Festival

Parshvanatha Jayanti

Parshvanatha, the Jain Tirthankara, preached the four vows of non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing and not owning things.

Words: Madhuri Y

Parshvanatha is the twenty-third Jain Tirthankara and is said to have lived during the seventh century which was 250 years before Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Jain Tirthankara.

Parshvanatha was born on the tenth day of Krishna Paksha, that is the dark half of the month of Paush, to the ruler of Varanasi, King Asvasena and Queen Vamadevi. They belonged to the Ikshvaku dynasty.

. A Jain adult householder follows twelve basic vows which Parshvanatha began following as an eight-year old. When he was thirty years old, he renounced the world. Meditating for 84 days, he attained kevala jnana that is, complete knowledge.

When he was a hundred years old, he attained enlightenment atop today’s Parasnath Hills, on which Shikharji is located.

Earlier Incarnations

Parshvanatha was believed to have taken many incarnations. As Marubhuti, he had been the son of a Prime Minister. When his brother Kamath set fire to a log, Marubhuti saved two snakes which were trapped in the log. These snakes were later born as Dharnendra and Padmavati and gave shelter to Parshvanatha in his later life when his brother sent a storm to disturb his meditation.

Marubhuti was later killed by his brother. Reborn as the elephant, Vajraghosha, he roamed the forests of Vindhyachal. Once again, his brother from the previous birth, who was now born as a snake, attacked and killed him. After a life as Sasi Prabha in the twelfth heaven, he took birth as prince Agnivega. He went on to rule the kingdom, but later turned into an ascetic. Once again, his brother from the previous births, killed him while he was meditating in the Himalayas.

Parshvanatha preached four of the five Jain principles, that of non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, not owning things. The principle of chastity was added by Mahavira. Parshvanatha is known to be compassionate. He had eight chief monks, more than a hundred thousand male followers and over three hundred thousand female followers. In addition, 16,000 monks and 38,000 nuns were believed to have followed him.

Parshvanatha Jayanti

Parshvanatha Jayanti is celebrated with reverence with worship. Devout jains undertake attham, that is, they undertake a three-day fast. Some undertake a hard fast, eating and drinking nothing. Some drink boiled water. Some have one meal during the day. They recite their holy scriptures and meditate for their own spiritual welfare. They decorate their houses and give donations to the poor. Grand fairs take place, particularly in Shankheshwar.

over 900 temples on the mountain

Parshvanatha temple in Khajuraho is believed to have been built during the 10th century. Originally, the idol seems to have been of Adinatha, the first tirthankara. Parshvanatha’s idol was installed in 1860.

With over 900 temples on the mountain, Palitana near Bhavnagar in Gujarat is an important Jain pilgrimage centre. Devout Jains hope to climb to the top of the mountain at least once in their lifetime. They must neither eat food nor carry it with them. No one can remain atop the mountain during the night. Adinatha is said to have meditated on the Shatrunjaya hill on which more than 3000 temples are located today. Of these, the main shrine of the Digamber Jain temple holds the idol of Bhagwan Shantinatha. Apart from this, it also holds two idols of Parshvanatha.

Palitana is the world’s first vegetarian city by law. It is illegal to engage in the business of non-vegetarian food, including eggs, or to undertake fishing or hold animals for the purpose of food.

Shikharji in Jharkhand is located in the Parasnath Hills. It is believed that twenty jain tirthankaras, including Parshvanatha gained moksha here.

The Jain Narayana temple in Pattadakal was built by the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta. The principal deity is Parshvanatha.

The Parshvanatha Basadi, that is temple, in Halebidu was built by Boppana, son of a minister in King Vishnuvardhana’s court in 1133 AD.

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The 18-foot tall Parshvanatha idol is made of black granite. Statues of Dharnendra and Padmavati too are present.

Parshvanatha Basadi in Shravanabelagola holds an 18-foot tall statue of Parshvanatha in standing posture.

Parshvanatha temple in Calcutta was built by Rai Badridas Bahadoor Mookim in 1867. The ghee lamp in the sanctum sanctorum has been burning since the temple initiation.

Akkana Basadi, that is, temple of the elder sister, was built by Hoysala king Veera Ballala II in 1181 AD. Construction was undertaken by Achala Devi, the wife of a minister.

The Nakoda Parshvanatha temple is near Mewar in Rajasthan. The tirthankara’s idol is in black and in padmasana position.

Shankheshwar in Patan of Gujarat is home to the Parshvanatha temple. The original temple was built in 1099 AD by Sajjan Shah.

Muslim invaders destroyed it in the 14th century and a new temple was built in the 16th century of the Vikram era.

In 1704 AD, a six-foot high statue of Parshvanatha in padmasana posture was reinstalled.

Lodrawa in Jaisalmer of Rajasthan was the capital of the Bhatti dynasty. Lord Parshvanatha’s temple was destroyed in 1152 AD by Mohammed Ghori and was reconstructed in 1615.

The 61-foot tall statue of Parshvanatha is in the Navagraha Jain Temple at Varur near Hubli in Karnataka. The idol is in standing (kayotsarga) posture.

Shree Shankheshwar Parshvanatha Jain temple is in East Godavari of Andhra Pradesh. During construction of the national highway in 1977, statues of Parshvanatha and other tirthankaras were found in the ardha padmasana position. It was ascertained that they belonged to the Mauryan era and were 2000 years old.

A 47-foot statue of the tirthankara in padmasana posture is found in the Gopachal hill which is home to rock-cut statues.

A 31-foot statue is found in the Vahelna temple.

The Naugaza Digambar Jain temple holds a smaller statue of Parshvanatha.

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RATHA SAPTAMI

Ratha Saptami is the day to worship Surya, the Sun God, who infuses life into creation. This auspicious day brings wealth, long life and prosperity.

Words: Madhuri. Y

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Ratha Saptami, the festival of Surya, the Sun god, is also known as Achala Saptami or Magha Saptami. As the name indicates, Ratha Saptami marks the seventh day following the Sun’s northerly movement (Uttarayana) of vernal equinox starting from Capricorn (Makara).

It is represented in the form of the Sun God Surya turning his Ratha (Chariot) drawn by seven horses, with Aruna as the charioteer, in a north-easterly direction. Symbolic significance of the ratha and the seven horses represents seven colours of the rainbow.

The seven horses also said to represent seven days of the week starting Sunday, the day of Sun god Surya.

With the day signifying Surya’s birth was recognised in ancient times that the Sun played a critical role ensuring our health, hence the day is also known as Arogya Saptami.

Ratha Saptami marks arrival of spring and beginning of harvest season. Temperatures rise as spring is in offing.
Ratha Saptami is auspicious for good deeds such as giving alms or helping others. Worshipping Surya and fasting is believed to get rid a person of seven types of sins committed by way of thought, word or deed.

Celebrating Ratha Saptami

Devotees fast on evening of the sixth day. On seventh, that is, on Saptami, a lamp made of gold, silver, copper or clay is lit.

After taking the name of Surya, the lamp is left to float in a lake, river or sea. Devotees take bath and with water cupped in palm or a small vessel is offered as argyam to the Sun god.

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Ratha Saptami is auspicious for good deeds such as giving alms or helping others. Worshipping Surya and fasting is believed to get rid a person of seven types of sins committed by way of thought, word or deed.

A LIST OF SOME FAMOUS SUN TEMPLES IN INDIA

The Bhramanya Dev Temple
Unao Mp
Sun Temple
At Surya Prahar Assam
Suryanar Temple
Kumbakonam Tamilnadu
Suryanarayan Temple
Arsavilli Andhra Pradesh
The Dakshinaarka Temple
Gaya
Konark Sun Temple
Orissa
Modhera Sun Temple
Gujarat

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This involves pouring the water slowly while chanting mantras. Sun worship is performed within an hour from sunrise. Devotees take a bath during the time of arunoday, that is, the dawn before sunrise.

This period is for four ghatis, about one and a half hours, since each ghati is of 24 minutes. Taking bath at this time of the day is said to keep a person healthy.

Rangoli of a chariot drawn by seven horses adds beauty to the festival.

Chariot and horses are made from beans which are strung together with small sticks, most often match sticks. Traditionally, cow dung cakes were used to cook the offering. The stove is placed towards the east in sun light.

Milk is boiled in a bronze vessel and rice is added to it. The milk boils over and the cooked rice is placed in seven pairs of bean leaves and offered to the Sun god. It is believed that heat from the cooked rice makes the chemicals from the leaves seep into the rice, making it healthy.

A lamp is lit with pure ghee and camphor. Fruits and red flowers are offered during worship while chanting the Aditya Hridaya mantra, Gayathri mantra, Surya Ashtakam and Surya Sahasranama.

MYTHOLOGY

Once the King of Kambhoj, Yashovarma’s son became ill and the king asked the learned men for the cause of the illness.

They told him that his son’s miserliness in his previous birth resulted in the sickness. They also told him that he had performed the ritual of the Ratha Saptami and hence was born as the king’s son.

On their advice, the prince performed the Ratha Saptami worship. The worship rid him of his sins and thereafter he became healthy.

Combining symbolism with reality, it is understood that the Sun, being the bedrock of Creation, is endowed with the power of granting health which is the source of all wealth and happiness thanks to its energy and light.

CELEBRATIONS IN TEMPLES

The Sun god is a form of Lord Vishnu. Hence, Ratha Saptami is celebrated in Tirumala, Srirangam, Srirangapatnam, Mangalore and Melukote. On the day, Brahmotsavam is held in Tirumala with Lord Malayappa Swamy taken in procession along with his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi.

SUN AND SYMBOLISM

Surya’s chariot drawn by seven horses represents seven colours of the rainbow that comprises the light ray. It also refers to seven days of the week which begins with ravi vaar or Sunday, the day of Surya.

The horses are named – Gayatri, Brihati, Ushnih, Jagati, Trishtubha, Anushtubha, Pankti – after the seven meters of Sanskrit chandas or prosody.

The Wheel represents the year and is said to be part of the chariot called universe and with horses as the chandas. Aruna, the charioteer, means dawn and heralds the Sun’s entry. The six seasons make up six spokes of the wheel and 12 wheels of chariot − six to each wheel − signify 12 signs of zodiac and the full wheel comprising 360 degrees make up a year.

The Sun is a lord of Leo, that is, Simha raasi and it takes the Sun a month to transit from one zodiac sign to next. It enters the next raasi about 15th of the English calendar month. The Sun is also one of the nine planets that mark Hindu astrology.

GODDESS SARASWATI

Goddess Saraswati symbolises learning, wisdom, discrimination and harmony, enabling one to attain enlightenment

Words: Madhuri. Y

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Navarātri is a festival dedicated to the worship of the Hindu deity Durgā. According to vedic scriptures, Goddess Durgā, a symbol of power, is worshipped in nine different forms and is therefore termed Nava-durgā. Each goddess has a different form and a special significance. In Hinduism, Mother Durgā represents the embodiment of shakti, who killed the demon Mahishāsura, who could not be defeated by any god or man. She is the epitome of divine feminism.

The nine-day festival is also a time for personal introspection. Many keep fast for nine days, which helps in mind and body purification. It is also believed that this is the time to kill the demon within us and let the divine stay. All of us have Mahishāsurs within, which need to be removed to give way to the divine. Keeping fast and concentrating on MāDurgā helps remove toxins and purify our body as well as mind.

NAVRATRI

The three goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati are worshipped during Navratri with Saraswati being worshipped on the last three days. Once Durga removes the negative aspects within us, Lakshmi brings balance to our external lives and our mind is capable of turning towards Goddess Saraswati and her learning.

Like in any other part of the country, the Navarātri (Navratri) is celebrated with much devotion in south India too. Down south the festival is celebrated in a little different way. Friends and relatives are invited to look at the kolu – exhibition of various dolls. With lot of enthusiasm young girls create kolus.

Goddesses Lakshmi, Durgā and Saraswati are worshipped for three days each. The first three days of the festival are dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, the next three days to Durgā, and the last three days to Saraswati. Gifts of coconuts, clothes and sweets are exchanged between relatives, friends and neighbours.

Goddess Saraswati means the essence of the self, sara meaning essence and swa meaning self. Clad in white, she sits on a white lotus and rides a white swan. She is the symbol of learning and her four hands represent the four heads of Brahma, manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), chitta (thought) and ahankara (ego).

The book in her hand stands for the Vedas, which represent knowledge and learning. The rosary stands for meditation and reflection. The pot of water stands for the ability to purify and discriminate. The Veena stands for the harmony that emerges from wisdom and knowledge.

Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom and in this capacity, she is the consort of Brahma, the creator of the universe. Clad in white, she symbolises purity and clarity. It is believed that a swan has the ability to separate milk from water and drink only the milk.

Hence, the white swan is symbolic of the ability to discriminate. The goddess is seated on a white lotus in full blossom which stands for pure consciousness, that is god consciousness. All knowledge is said to lie in this space.

Goddess Saraswati’s depiction implies that wisdom lies within us. Once we learn to discriminate and separate the important things from the smaller ones, greater clarity emerges and we can become part of the pure consciousness and hence, live in joy and harmony.

When we make children write their first letters on the day of Saraswati Puja and pray to the goddess, it is simply the outward manifestation of our prayer. The real prayer is invoking her blessings in reaching the state of pure consciousness that is enlightenment.

NAMES OF GODDESS SARASWATI
Goddess Saraswati is known by many names. The most important one is Brahmajnanaikasadhana since she is believed to be the medium through which one can attain enlightenment. Her names which relate to learning and wisdom include:

Name and Meaning:

Jnanamudra – For being in a meditative pose
Mahavidya – Goddess of higher learning
Vagdevi – Goddess of speech
Bharadi – Goddess of history
Brahmi – Goddess of science
Varnesvari – Goddess of alphabet
Kavijihvagravasini – Who resides on a poet’s tongue
Vedamata – Mother of the vedas
Swaratmika – Goddess of sound
Trikalajna – One who knows the past, present and the future

Shastrarupini Goddess of learning and scriptures
Vidyarupa Embodiment of knowledge

VASANT PANCHAMI

Worship goddess Saraswati or the sun god, or celebrate it as Vasant Panchami or as Sufi Basant, Vasant Panchami is celebrated across religions and is the festival of learning and of spring

Words: Madhuri. Y

Also known as Sri Panchami, it is on the day of Vasant Panchami that Saraswati Puja is performed. Lord Brahma is believed to have created his consort, goddess Saraswati on the day of Vasant Panchami. Not many stories exist of her other than the belief that she is the goddess of all forms of learning.

According to another belief, lord Krishna gave a boon to goddess Saraswati that people will worship her on the day of Vasant Panchami. Devotees take a bath in the morning and set up a vessel, the kalasa. After lord Ganesha, the sun, Vishnu and Shiva are worshipped, it is the turn of the goddess.

Considering that Vasant Panchami is a spring festival, the basanti shade of yellow is the dominant colour. Idols of the usually white-clad goddess are dressed in yellow before they are worshipped since yellow is said to be her favourite colour. Her idol is placed facing east on a low wooden stool covered in yellow cloth.

Not only is the white-clad goddess dressed in yellow on this day, people too wear yellow-coloured clothes. The food is yellow in colour and can include sweet saffron rice, yellow sweets like ladoo and halwa. Yellow champa, that is the magnolia, palash, which is the flame of the forest, in addition to marigold and rose are offered to the goddess.

Her face is covered until the chanting of mantras begins. A green coconut wrapped in a red checked cloth is held in a pot made of clay. A string is tied to the pot and is removed after the next day’s worship. Subsequent to that, the idol is taken out for immersion. In Bengal, the idols are immersed in the river Ganga.

Priests perform aarti in the morning and evening. Ritual breaking of coconut is done and the pieces are then used to cook the food or sweets during the day. A certain kind of berry and tapioca are used along with jaggery, yoghurt and puffed rice to make sweets.
Parents teach their children to write their first letters on the day. Also, they worship the goddess to attain enlightenment through the path of knowledge.

Vasant Panchami or the fifth day of the spring season is known for Saraswati Puja. It is also the precursor to the bigger spring festival of Holi which arrives 40 days from Vasant Panchami. The festival also celebrates Sufi Basant and the deo sun god in Aurangabad of Bihar. It is also remembered for the Punjabi spring festival, Basant Panchami.

The most widespread celebration though is the Saraswati Puja. As the goddess of learning, arts and science, Saraswati stands apart from the material concerns of life. She is believed to be the goddess of speech too. She is lord Brahma’s consort and it is their son Maya who is believed to have created the world.

Dressed in white and riding a swan or seated on a white lotus, she is depicted with four hands, holding a book, a rosary, a water pot and a veena.

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HOLI AND RATI-KAMADEV

Few people know that holi begins as early as Vasant Panchami. When the demon Tarakasura troubled the gods, lord Brahma advises Indra that only Shiva and Parvati’s son can defeat Taraka. But lord Shiva was in meditation after the death of Sati. Kamadeva, on Indra’s instructions brings the spring season and wakes Shiva with his arrow. The result is lord Shiva’s attraction towards Parvati who is a reincarnation of Sati. Yet, Shiva is furious and opens his third eye, burning Kamadev to ashes. Shiva and Parvathi’s son Karthikeya defeats Tarakasura.

Kamadev’s wife, Rati undertakes a penance to bring her husband back to life and the days of her penance match the 40 days between Vasant Panchami and Holi. Rati devi requests Parvati to ask lord Shiva to restore Kamadev. On Parvati’s request, Shiva brings him back to life but without a body. Hence, Kamadev and the spirit of love is said to be spread across the universe.

HOLIKA AND VASANT PANCHAMI

The effigy of the demoness Holika is placed on the day of Vasant Panchami and for the next 40 days, twigs and other material are added around the effigy which is finally lit on the eve of Holi.

SUFI BASANT

The 12th century Sufi Chishti saint Nizamuddin Auliya withdrew from the world when his nephew passed away. To cheer him up, Amir Khusro, the court poet, joined a group of yellow-clad ladies who were carrying marigolds on Basant Panchami and sang with them. Seeing Khusro singing with the ladies, the Khwaja smiled. Since then Sufi Basant has been celebrated.

February 1st marks Vasant Panchami in 2017. The festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the month of Magha.

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PONGAL

FOUR-DAY HARVESTING FESTIVAL

The agricultural festival is commemorated as a thanksgiving ceremony for the year’s harvest

Words: Harmeet Kaur Dawar

India is a secular country and justly described as a land of several religions and innumerable languages. It might also be described as a realm of celebrations due to numerous festivals spreading across the calendar. Before we’re done rejoicing one, another comes right around the corner.

Pongal, a four-day harvesting festival celebrated in south India, especially Tamil Nadu, falls in the month of Thai (January-February season) when crops like rice, sugarcane, turmeric etc. are harvested. It is an agricultural festival commemorated as a thanksgiving ceremony to the sun god for the entire year’s harvest.

The festival of Pongal is held by the farming community as it marks the end of the harvesting season and the heart of the farmer is filled up with joy.

This ancient festival that is mentioned in the Sanskrit Puranas was initiated as a harvest feast by the Dravidians.

Historians, however, identify Pongal with the major festivals of the Pallavas, the ‘Thai Niradal’ and the ‘Thai Un’, which goes back to the Sangam Age (200 BC to 300 AD).

Four-day fest

‘Pongal’ in Tamil denotes ‘to boil’ whereas ‘Ponga’ stands for ‘overflowing’ and is named so because of the tradition of cooking new rice in pots until they overflow, which is symbolic of bountiful good wishes, wealth, abundance and prosperity. Pongal is the sole Hindu festival that follows a solar calendar. Astronomically this festival symbolises commencement of the six-month journey of the sun towards north or Uttarayana.

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The four Pongal days include:

The Bhogi festival: It is celebrated in honour of lord Indra, who blesses us with rain which leads to good harvesting. The ritual of ‘Bhogi Mantalu’ is also observed this day, during which useless items of the household are tossed into a bonfire traditionally made of cow dung cakes and wood indicative of an end of the old and commencement of the new. Farmers paint horns of buffaloes and oxen and protect their crops from pests by keeping medical herbs like avram and neem.

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Thai Pongal: Also known as Surya Pongal, it is celebrated on the second day of the festival. This day is devoted to Surya Dev (the sun god). On Thai Pongal, homes are decorated with mango and banana leaves and women decorate the floors with traditionally designed hand-drawn patterns using rice flour at the entrance of houses called Kolam.

Milk is boiled in a new pot and newly harvested rice grains are poured in it. As the rice starts to overflow from the pot, people shout ‘Ponggalo Ponggal’ and Sanggu, or conches are blown, a tradition that signifies commencement of a good and blessed year ahead. The dish thus prepared is offered to the sun god at the time of sunrise and later served to all in the house.

Mattu Pongal: This is celebrated as a mark of respect for cattle that are a source of dairy products and fertiliser and also aids in farming and transportation. People bathe their cows, embellish them with garlands, bells and vermillion and feed them sugarcane and sweet rice. The Jallikattu contest that includes taming the wild is organised in many villages.

Legend has it that lord Shiva once sent his bull, Basava, to the earth with a message for mortals, asking them to have an oil massage and bath daily, and to eat once a month. Basava, however, mistakenly announced Shiva has asked people to eat daily and have an oil bath once a month.

Many other festivals are observed across the country during this auspicious period. While Thai Pongal is observed in Tamil Nadu, states like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Manipur, Maharashtra, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh celebrate ‘Makara Sankranthi’. ‘Lohri’ is celebrated in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana; ‘Bhogali Bihu’ or ‘Magh Bihu’ is celebrated in Assam; and ‘Uttarayana’ is celebrated in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Enraged, Shiva banished Basava to the earth forever, cursing he would have to plough the fields to help people produce more food. Hence, the association of this day to cattle is prevalent.

Kaanum Pongal: It is the concluding day of the festival when rituals are executed by the women of the house. This day also marks reunion and thanksgiving to the family, relatives and friends for their endless support and assistance in harvesting.

Exchange of gifts between family and friends also takes place on this day. Aarti is performed for brothers with turmeric water, limestone and rice, and this water is sprinkled on the Kolam in front of the house.

Many other festivals are observed across the country during this auspicious period. While Thai Pongal is observed in Tamil Nadu, states like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Manipur, Maharashtra, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh celebrate ‘Makara Sankranthi’.

‘Lohri’ is celebrated in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana; ‘Bhogali Bihu’ or ‘Magh Bihu’ is celebrated in Assam; and ‘Uttarayana’ is celebrated in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

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A FESTIVAL THAT TEACHES TO BE THANKFUL

Words: Steffi Mac

pongal-2Before the concept of religion set in and changed our lives, man was always known to have worshipped nature over everything else. After all, everything that he receives from food to shelter was a gift of nature and he is forever indebted to it.

But then came the idea of a higher power that governs this nature and we began worshipping this higher energy. Pongal is one festival that asks us to appreciate nature over everything else. It is a version of the Sankranti festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu.

Typically occurring on January 14 and 15 every year, this festival is heralded as the most important for celebrating harvest. The agricultural and farming aspect of society dominate all festivities during this time. Agriculture is the most vibrant and dominant aspect in India and Pongal captures this spirit beautifully.

Pongal is actually the name of the dish that is cooked during the festival. Milk is set to boil over the stove until it spills a little. The spilling of the milk is considered a sign of wealth and prosperity. Newly grown rice are then added to the milk and cooked till they have boiled. The literal meaning of Pongal is ‘overflowing’.

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How is Pongal celebrated?
The first day of Pongal is celebrated out in the open where the dish is prepared before the sun god to thank him. The atmosphere is energetic and the streets are vibrant with rangolis and men/women begin to cook Pongal. At the end of the day, it is nature that brings in prosperity and wealth for all of us and thus it is vital to thank them.

The second day is dedicated to animals. The sun god is only able to help the harvest prosper with the help of animals like bullocks and cows. On this day, animals are adorned with colours and are fed with food they like.

The third day is all about dressing up in rich clothes and seeking the blessings of elders and loved ones.

Spiritual importance
The main idea behind Pongal is to be thankful. This is something that each human can learn and incorporate from the festival. There can never be only a single individual responsible for his/her own prosperity.

Several people and other elements of nature contribute to the prosperity. This festival teaches us to recognise the importance of the presence of others in our lives and appreciate them. It is about gratitude and about being there for others just like they have been there for us.

What does ‘Merry Christmas’ really mean?

Sometimes there are certain traditions that we follow without knowing their history or relevance to the event they are associated with. Greetings are definitely a part of one of those.

Words: Steffi Mac

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If you speak about festive greetings to kids, there will be at least one who will ask: why do we say ‘Happy Diwali’ and not ‘Happy Christmas’; why do we say Merry Christmas?

The greeting is extremely popular, which we relentlessly keep using at the end of the year. But if we were asked what is the association of Merry Christmas to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, we’d probably start looking around for someone to give a logical answer.

So we have everything in order, the Christmas tree is decorated in red and green, the mistletoe is in place; the season demands you to be jolly and we leave no stone unturned to feel happy.

If this isn’t enough, every departmental store hires somebody to be Santa and entertain the kids. But in spite of all of this, ‘why Merry Christmas’ is something that is worth taking note of.

The true meaning of Merry Christmas

Just like any other word, ‘merry’ too has had several modifications in its meaning. It now means to be happy (literally). The word Christmas comes from “Cristes Maesse”, the phrase which suggests “Mass of Christ”. By definition, this means the death of Christ and therefore a mass in his honour.

Several historians have questioned why ‘Merry Christmas’ then? It is quite natural that the community cannot be asked to be merry over the death of their Lord. It is not an occasion of merriment, while you have the sufferings of Christ at the back of your mind.

From here came a change of thought, which brought in fresher perspectives. ‘Christmas’ was then defined as ‘Christ-mass’- a mass that was by Christ and for him. This is the day when different Christianity groups come together and celebrate the birth of Christ via a mass. And this is how it all becomes ‘merry’.

The ancient use of ‘Merry Christmas’

Merriment and Christmas are beautifully associated with each other in the English carol ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen.’ The Christmas carol was first published in 1833. What must be observed here is the definition of ‘merry’ in the ancient context.

Compared to the way we define merriment now, ancestors saw Christmas as the festival of peace and quiet. They enjoy a sense of calm and spending time with beloved ones.

A change in perception

If you check Google, you will find that the first ever commercially available Christmas card had ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’ written on it. However, John Fisher’s letter addressed to Thomas Cromwell in 1534 suggests ‘Merry Christmas’ as a formal way of greeting in the spirit of the festival.

As mentioned before, ‘Merry Christmas’ was a greeting that suggested a reposed, peaceful and resting period in the festive spirit. In the modern light of the changed meaning of the word, several people also wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to suggest ‘action’. The action here means getting up and being socially active, instead of keeping it quiet.

The scenario today

There isn’t a rigid take on how one must wish on Christmas. ‘Merry Christmas’ has been an age old slogan and is now customary. ‘Happy Christmas’ also is equally accepted, although there could be a few who would frown on it.

Since Christmas means the mass of Christ with him, it is definitely a merry occasion. To cakes, joy and good-will. Merry Christmas!


Steffi Mac is a co-founder of digtoknow.com A lecturer by profession and a writer by chance,Steffi is an ardent reader and a self-confessed food addict.She can be reached at:steffimac@gmail.com.


Just like any other word, ‘merry’ too has had several modifications in its meaning. It now means to be happy (literally). The word Christmas comes from “Cristes Maesse”, the phrase which suggests “Mass of Christ”. By definition, this means the death of Christ and therefore a mass in his honour.