Fairs and Festivals of IndiaIt is generally believed that fairs and festivals in India have a predominantly religious base. This however is not entirely true. Whereas religion continues to be a major source of fairs and festivals in India, they are also connected with folklore, local customs, changing seasons, harvest, etc. These often cut across religious differences.
Indian fairs and festivals are as varied in origin as they are in number. They also constitute the essence of Indian cultural life. Both the features of India's cultural life – its unity and plurality – can be seen in the manner in which fairs and festivals are observed throughout the country. Following are some characteristics of India's fairs and festivals.
1. Even though not entirely governed by the doctrinal dictates of high religious traditions, all the festivals have a socio-religious content. Every traditional festival has two aspects-worship and festive participation. Worship tends to be exclusive and confined to a particular religion. For example in Holi, Diwali and Ram Navmi, Hindus worship their Gods and Goddesses at the individual or family level. In Eid Muslims go to the mosque to offer namaaz as part of collective worship. On Christmas, Christians go to church for their religious services. However participation in most of these festivals is not restricted to a particular community. Members of all communities participate in the festivities attached to the festival. Holi, Diwali, Eid, Baisakhi and Christmas involve all the local people at some level or the other. Therefore in spite of a strong religious content, these festivals also represent a certain commonness and social bonding among people of different religions.
2. Most of the festivals specific to Hindus are seasonal in nature. They represent the change in harvesting season. All the seasonal festivals are celebrated during two harvesting seasons, Kharif (August-October) and Rabi (March-April). And so different regional festivals like Bihu (mid-January), Onam (September-October), Pongal (mid-January), Vasant Panchmi (February), Makar Sankranti (January), Lohri (January), Baisakhi (April) have an agricultural base linked to the harvesting season. Thus a certain commonness can be observed in all such festivals.
3. Being linked to agriculture and harvest in all season these festivals have a strong non-religious or secular aspect at the level of activities. For example, kite-flying is a special feature of Makar Sankranti. Bihu dance constitutes the biggest attraction during Bihu festivals. Kathakali dance, which is among the classical dances of India, is the chief attraction during Onam festival. Onam is also marked by boat races or Vallumkali, where special boats are rowed by about 100 men to the accompaniment of songs and drums. During the Lohri festival, the whole of Punjab comes to life and dances to the tune of bhangra. Likewise garba dance constitutes the core of Navratri in Gujarat. These instances can be multiplied (Durga Puja in Bengal, Dssehra celebrations in most of north India, Holi in Braj area, Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharashtra). If the forms of celebration of most of these festivals are studied, it will be found that non-religious, i.e., non-devotional, non-doctrinal and non-exclusive activities occupy the centre-stage in all of them.
4. Indian fairs, in most cases, are devoid of religious content, except probably the Kumbh Mela which is mainly a religious congregation. Indian fairs are characterized by buying and selling of attle, goats, handicrafts and a variety of other activities. We can say that the Indian fairs represent the cultural-commercial life of Traditional India. Although in some fairs religious rites do take place, they are mostly peripheral to the commercial aspects.
It can thus be seen that the pattern of India's fairs and festivals corresponds to the major features of Indian cultural life. The festivals are largely religious but not in the doctrinal or exclusivist sense. They are religious only to the extent that their origin is related to a particular religion. In the method of their celebration, religion ceases to be of utmost importance. Moreover, the great diversity and variety of Indian religions can be reduced to some elementary commonness. Many festivals may appear different in name and forms of participation but they all share the same spirit and origin. Fairs in India are only superficially religious and are a product of India's cultural-commercial traditions. On the whole, it can be said that even when Indian festivals have a religious or doctrinal content, the forms are invariably non-religious. In the fairs often the content too is non-religious. All the regional cultural patterns are clearly visible in most of the festivals yet their basic similarities are never in doubt. India's fairs and festivals are indeed a compliment to the composite heritage, syncretism and the plurality of India.