From January through August (on the Western calendar) three festivals celebrated in various parts of India include Pongal, Ram Navami, and Ganesh Chaturthi. (Because the Hindu calendar is marked by the lunar cycle the dates of all holidays vary from year to year.) Alternately commemorating the harvest, the marriage of Rama, and honoring Ganesha (the elephant-headed deity), each of these festivals is an occasion for special observances in Indian culture and within the Hindu religion. (It should be noted, however, that not all holidays celebrated in India are religious in nature.)
During the first of these festivals, that of Pongal, which is a secular celebration not specifically tied to a religious observance, Indians (principally those in the southern regions of the country) celebrate and give thanks for the harvest. Pongal normally falls toward the middle of January and the observance lasts for four days. (In 2006 Pongal will fall on January 14.)
On the first day of the Pongal festival, known as "Bhogi," old clothes are burned to signify the coming of that which is new, whereas on the second day (which is actually called "Pongal") an offering of rice and milk is made to the sun god as a way to give thanks for the prosperity produced by the sun's rays. On the third day, known as "Maattu Pongal," thanks are given to the cattle for their milk, and finally on the last day, known as "Kaanum Pongal," people visit the beach or gather on river banks. (An older mode of celebrating this final day of Pongal had young boys gathering on the river bank to make a selection of their future life partners, but this practice has fallen out of vogue in modern times.)
Three months after Pongal, the observance of Ram Navami commemorates the marriage or Rama and Seetha as well as Rama's birth. On Ram Navami people recreate the marriage in their homes and there are also ceremonial weddings performed in the temples which are beautifully decorated for the occasion. (Readings of the Ramayana also take place.) A sweet drink called Panakam is popular during this festival although Hindus are to fast or to observe a restricted diet during this time. (In 2006 Ram Navami will fall on April 6.)
Four months after Ram Navami, toward the end of August or in early September, the birth of the elephant-headed deity, Lord Ganesha (the son of Shiva and Parvati), is celebrated with the ten-day festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. (The deity Ganesha symbolizes wisdom and is the master of the intellect.) The celebration Ganesh Chaturthi involves household worship and the serving of the sweet dish known as modaks, as well as public celebrations. (In 2006 Ganesh Chaturthi will fall on August 28.)
The festivals of Pongal, Ram Navami, and Ganesh Chaturthi are but three of the holidays that appear on the rich (and at times complicated) Hindu calendar. Each celebration gives the people of India (and those transplanted Indian populations around the world) ample opportunity to celebrate the diversity of their culture, heritage, and religious life.