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Unity in Diversity

Friday, April 20, 2018

The phrase may be a cliché, but if there is one thing that unites us all in India, it is the sense of celebration marked by a reverence for holy traditions. April is just a representative of this year-round celebration of our diversity

In India, the festive season is generally supposed to begin with the Ganesha Festival, some time in the second half of the month. It then moves to Navratri, Dasshera, Diwali, Christmas and New Year.

April, however, is also a time of celebration for many Indian communities in all corners of the country.

This month began with Easter Sunday on April 1. Ambedkar Jayanti was on April 14.

April 15 was special for several communities that celebrated the spring festival and their New Year under various names—Bihu for the Assamese; Vishu for the Keralites; Naba Barsha for Bengalis; Baisakhi for Punjabis…

Then, on April 18, the Maharashtrians celebrated Akshaya Tritiya, and on the same day, the Sha’ban Month began for Muslims. For Jains too, this day was important—according to the Jain legends, this was the day when the first Tirthankar, Rishabdev, broke his fast by drinking sugarcane juice. As a result, Jain monks, who may be fasting, choose this day to break their fast.

The Odia New Year also takes place during this period. At the end of this month, on April 30, we will be celebrating Buddha Purnima as well.

The phrase ‘Unity in Diversity’ may be a cliché, but if there is one thing that unites us all in India, it is the sense of celebration marked by a reverence for holy traditions.

Here is a quick look at the festivals celebrated this April, and what it is that makes them special.

Easter, celebrated on Sunday, marks Christ's resurrection from the dead, and the end of the Holy Week, the end of Lent and the last day of the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday). It is the beginning of the Easter season of the liturgical year. The resurrection of Jesus Christ symbolises the triumph of good over evil, sin and death. For Christians, it is the most important holiday on the calendar, as it represents the fulfillment of God's promises to mankind.

Ambedkar Jayanti is considered one of the most important days. It celebrates the birthday of Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, who played a vital role in the formation of the Indian Constitution. He was a key proponent of human rights in India and worked towards eliminating the caste system. He became India’s first law minister. Ambedkar Jayanti honours the life of Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar and his social work.

For Punjabis, Baisakhi marks the beginning of the solar year, and takes place when the rabi crop is ready for harvesting. People in North India—and Punjabis everywhere—thank God for the harvest, and visit gurudwaras. The celebrations include Vaisakhi processions and traditional performances. This day is particularly important to Sikhs as in 1699, their tenth Guru Gobind Singh organised the order of the Khalsa. Kar Sewa—the offering of physical labour—is performed to assist in the Gurudwara.

Bihu is the name for the National Festival of Assam. The term ‘Bihu’ came from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘Vishu’. The Assamese celebrate three kinds of Bihu—Bohaag Bihu in the middle of April, Maagh Bihu in the middle of January and Kaati Bihu in the middle of October. Bihu is basically a celebration marking the change of seasons in this fertile land that is surrounded by mountains and replenished by the waters of the Brahmaputra. It is one of the most important times of the year for this agrarian society.

For the Bengalis, Naba Barsha marks the first day of Baisakh, the first month of the Bengali calendar. It is known as Poila Baisakh in Bangladesh. As with many Indian festivals, rangoli creations take centre-stage. On this day, the people of West Bengal revere Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and also worship Lord Ganesh by chanting  mantras. Many devotees also take dips in the river. This day marks the start of business activities, with businessmen and traders buying accounting books and starting fresh accounts, known as Haalkhata.

Malayalees celebrate their New Year with Vishu, also known as Medam in the Malayalam calendar. In Sanskrit, Vishu means ‘equal’. Vishu marks the beginning of spring and has three key aspects—Vishukani (the Divine Darshan of Creator and creation – Nature); Vishu Kaineetam (exchange of money—Mahalakshmi—by elders to youngsters) and Vishu Bhalam (Strength/Results). The day begins much before sunrise, with the eldest in the family leading others to the Vishukani for the first glimpse of the Lord.

The Odia New Year, also known as Mesha Sankranti, is the day when the Sun enters the sign Libra. A sweet concoction known as pana is prepared, mixing various fruits, water, milk, bel pulp, curd and sugar). A small pot filled with pana or a sweet drink of Mishri and water is hung on a basil (Tulsi) plant.

A hole at the bottom allows water to drip, representing rain. After an offering to the Tulsi plant, the flour of horse gram chhatua, along with banana and curd, is consumed.

Sha’ban is the eighth month in the Islamic calendar. It is said that Prophet Muhammad used to fast most of the month during this period, except in the last few days. This is the month immediately preceding the month of Ramadan. Islamic scholars have recommended special worship during the night of 15th of Sha’ban. This is based on the saying (Hadith) of Prophet Muhammad, the meaning of which is that during the night of 15th of Sha’ban, Allah will say "Is there any person repenting so that I forgive him, and any person seeking provision so that I provide for him, and any person with distress so that I relieve him, and so on until dawn."

Akshay Tritya is considered to be one of the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar. In Sanskrit, 'Akshay' means imperishable and eternal, while Tritiya means ‘third’. Also known as 'Akha Teej', the festival falls on the third lunar day of Shukla Paksha of Baisakh month.

One popular legend associated with Akshay Tritiya refers to the Akshay Patra, the miracle earthen pot gifted to Draupadi, which ensured the Pandavas had a never-ending supply of food.

Akshay Tritiya is considered to be very auspicious for beginning and buying something new. It’s the day people start new businesses, and is also considered one of the most auspicious days for marriages.

For the Jain community, it is the day that commemorates the first Tirthankara's (Rishabhanatha) ending his one-year asceticism by consuming sugarcane juice poured into his cupped hands.

Vesak, or Buddha Purnima, Buddha Jayanti is a Buddhist festival that marks Gautama Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. This day is widely celebrated, not just in India, but in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, China, Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cambodia, Singapore and Indonesia. The festival usually falls on a full moon day in the month of Vaisakh (April/ May), according to the Hindu calendar.

In Theravada Buddhism, this is also the day that Buddha attained Nirvana (salvation) and as his death anniversary.

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