ll   VARANASI  ...the festivals ll

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Varanasi is a city of fairs and festivals. Here, there are over four hundred celebrations during the year. Each day that dawn in Varanasi ushers in a fair or a festival. Some of the important festivals are:

Maha Sivaratri, which marks the birth of Lord Siva, is celebrated in the months of February I March. Special rituals are held in all the temples of Lord Siva. People fast and keep awake the whole night and attend the special worship. Pilgrims in thousands come from all over the country to celebrate it at the Viswanath temple.

The spring celebrations culminate with the festival of Holi which falls in the month of March. People smear each other with coloured powders and sprinkle coloured water on each other. The celebration extends over several days, with groups of people going about singing phaag (Holi songs) in the evenings. The actual festival starts with public bonfires lit at numerous places all over the city, symbolizing the ritual destruction of evil. Grains of corn and cow-dung cakes are burnt in the bonfire. Immediately afterwards, people embrace friends, acquaintances and relatives. Next morning, they throw gulal and coloured water on each other. In the afternoon, after a good bath, they don new clothes and go to fairs held on the occasion.

Navaratri is a festival of nine days and falls two times in a year. During this festival, the nine incarnations of Goddess Durga are worshipped, one on each day. First time, it is celebrated in the months of March and April and it culminates in the Ram Navami which marks the birth of Lord Rama. Generally, people fast during the day and special rituals are performed in the temples dedicated to Lord Rama. The Ramayana is recited and programmes of music and dance continue through the night. The image of Rama is placed in a cradle before which devotees lie prostrate in obeisance and offer abeer in homage.

Rath Yatra is a three-day celebration and held during the month of June I July; it draws huge crowds of devotees. This chariot festival is associated with Lord Jagannath. During the festival, the idol of Lord Jagannath, in company with his brother Balram and sister Subadra, is brought out from the temple at Asi in a huge multi-wheeled chariot and taken in a procession. It is believed that this fair has been held here for the last two hundred years.

Raksha Bandan is celebrated in the month of August. It is a festival of brother and sister.

The birth of Lord Krishna falls in the month of August or September as Janmashtami. The temples are specially decorated. Generally, people fast during the day and special rituals are performed.

During the months of September and October falls the festival of Dasahara. The Ramleela, as depicted in Tulsidas' epic Ramacharitamanas begins many days before. The celebrations come to an end on Vijayadasami or Dasahara day, when effigies of Ravana and his kinsmen are sent up in flames. This is the time when the festival of second Navaratri is also held. Though Ramleela is celebrated in almost every corner of the city, the one celebrated at Ramnagar is the best, held on a grand scale due to the patronage of the ex-Maharaja of Varanasi. It is held in pageant style, over an area of about twelve or thirteen kilometers, and it continues from five in the evening to nine in the night. The make up and costumes of those enacting the Ramleela are highly stylized and the couplets and quartets that they recited are also sung in a conventional style.

It is believed that Ramleela was first performed in the city about 360 years ago by Tulsidas. After his death, his great devotee Megha Bhagat, started the Ramleela of Chitrakoot, of which the final episode depicting the return of Rama after fourteen years of exile and welcomed by his brother Bharata, is held in the Nati Imli locality. The performance begins just as the last rays of the setting sun touch the stage. The scene takes barely three minutes to enact but crowds in large numbers gather at Nati Imli to witness it. The Ramleela of Chitrakoot is like a pantomime, with the Ramcharitamanas read out in the background. The episode enacted at Nati Imli is re-enacted at the Ramnagar chowk under the dazzle of fire works. The former Maharaja of Banaras arrives in an attractive golden howdah on an elephant to attend it.

The last day of the first half of Kartik during October or November is known as the great Diwali day, a festival or lights. In the month of Kartik, lighted deeps called Akash deeps are hung over the Ganga ghats.

Similar to Ramleela, Krishnaleela based on the life of Lord Krishna is also held in Varanasi but not on such a large scale. During the months of November and December, Nag Nathaiya or Kalia Daman, an episode from the Krishnaleela is enacted at the Tulsidas ghat.

In olden days, Gahare-baazi or the ekka-race was very popular in Varanasi. Generally, this would be held during the Ramleela of Ramnagar and the race would be run from Ramnagar to Padao at the other end of the Malaviya Bridge across the Ganga. The ekka-race is now no longer held, though one can still occasionally see the gaily-decorated Gahare-baaz ekka.

Bathing in the Ganga during the solar and lunar eclipses has special religious significance. Large numbers of devotees from all over the country crowd the ghats on such occasions.

A four-day festival of music is held every year at the Sankat Mochan temple. A sort of competition of folk music is arranged with rival parties performing on opposite platforms. After the monsoon, programmes of classical and folk music are held at various temples. It begins at nine in the night and continues till dawn.

A festival of song and dance was started by Wajid Ali Shah. This festival is held amid streams on boats and barges, in the wake of the festival of Holi. It was called the Burhwa Mangal. Four or five boats would be joined together with planks to form a stage and renowned artistes from all over the country would perform on it. The audience would arrive in gaily decorated boats - some bedecked with flowers, some with pearls, costly carpets and satin cushions and cluster round the stage. A fair generally sprang up on the occasion and floating shops of sweets, snacks and pan would ply on the river. The Banarasi Gazetteer of 1906 records that it was the most popular and important fair and estimated the attendance at thirty thousand. It is a great pity that the festival has now been discontinued though efforts are being made to revive it.