmarried girl is looked upon by the family as a valuable asset which cannot be parted with except for a reasonable price.
Divorce is easy to obtain amongst all the tribes. Among the Garos it is allowed almost automatically on payment of the customary dai of sixty rupees or so. Amongst the Khasis it is even easier. In the presence of witnesses, the husband gives five cowries, or five pice in lieu, to the wife and the wife does the same. The husband then takes all the ten cowries and throws them on the ground and this completes the divorce.
Divorce amongst the Khasis and the Jaintias (Syntengs) are so common an occurrence that children very often do not even know the identity of their fathers. In spite of this laxity in the matter of divorce, it has been justly observed by Colonel Gurdon "that the great drawback attaching to divorces in ordinary communities, i.e. the effect that it has on the lives of the children of the marriage, does not apply to the Khasis, for with them the children always live with their mother and their mother's family, which latter would be bound to maintain them in the event of a divorce."
From the liberal nature of their marriage and divorce laws it would be seen that the hill people have a very scientific and liberal attitude to all matters concerning sex. Unmarried boys and girls are not interfered with in their love-making and even the bearing of children out of wedlock before marriage is not strongly frowned upon. A different standard in sexual matters is, however, expected, particularly of the womenfolk, after marriage. This is especially true of the Zemi-Nagas and all other Naga tribes. Rape of a married woman is considered an offence more heinous than murder. Ursula Grahman Bower in her book The Naga Path gives an interesting account of how a raptor was saved from being speared to death by the youngmen of the village by the prompt intervention of the village elders, who satisfied the sense of public justice by banishing the man from the village.


In physical beauty the Khasi women excel their sisters both in the hills and the plains. Their complexion is a golden yellow and their soft smooth features have a Polynesian touch. As has already been indicated, ethnologically, the Khasis are different from the other hill-tribes of Assam. While the latter are supposed to have migrated from the North-East, the Khasis came from the South East. Their Mon-Khmer speech is still spoken in Cambodia and Pegu and anthropologists have noticed some common customs and habits among the Khasis and Malayasians.


According to their legends, the original habitat of the Garos was Tibet, but legends apart, the Garos belong to the stock called Tibeto-Burman and they have close affinities with the tribal races inhabiting the plains of Assam, North Cachar Hills and parts of Tripura. Grierson, in his Linguistic Survey of India, encadres the languages of all these tribes under a single group called Bodo. The Garos have the strongest resemblances, linguistically and physically, to the Kacharis. In fact the resemblances are so strong that they have led Major Playfair in his monograph on the Garos to conclude that these two peoples originally constituted one, subsequently separating themselves, the Kacharis spreading over the north and the Garos over the south bank of the Brahmaputra.
The origin of the Mikirs is obscure. It is not impossible that they are autocthons. Of the tribes of the North Cachar Hills, the Zemis came from the Naga Hills. They are a sub-tribe of the Kachha-Nagas, who again are a branch of the Angamis, whose men are noted for their physical vigor and manly beauty. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Zemi buck is generally a fine specimen of youthful, masculine attractiveness. The Dimasas are a branch of the Kacharis who ruled over Upper Assam until they were driven out by the Ahoms in the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Kukis came to the North-Cachar Hills in two waves from the Mizo Hills from where they were ousted by the more vigorous Lushais, who in their turn had migrated from the Chin Hills of Burma.
As regards their domestic life, customs and beliefs, although a somewhat common pattern runs through all the hill-tribes, there are strong local variations.





Friday, October 8, 2010


As in countries like Scotland life in these hills is hard. One can hardly imagine the difficulty with which a Mizo or a Zemi Naga has to eke a livelihood out of his little patch of land. From before daybreak the womenfolk of a village march in processions, carrying a number of bamboo tubes in a cane or bamboo basket, hundreds of feet down to a spring or a stream to collect water for the day's use. The return journey uphill with the load of water on their back is strenuous. Immediately after their return they have to get busy preparing food for the family before they accompany their husbands to help them in their work in the jhum (cultivation). About half-an-hour is spent at mid-day in eating the pack-lunch (consisting of rice, salt and chillies) they carry with them to the jhum and then work goes on again till sun-down—hoeing, sowing, weeding, whatever work at a particular stage it might be. In the evenings the menfolk snatch a few moments of leisure and relaxation which they devote to zu (rice-beer or spirit) drinking and singing while the women have to carry on with their household chores—cooking and attending to the pigs, the fowl and their own little ones. On special occasions, there is dancing both by men and women in addition to zu-drinking and music. This is, or at least was, till very recently the normal routine of the average tribal's life in the hills which could not perhaps be better described than in the following lines of Thomas Gray composed in a different context:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life—
They kept the noiseless tenur of their way.
Apropos of zu-drinking, dancing, singing and feasting which are a common feature of all tribal life, one cannot fail to notice that all the hill-people are very musical. The Lushais believe that this has got something to do with the echoes which respond from different directions in the hills to their whistles and songs. It is this nymph or satyr, whichever it may be, echo, that, they believe, bestows on them their musical talents.


The first thing that strikes a visitor in any part of these hills is the magnificence of their natural scenery and the attractiveness of the people, because of their simplicity, cheerfulness, honesty, courtesy, hospitality, vitality, colourfulness and a perfectly democractic outlook.
With the exception of Kashmir, hardly anywhere in the whole of India, does one come across such beautiful natural scenery as in the hills of Assam. When one drives from Shillong to Haflong through the undulating grassy plateaus, covered with thick woods of oak and pine, one might easily "imagine himself (as Colonel Gurdon aptly observes in his monograph on the Khasis) in Switzerland, were it not for the absence of the snowy ranges". As one enters the North Cachar Hills, the scenery changes into precipitious mountains and deep ravines. Sitting in the verandah of the Circuit House at Haflong of an evening one can experience an exhilarating sensation viewing range after range of blue hills receding far into the horizon, the glow of the evening sun weaving along the tops of the ridges a magic web of indescribable beauty.
In the Mizo District the scenery is different, rather rugged as compared with that of the Khasi and Jaintia or the North Cachar Hills, but yet it has a sombre grandeur which one could not appreciate better from anywhere else than from the top of the Blue Mountain (7600 ft.) in the south-eastern corner of the district. On a clear day one can have from this spot a view of the sun blazing the waters of the Bay of Bengal miles away.
Our surroundings influence our habits and character. The distinctive characteristics which are regarded as tribal are to a considerable extent shaped by the climate, the nature of the soil, the terrain and the scenery of the land which they inhabit.


From about 2000 B.C. there was a movement of Mongoloid populations from the north to India through Assam and these people along with others who migrated from northern Burma formed from the remote past the bulk of the population of Assam. In ancient Sanskrit texts, such as the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and also in the Puranas, the inhabitants of Assam are referred to as Mlecchas, Kiratas and Cinas (Chinese), in other words, as non-Aryan barbarians.

There were apparently wave after wave of these migrations and the invaders belonged to the Indo-Chinese linguistic family, of which the two most important sub-families are the Mon-Khmer and the Tibeto-Burman. The third, Siamese-Chinese, includes Shan, which was spoken by the Ahoms, the last of these invaders. The Mon-Khmer speakers appear to have come earlier than the others. They were apparently driven by subsequent Tibeto-Burman hordes into the Khasi Hills, which is the only part of Assam in which the sub-family now exists. Of the Tibeto-Burman sub-family, there were three groups viz. Naga, Kuki-Chin and Bodo. The Naga and Kuki speakers were driven to the hills and Bodo became the dominant language. It includes all the surviving non-Aryan languages

of the plains, the Garo Hills and the North Cachar Hills. Kachari, Mech, Garo, Dimasa, Tipra, Lalung, Rabha and Chutiya are derivations of Bodo.

About the time the Mongolian hordes were entering Assam through the north-east, the Aryans started spreading over the whole of northern India across the Gangetic plain, driving the indigenous inhabitants to the south. Eventually, some of the Aryans reached Assam in their eastward movement through Bihar and north Bengal. Judging, however, by physiognomy, the strain of Aryan blood in Assam seems very thin. Assamese of pure Aryan stock can perhaps be found only amongst the descendants of Brahmin scholars who were invited by the non-Aryan kings to their courts for their learning and advanced culture. Some others of high and low castes will have also accompanied these Brahmins. For instance the Kalitas (Kayasthas) of Assam are of distinctly Aryan appearance and are supposed by Sir Edward Gait to be "the descendants of the first Aryan immigrants by women of the country".

A very significant fact about Assam is the fusion which took place here of Aryan and Mongolian cultures. We find here an example of how a dominant culture, although supported numerically by few, can absorb and impose itself on weaker cultures. Thus we find in Assam, a people by and large Mongolian, speaking at the present day, Assamese, which is an Aryan Sanskritic language. This happened not merely because of the superiority of an Aryan language over the rude tribal dialects but also because of the absorbing power and influence of Hinduism. The Brahmins from Northern India succeeded in absorbing into Hinduism all the tribal people of the plains including the powerful Ahoms who ruled over Assam for over six hundred years and who in course of time not only adopted the Hindu religion, discarding their own, but also forgot their own Ahom language and adopted Assamese. Ahom is now a dead Language known only perhaps to about half-a-dozen deodhais (Ahom priests). The same thing happened to all the languages of the Bodo group. The complete disappearance of such tongues like Rabha and Kachari, which are still spoken in the interior by old men and the womenfolk, is only a matter of time.

From these facts, it would appear that the bulk of the population of Assam is tribal or at least of tribal origin. Most of these tribal communities through assimilation have lost their tribal characteristics, and similar assimilation of such communities as are called plains tribals is continuing. People who can still be regarded distinctly as tribals can be found now only in the hills.

The hill-tribals of Assam live in the districts of Garo Hills, United Khasi and Jaintia Hills, United Mikir and North Cachar Hills and the Mizo Hills. The North Cachar Hills are inhabited by several tribes such as the Dimasas, the Kukis and the Zemi Nagas.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Holi is celebrated as Hola Mohalla by the Nihang Sikhs. Instead of splashing colour, they observe the day with mock battles, tournaments, military parades and many other exercises. Anandpur, a small town in the Punjab, becomes the hub of all these activities, for it is here that the Khalsa (the 'Pure Ones') was born.
About 280 years ago, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, held a very significant ceremony at Anandpur. He baptised five chosen followers of his and gave them the appellation of Singh ('the Lion'). They were enjoined to carry, on their person five symbols of distinction—kesh (long hair), kanga (comb), kara (iron bracelet), kacha (shorts) and kirpan (sword). He hailed them with a new greeting:
'Wahe Guruji ka Khalsa : Wahe Guruji ki feteh'
(The Khalsa belongs to the Guru; Victory be to Him).
These five followers, called Panj Piyare, then baptised the Guru himself and thousands of other Sikhs. Thus was born the Khalsa, a militant brotherhood of crusaders. The Nihangs — meaning 'crocodiles' in Persian — formed the suicide squads of the Khalsa armies. The Guru ordained that the day after Holi be celebrated as Hola for practising the martial arts.
The above tradition continues to this day. Around the middle of March, Anandpur begins to hum with activity. The Nihangs, who number about 20,000 today, flock to Anandpur for the festival. They can be easily recognised by their blue knee-length tunics and yellow
turbans, rising to more than a metre high, with rings of steel around them. They carry huge spears, daggers, swords, and even bows and arrows. They lead a spartan life, denying themselves the comforts of family life or a fixed home, and are constantly on the move, either on horse-back or on foot.
On Hola day, a procession (Mohalla) is taken out through the streets of Anandpur. The Nihangs form the centre of attraction. Under the influence of bhang and hashish, which they consume in large quantities, these bearded fighters offer an awesome spectacle—galloping their horses at full speed, flashing swords and shouting their war cry, 'Sat Sri Akal'. There are langars (free kitchens) for all visitors, without distinction.


Holi is the most colorful and popular festival of India. It is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Phalgun (February-March), when both man and nature cast off their winter gloom. This is the season when some of our most beautiful trees are in flower: the 'flame of the forest', mango, coral and silk cotton. Man too is moved by the spirit of spring, and celebrates this carnival of colors with gusto.
Holi is one of India's oldest festivals, and many legends have come to be associated with it. According to one version, the festival is named after Holika, the sister of a demon-king, Hiranyakashipu. The demon had defeated the gods and had ordered that he be worshipped as a god in his own right. However, his own son Prahlad, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused to do so. This enraged Hiranyakashipu. He asked his sister, Holika, who could not be burnt by fire, to sit on a burning pyre with the prince in her lap. Holika agreed, but by the grace of Lord Vishnu, Prahlad remained unscathed while Holika herself perished in the fire. To mark the death of Holika, people light huge bonfires on the eve of Holi. In Gujarat and Orissa effigies of Holika are also burnt.

On the day of the festival, gay crowds fill the streets, squirting coloured water and smearing each other's faces with coloured powder. Children of course enjoy the festival with gay abandon. They vie with each other in being original and use fast and sticky colours like coal-tar.
Holi still retains its charm in Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan where it is celebrated in a unique way. In Bengal the festival is called Dol Jatra or Dol Purnima. Early on Dol
Purnima day, the students of Santiniketan dress up in saffron clothes and wear fragrant garlands. Then they sing and dance before their teachers and guests, who are seated on a colour fully decorated dais. The show concludes with the smearing of dry abeer and gulal (colour powder) on one another's foreheads. Liquid colours are totally forbidden.

To the worshippers of Sri Krishna, Holi is known as the Dole-Leela. It is celebrated with great enthusiasm in most of His temples, but in Mathura and Brindavan it has a special significance. Episodes from Krishna's life, especially his playing Holi with the milk-maids (gopis), are re-enacted in a riot of colour.
Holi as such is not celebrated in the South. In some places, however, it is observed as Kamadahan. It is believed that Lord Shiva reduced Kamadeva, the God of Love, to ashes by directing His third eye on him, because he had tried to distract the Lord from His tapasya (meditation). Later, when Rati, wife of Kamadeva, pleaded with the God to restore her husband, Lord Shiva relented and brought him back to life. This day is therefore held sacred to the God of Love.
In Maharashtra, Holi is called Shimaga or Rangapanchami. The fisherfolk celebrate it with singing, dancing and merrymaking.
At times this gay festival degenerates into noisy brawls and hooliganism, which is a great pity. When celebrated in the traditional manner and in the proper spirit, Holi is one of the gayest and friendliest festivals of India.


On the fifth day of Magha (January-February) the festival of Vasant is celebrated. Also known as Sri Panchami, the festival is observed in honour of Saraswati, the goddess of learning and the arts. Books, musical instruments and paint-brushes are kept in front of the goddess to seek her blessings.
In the Punjab, Vasant Panchami is celebrated as the festival of spring when the yellow flowers of the mustard crop are in full bloom. Young boys and girls wear yellow clothes to symbolize the festival. Even adults wear yellow turbans or sarees or at least carry yellow kerchiefs.
In Bengal, images of the goddess Saraswati are taken out in procession and immersed in the Hoogli.


According to the Hindus, the Sun enters the sign of Makara (Capricorn) in the middle of January. It then moves northwards after completing its six-monthly southern course. The beginning of the Sun's northern course, called Uttarayana, is hailed as an auspicious period. Makara Sankranti, which falls sometime in the middle of January, is therefore considered very sacred.
In Maharashtra, a special kind of sweet called til-gud is prepared. This is exchanged with friends with the greeting:
'Til-gud ghya, god god bola'
('Accept sugared til and speak sweet words.')

The people of Assam celebrates Makara Sankranti as Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu. The word bhoga means eating or enjoyment. Harvesting is nearly over and the Assamese look forward to a period of plenty. On the eve of Makara Sankranti, the Assamese raise temple-like structures of fire-wood (majis) and the whole night is spent in feasting, merry-making, singing and dancing. Rice cakes and fish form the main items of the feast. Next morning people bathe before sun-rise, and the majis is lit ceremonially. Half-burnt pieces of firewood are picked up from it and taken home.

Makara Sankranti also, heralds the kite-flying season in India, particularly in Gujarat where kite-flying competitions are very common.
In the Punjab, where December and January are the coldest months of the year, huge bonfires are lit on the eve of Makara Sankranti and celebrated as Lohri. The family members and friends gather round the bonfire, throw rice and sweets into the flames and sing joyful songs.


Pongal is an important festival of the Tamilians. It is observed on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai which falls in the middle of January. It marks the end of the harvest season in Tamil Nadu. A plentiful harvest of rice and sugarcane ensures a period of prosperity and plenty.
The word 'Pongal' actually stands for a mixture of rice, moong dal, sugar or jaggery and milk. It is derived from 'Ponga' which means 'to boil', and the pot containing the 'Pongal' mixture has to boil over to symbolize prosperity and plenty
The Pongal festivities last for four days. On the first day, which is also called Bhogi, the house is scrubbed clean before sunrise. A huge bonfire is lit in which all that is old and useless is discarded and burnt. This symbolizes the beginning of a new year. Elaborate kolams (designs) are made in front of door ways and the houses are decorated with mango leaves and plaited coconut leaves.
The actual festival falls on the second day. In an open court yard, the Pongal dish is cooked in a new pot on a new stove.

Huge stalks of sugarcane decorate the courtyard, and are held over the pot, too. As the Pongal boils over, everybody shouts 'Pongalo-Pongal!' People even visit each other, enquiring, 'Has the milk boiled?' The boiling over of the Pongal is symbolic of plenty and signifies that the harvest has been good. The Pongal dish must be cooked on this day, and later enjoyed by all with great relish.
The third day, called Mattu Pongal, is dedicated to cattle. Cows and bulls are washed and their horns decorated. They are fed with specially cooked Pongal. At certain places, bull fights are also arranged on this day. A bag filled with money is tied to the horns of a bull and young men try to wrest it away from the animal.
It is also on this day that sisters make rice balls and keep them in the open for birds and insects, praying for the well being of their brothers.
The last day of the festival is spent either in visiting friends or sight-seeing.


Christmas, which is celebrated on the 25th of December every year, is the gayest festival of the Christians. It is observed all over the world as the birthday of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. In India, the Christians who form the third largest religious group in the country, celebrate the occasion with great zest and glee. Our great cities take on a festive air. During the British times, the ten days before Christmas until after the New Year, were declared as public holidays and Christmas was observed as a season of goodwill, merriment, and exchange of greetings. The traditions left behind by them still continue. Although the festival has lost its official patronage, it remains one of the most important religious festivals with an almost universal social participation in the great cities.
Long, long ago, in the days of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, there lived in the town of Nazareth, a humble and pious Jewish couple named Joseph and Mary. One day the Emperor decreed that a census of Jews be taken throughout his empire. Every Jew was asked to present himself in the city of his forefathers within a week after the beginning of the winter solstice, or by 25th December. So Joseph and Mary left for Bethlehem, their home town, to register their names. The journey was long and when they reached Bethlehem, it was late in the evening. The town was crowded with visitors who had also come to get their names registered. The one and only inn was full. Poor Joseph and Mary had to take shelter in a stable. There, in the middle of the night, Mary gave birth to a baby. She wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes and laid him in a crib or fodder bin. At that very moment a group of shepherds, watching their flock, heard an angel announce the birth of their Saviour in the stable. The overjoyed shepherds were guided by a mysterious light and hurried to the stable to pay homage to the child.
The child was later named Jesus. He was acclaimed as the 'Son of God' who had come down to earth to guide men back to the ways of Truth.
On Christmas Eve, all churches are brightly lit. The scene depicting the birth of Jesus in the stable is beautifully recreated both in churches and homes. Groups of devoted singers go round from street to street, singing Christmas carols. One of the most popular of these carols is 'Silent Night':
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

This carol has been translated into many Indian languages and even set to Indian music.
At the stroke of midnight, the bells in the churches begin to ring, announcing the joyful event, and a special mass is held.
Among the various celebrations connected with the festivities, the sending of Christmas cards to friends and relatives has be come almost a ritual.

Another feature of the festival is the installing of Christmas trees. Little fir trees, or models, are decorated and gifts are placed on them for every member of the family. The children believe that these gifts are brought by Santa Claus, a. jovial figure with a long white beard. The tradition of Santa Claus originated in Belgium where San Nicholas was the patron saint of children. Over the years the name 'San Nicholas' has changed to 'Santa Claus'
On Christmas day, people turn out in their best clothes to go to church and visit their friends and relatives. Sweets and greetings are exchanged. A special lunch of roast turkey and hot plum pudding is made. Christmas for the Christians is the festival of festivals.


Not far from Ajmer is Pushkar which is celebrated as the holiest lake in India. The country's most colourful fair is celebrated here in early winter, during the month of November. For seven days, over 55,000 men and animals soften the desert sands with their tread, because the Pushkar fair combines both cattle marketing and a bathing fair.
The word Pushkar in Sanskrit means 'full to the brim'. In Hindu mythology, the famous lake at Pushkar is credited to Brahma, the Lord of Creation in the Hindu Trinity. It is said that water gushed from the barren desert at the spot where the mighty god chose to perform a yagna (sacrifice). This oval shaped place is today known as the Pushkar Lake. At the site where the great sacrifice was actually performed, stands a temple dedicated to Lord Brahma. This is said to be the only temple of Brahma in India.
Thousands of camels, horses, cows and sheep are brought to Pushkar several days before the actual fair. Some families put up their own tents, but most of the others spend the whole week under the open sky. Rows and rows of shops spring up. As the majority of the visitors are from Rajasthan, men in colourful Rajasthani turbans and women in swirling ghagras made of over twenty yards of cloth, weave their way about the fair, buy ing and selling all sorts of articles. A special bazaar, offering bells, belts, saddles, silken reins and other finery for camels, does a brisk business. At this fair, camels are not only bought and sold but are also paraded to the merriment of the crowd. The most popular of the camel events is Laadoo Urth or the loaded camel. Camels representing various teams are made to carry the maximum number of persons on their backs and run a certain distance with the full load. Usually the winning camel is able to carry as many as eight to nine persons on its back.

On the full moon day, the crowds at last throng to the holy lake for the ritual sacred bath to wash away their sins. Long before dawn, the bathers crowd the fifty ghats surrounding the lake. After the bath they rush to the main temple, with its impressive four-armed, four-faced, silver-eyed idol of Brahma.
Nightfall presents another exciting sight. Miniature leaf- boats bedecked with flowers and carrying tiny oil-lamps are set afloat on the holy water of the lake amidst the clanging of temple bells. This ceremony marks the end of the weeklong festivities. Next day starts the exodus back to the villages and Pushkar once again becomes the sleepy little town which it normally is.


The Rath Yatra or 'Car Festival' is celebrated just before the rains start and the season of pre-monsoon festivals comes to a close. Lakhs of devotees throng Puri in Orissa around June for the week-long celebrations.
The town of Puri has been famous for many centuries for its temple of Jagannath, the 'Lord of the Universe'. The word 'Juggernaut' is a distortion of the correct name of Lord Jagannath, which is one of the several names of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Together with him are worshipped his elder brother Balarama and their sister Subhadra. The Rath Yatra commemorates the journey of Lord Krishna from Gokul to Mathura when he went there to visit his mother's sister for seven days.
Nowadays the preparations for the yatra start several months in advance. The three rathas or chariots, one each for the two gods and their sister, are beautifully carved. The chariot of Lord Jagannath has 16 wheels, Balarama's has 14 wheels and Subhadra's has 12 wheels. These chariots are massive in size, rising to heights of 40 to 45 feet. They are painted in different colours—Lord Jagannath's is yellow, Subhadra's is painted with stripes of red, while Balarama's is blue. The chariots are gaily decorated with flowers, flags and festoons and the large canopies over them are made of applique work, which is the traditional craft of Orissa.

Seven days before the Rath Yatra day, which falls on the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha (June-July), Lord Jagannath is said to have taken ill. The devotees pray and make offerings for a speedy recovery. After seven days the Lord gets well and is declared fit for his journey!
On the appointed day and at the auspicious time, the ruler of Puri sweeps the place near the chariots. After this ritual, the images are ceremoniously carried to the chariots and then the yatra begins. There is a mad scramble for the sacred ropes with which the chariots are pulled. Many fall and get hurt but they keep trying for a hold of the ropes, as pulling the Lord's chariot is considered a sacred duty and a meritorious deed.

Lord Jagannath's chariot leads the procession, followed by those of his sister and brother. The progress of the journey is so slow that the distance of about three kilometers is covered in nearly twelve hours! After reaching their aunt's temple, the gods are ceremoniously taken inside, stay there for a full week, after which they return to their own temple.
The images of the temple of Puri are unconventional in that they are unfinished. According to legend, Vishvakarma, the divine architect, was requested to make the images by one of the kings of Orissa. Vishvakarma agreed to do so, provided that he was not disturbed until the work was completed. The king agreed and Vishvakarma locked himself in a room. Many days passed but Vishvakarma did not come out. Unable to restrain his curiosity, the king peeped into the room. Vishvakarma at once abandoned his work, leaving the images without hands or feet. The king regretted his folly and prayed for forgiveness. Brahma, the God of Creation, accepted his prayers and assured him that after installation the images would be respected and worshipped even though they remained incomplete. The pilgrims who come for the Rath Yatra, carry back with them brightly painted, but exact replicas of the incomplete images of Lord Jagannath, Balarama and Subhadra.
The Rath Yatra festival is nearly 800 years old, but it is as spectacular today as it was in the past. It is one of the grandest festivals of India and is famous all over the world.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


It is believed that the Buddha was born on the full moon day in the month of Vaisakha. The day is now observed as Buddha Jayanti, in memory of this great son of India, one of the great religious teachers of the world.

The miraculous events connected with the birth of the Buddha are narrated in great detail in the Buddhist scriptures. As the time of His birth drew near, Queen Mahamaya traveled to her father's house. On the way, she stopped for rest at the grove of Lumbini. There, as she reached for a flower-laden bough of a sal tree, she painlessly gave birth to a son. As tradition puts it, the full moon shone brilliantly and there was a shower of beautiful flowers from heaven. The child leapt to the ground and took seven steps; at each step, a lotus sprang from the earth.

According to a similar tradition, the Buddha received enlightenment and also gained Nirvana on a full-moon day in the mouth of Vaisakha. Thus, the full-moon day (called Poornmashi ) of Vaisakha marks the three principal events in the Buddha's life.

It is noteworthy that though Buddhism flourished in far-off countries like China, Japan and, other eastern regions, it almost completely disappeared from the land of its birth. In the Indian sub-continent, it is now confined to Ladakh, Bhutan and Sikkim, where it has taken a somewhat different form. Lately there has been a revival of Buddhism within the country, and the neo-Buddhists celebrate Buddha Jayanti most fervently.


Baisakhi is also celebrated in April. The Hindu calendar begins with the month of Vaisakha, which starts on the 13th of April. The first day of this month, which is also the New Year day, marks the beginning of the business year in many parts of India. In the Punjab particularly, it is observed with great merry making because it also ushers in the harvest season. The fields are rich with the winter crops and man gets ready to reap the reward of his patient labour. To show his gratitude to bountiful Nature, he dances with joy. The Bhangra dance which is the most popular of the Punjabi folk dances, is performed on this occasion, at melas and fairs all over the state.

To the Sikhs, the first day of Vaisakha is a very special day. It was on such a day that Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa. The Sikhs visit their gurudwaras and take part in Akhand Path, the continuous reading of the Grant Sahib from cover to cover. In the evening, the holy book is taken out in a procession: Five leaders of the congregation walk in front of the Granth Sahib with drawn swords, in memory of the Panj Piyare (the five chosen ones). The Golden Temple at Amritsar, the most famous gurudwara of the Sikhs, is beautifully illuminated. The visitors bathe in the Pool of Immortality, after which the city of Amritsar is named.


Another festival which is celebrated in memory of a great saint is the Urs or birth anniversary of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti. It is held at his tomb in Ajmer, Rajasthan. As the Muslims follow the lunar calendar, which is shorter than the solar year, the Urs, which lasts for six days, may occur in any month of the Gregorian calendar.

A hundred years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad(A.D. 632), there rose a class of people in Persia who called themselves the Sufis. The word 'Sufi' is derived from suf (wool) or suphia (wisdom) or from safa (pure). Whatever may be the origin of the word, the Sufis were Muslim saints or mystics who emphasized love and devotion as a means of realizing God. Prayers, fasts and similar rituals were of no importance to them. They were seekers of divine love and looked upon God as the beloved, separation from whom causes untold pangs to the human lover.

The Sufis formed into several orders and spread out to far- flung lands. Muin-ud-din; who belonged to the Chishti Order, came to India with his disciples much before the Slave dynasty established its rule in the country. He settled down at Ajmer and soon gathered a large number of followers because of his piety and love for his fellow beings. He encouraged music and believed that devotional music was one way of coming closer to God. Some of the finest music could be heard at his gatherings.

Muin-ud-din died in A.D. 1256. His tomb became an important place of Muslim pilgrimage. The Mughal Emperor Akbar used to visit the tomb every year—many times walking the entire distance from Agra to Ajmer. He endowed the tomb richly and donated two huge brass vessels in which nearly 3000 kilograms of sweet rice could be cooked. This practice continues till today and rice is served to all the pilgrims.

The Urs at Ajmer attracts pilgrims not only from India but also from countries as far away as Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Both Muslims and Hindus pay their homage to the saint, who is affectionately called Garib Nawaz ('cherisher of the humble') and Khwaja Ajmeri.

The qawwali which became popular during the saint's life time, still retains its importance. During the Urs, qawwali competitions are held when the best qawwals of India assemble at Ajmer.


Guru Purb is a Sikh festival. It commemorates the birthday of Guru Nanak. the founder of the Sikh faith. It is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of November.

More than 500 years ago, in AD. 1469, Nanak was born in a village called Talwandi, now known as Nankana Sahib. It is about 64 kilometres from Lahore in Pakistan. Several shrines connected with the Guru are found in Nankana Sahib. On Guru Purb day, a group of Sikhs from India visits the place after taking permission from the Government of Pakistan.

Even in his childhood, Nanak showed signs of being different from other children.At the age of seven he composed a poem in praise of God, each verse of which began with a different letter of the alphabet. He was a bright student and learned quickly whatever the village schoolmaster could teach him Nanak's father therefore thought of putting him in business. He gave him twenty rupees to buy some merchandise for his business, to earn some profit. However, Nanak was of a different bent of mind and spent the entire amount in feeding hungry ascetics whom he met on the way.

Nanak started spending more and more time in the company of holy men. This worried his parents, who married him off at an early age. But marriage did not change him. Every evening he would sit with his Muslim friend Mardana, singing shabads (poems) in praise of the Lord.

Nanak traveled widely in India and beyond its frontiers. He visited Sri Lanka, Tibet and even Mecca, the holy place of the Muslims. Wherever he went, he raised his voice against meaningless rituals and wasteful outward ceremonies. He disliked caste distinction and hated injustice. He said, 'There is but one God. He is the Supreme Truth. His grace can be invoked by faith. Meditation, repeating His name, seeking the company of saints, righteous living and the service of humanity are the only means of salvation.'

The poems and hymns which Nanak sang in his lifetime were later collected and are known as Japji. The Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, begins with the Japji.

The reading of the Granth Sahib from cover to cover is a regular feature of the celebration of the Guru's birthday. The reading commences two days before the auspicious day and continues day and night without interruption. On Guru Purb day, the holy book is taken out in a procession from the four famous gurudwaras, or Sikh temples, situated in Amritsar (Punjab), Patna (Bihar), Anandpur (Punjab) and Nanded (Maharashtra).

Although all important gurudwaras run regular free community kitchens, called langars, for pilgrims and the general public, a special langar is held on Guru Purb day. These langars were started by Guru Nanak himself, to do away with all distinctions between the rich and the poor, and with all differences of caste and creed, and to promote equality and brotherhood.

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