[Culture] Festivals of India: Characteristics, Features & Importance

[Culture] Festivals of India: Characteristics, Features & Importance

  1. Characteristics of Indian Festivals?
    • Seasonal in nature
    • Seasonal Festivals are Agro-based
    • Worship of Animals
    • Worship of Fire
    • Same time but different Names
    • Involves Dancing
    • Involves Processions
    • Artificial / Non-religious Festivals
  2. Appendix: Major Festivals of India
    • Bihu: three types, Makar Sankranti, Lohri, Onam, Pongal
    • Raksha Bandhan, Navratri Durga Pooja
    • Dashehra, Holi, Dipawali
    • Id-ul Fitr, Id-ul Zuha (Id-ul Azha), Muharram, Christmas,
    • Good Friday, Easter, Nauroz
    • Buddha Jayanti (Budddha Purnima), Ganeshotsava

Although This article is primarily meant for UPSC aspiants, but the General knowledge scattered here, should also help the aspirants IBPS, APFC, SSC, CPF, State PSC and similar exams .

What are the characteristics of Indian Festivals?

They’re are socio-religious in content.
Almost all of them are accompanied by religious rituals of one kind or the other. Every traditional festival has two aspects. One is the worship which is performed according to the specific religious norms. For example in Holi, Diwali or Ram Navami the Hindus worship their gods and goddesses at the individual or family level. In Id the Muslims go to the mosques to offer namaz because the collective worship is an important aspect of their religion. Similarly, on Christmas the Christians go to their Churches for religious services.
Participation of entire society
Participation in most of our festivals are not restricted to a particular community. Members of all the communities participate in the festivities attached to a festival. Holi, Diwali, Id, Muharram, Baisakhi and Christmas involve all the people at one level or the other. Therefore, despite having strong religious content, our festivals represent our commonness, forge our unity and encourage a social bond.
Seasonal in nature
Most of the festivals specific to the Hindus are seasonal in nature. They announce the go in season and mark the harvesting seasons.
All the seasonal festivals are celebrated during two harvesting seasons kharif ‘ August-October) and rabi (March- April). Besides, spring season is another period of seasonal festivities.
Seasonal Festivals are Agro-based
The base of all seasonal festivals is ‘Agriculture.’ Festivals are observed because either the new crop is sown or crop is harvested.

  1. In Punjab, from Lohri onwards peasants start cutting their winter crop. Pongal, Bihu and Onam celebrations mark the harvesting of paddy crop.
  2. On the day of Pongal with the new crop Shankarai Pongal’ (rice cooked in milk and jaggery) is prepared and distributed as Prasadam.’ Sugarcane, which is another crop harvested at this time is also distributed as part of Trasadam.’
  3. Similarly, tender turmeric plants (another new crop harvested during this period) are tied around the neck of the pots (kalash) in which Shankarai Pongal is cooked.
  4. In Assam, during Bihu celebrations, ‘rice’ preparations chirwa (pressed rice) is eaten and distributed.
  5. Rice dishes are also the chief-component in the Onam feasts.
  6. Similarly, Roll and Vaisakhi, are primarily celebrated to mark the harvesting of new rabi crop. Here wheat forms the centre of all rituals. When the Holi fire is lit tradition is to roast wheat and barley plants in that fire.

Worship of Animals
since agriculture of is the base of all these seasonal festivals, its closely related component is cattle-worship.

  1. Pongal in South or Bihu in North-East, cattle are worshipped. The first day of Bohag Bihu (mid-April) called Goru Bihus is in fact the day of cattle festival.
  2. Third day of Pongal called Mattu Pongal is dedicated to cattle (matu) worship. Their horns are polished and flowers hung around their necks.
  3. Cattle sport Jellikattu of Madurai, Thanjavur and Tiruchirapalli have acquired all India fame in which bundles of money, etc. are tied to the horns of bulls and young men try to snatch them.
  4. Bullock-cart race is organised on this day in Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu in which everyone takes part irrespective of age and religion. Its counterpart in North- India is Govardhan Pooja which falls on the third day following Dipawali.

Worship of Fire

  • Fire worship is another important feature of seasonal festivals. We get references of fire worship as early as the Harappan period (at Kalibangan).
  • Magh Bihu (mid- January) celebrations are centred around bhelaghars (specially constructed structures of thatched grass and green bamboos): Men and women spend whole night in these structures. Bonfire is arranged. In the morning these bhelaghars are burnt as symbol of fire worship.
  • First day of Pongal, called Bogi Pongal is celebrated by litting bonfire. Boys beat drums called Bogi Kottu. This Bogi is dedicated to the god of rains, Indra. It heralds the coming of new season (Spring). Bonfire celebrations of Lohri and Holi needs no introduction.
  • On the day of Lohri bonfire is lit to worship Sun God to get protection for worshippers and their crop from the severe cold of Paush month (December-January). Thus bonfire is the symbol of collective security and safety.

Same time but different Names

  • There are some festivals celebrated at a particular time but with different names all over India. The most prominent of such festival is Makara Sankranti (January 14th ).
  • It is celebrated in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh as the three day long Pongal festival, and in Karnataka and Northern India (January 13) as Makar Sankranti.
  • Lohri (January 13) celebrated primarily in Punjab also coincides with Makara Sankranti.
  • Baisakhi in Punjab and Holi in Northen India and Bohag Bihu in Assam marks the coming of new year.
  • From Lohri onwards starts the economic year of zainindars. From Nauroz (21st March) starts the Parsi new year.
  • As we have pointed out earlier all these festivals have socio-cultural aspects also and involve all the people in an area or region irrespective of caste and community in the festivities. Kite flying is a special feature (specially in Ahmedabad and Jaipur) of Makara Sankranti celebrations.

Involves Dancing
Dance is another significant characteristic of Indian Festivals.

  • during Bohag Bihu celebrations needs no elaboration. It is not only the very life of Assamese but has attained a place among the national heritage. During Bihu celebrations Bihu dance is the biggest attraction. On this day whole Assam comes to life. People sing and dance on the beat of drum, pepa (a kind of instrument made of buffaloes’ horn), tal, gagna (sarangi), etc. In this dance both young men and women take part.
  • On this day another dance Husori is,also organised. The difference between the two is that the former one is danced on the tunes of love songs while the latter is played on religious themes. Latter is generally organised in groups by men.
  • Similarly Navaratri in Gujarat involves Garba/Daandia (a form of dance)
  • Kathakali dance, which is among the classical dances of India, is the chief attraction of Onam festival. Boat races or vallamkali* also marks Onam festivities- especially at Aranmulai and Kottayam. Here `Odde’ boats are rowed by about 100 oarsmen each to the accompaniment of songs and drums.

Correction by Mr.Sudheesh: For boat race its vallamkali and not vallurnkali(onam festival)
Involves Processions

  • In the West, they’ve “carnivals”, and in the east, we’ve “processions” during Ganesh visarjan, VijayaDashmi, Durga puja, Lath-maar holi (UP), Mohram and other festivals of India.

Artificial / Non-religious Festivals
So far we saw that all the indian festivals have socio-religious and agriculture contexts. But the Tourism departments of various states, also organize festivals to attract tourists from abroad. Examples of such artificial / non-reglious festivals:

  1. Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Music and Dance Festivals at many places in the country,
  2. Mango Festivals in Delhi, Haryana and U.P.,
  3. Garden Festivals in Delhi and Sikkim
  4. Elephant Festival in Kerala.
  5. Rannotsav in Kutch, Gujarat. (Those of you watching Tarak Mehta, recall that Jethala and family had gone to Kutch/Bhuj to see this festival and the white desert of Dhorda but Jetha got arrested by Pakistani Rangers as his camel crossed the international border. According to Gujarati Newspapers, this made Border Security Force (BSF) very angry and furious because the Producer had never told the BSF IG about this twist in the script while taking permission to shoot the episode.)

Appendix: Major Festivals of India

Bihu: three types

People of Assam, irrespective of caste and creed celebrate three Bihus. All these three Bihus are connected with each other. Bohag Bihu is celebrated in mid-April; second in line is Magh Bihu observed in mid-January; and the third one Kati Bihu is commemorated in mid-October. But, the most celebrated one is Bohag Bihu. Bohag Bihu heralds the coming of the New Year in the Assamese calendar. Magh Bihu is basically related with agriculture. It is observed when the paddy crop is harvested. Kati Bihu is celebrated on the last day of the Ahin month of Assamese calendar. This is also known as Kangali Bihu for this is the time when almost all the granaries are empty. On this day people perform rituals in the midst of paddy fields to wish for good paddy crop

Makar Sankranti

It is celebrated on January 14. This marks the beginning of `Uttarayana’ or the half year long northern sojourn of the Sun. It is celebrated in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh as the three-day long Pongal festival, and in Karnataka and Northern India as Makar Sankranti. Kite flying is a special feature of the cities of Ahmedabad and Jaipur on this day.


It is celebrated on the last day of the Paush month (12-13 January). It coincides with Pongal and Makar Sankranti marking the culmination of winter. It is believed that this is the coldest day of the year. Community bonfires are lit. Traditionally, any family having a wedding or any happy occasion to celebrate plays host to the rest of the village on this festival. Rice-flakes, popcorns and sweets made from jaggery (gur) and sesame seed (til) like “Gajak” and “Revadi” are tossed into the bonfire.
Onam: It is celebrated in the Hindu month of Sravana on the day of Sravana Nakshatra (September-October).


Kerala’s major festival. According to legend, king Mahabali practiced great penance and became all-powerful. Vishnu took the incarnation of a Brahmin dwarf, Vamana and asked the king to give him all the land he could cover in three steps as alms. The king agreed. At this Vamana grew to super-human proportions. Covering the earth and heaven in two steps, Vamana asked where he should place his third step. Mahabali offered his own head and was pushed into the nether world (or Patalam). In recognition of his piety, Mahabali was made King of Patalam. He is allowed to return to his former kingdom once a year in an invisible form. Onam is celebrated to assure King Mahabali that all remains well in his land, and that his people are happy and prosperous.
On the eve of Tiruonam, the second and the most important day of the 4-day Onam festival, everything is cleaned and decorated in preparation for king Mahabali’s visit. Auspicious saffron colour cloths are presented to friends and relatives.

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