Open main menu


Some attention has been paid to the subject of Hindu festivals, and there is among the records of the Transactions of this Association a paper on the nature of Hindu festivals.[1] I wish to say a few words on their origin. It is my impression that most Hindu festivals were not in their origin at all similar to what they are now; and if we could trace their origin in every case satisfactorily, we should have the key to interesting phenomena in the various phases of social existence which the nation has gone through. It is impossible to venture on any general theory regarding their origin. Parti­cular festivals appear to have had each a particular origin quite different in its principle from the origin of others. Again, it is by no means clear that every festival has had its origin in the earlier stages of Hindu society. Some are doubtless, very old, but others are extremely modern.

It is certain that many festivals which have now assumed the shape and adopted the symbols of the worship of particular gods, were in their origin nothing more than the celebration of the advent of particular seasons of the year, or of other physical phenomena, and had no religious element in them at the beginning. Take the Dol Jatra, for instance. It is now in Bengal only a special mode of worshipping Krishna on a particular day. Upcountry it is the Huli, as the word is mis-written and mis-pronounced. Originally, it was nothing but a festival in honour of spring, Vasantotsaba. From Vasantotsaba it degenerated into Madanotsaba, or the festival of love, and then the religious element first crept in. It is strange that that season of the year when the fresh bursting forth of nature into new life, and into forms of pure and stainless beauty, is calculated to dispose the mind towards the highest and the calmest moods, should be set down by the poets and the people of India as peculiarly the season of love and desire. Being so set down, spring came to be indissolubly associated with love and desire, not that love which is high, holy as an abnegation of self, even when man or his companion is the object, but love which levels man to the brute. The association was so strong, that whenever a Hindu poet happens to touch on spring, he speaks of it only in one aspect—as the season of love. Not even the highest and most cultivated minds which Puranic India ever produced were free from this peculiarity. Even in the finest passage in all the poetical literature of India, perhaps of the East, the third canto of the Kumar Sambhava, where the poetry often rises into strains of loftiness and grandeur rarely attained, it sinks into the earth when the poet comes to describe spring. He is tender, he is touching, his exquisite and trembling sensibility reflects every shade of the new life of Nature; but the leading idea throughout the description is still that of the season of love and desire. It was natural, therefore, that the festival of spring should transform itself into the festival of love; and as love was the god Madana, the festival became one for the worship of Madana. The red powder and the squirt, which form the distinguishing features of the Huli, were also the ancient accompaniments of the Madanotsaba, and we find them all in the description of that festival given in the Ratnavali. When Madana came to give place to Krishna, and the Madanotsaba came to be transformed into the Dol Jatra in Bengal, I am unable to say; but it was naturally to be expected that the god whose worship came to be the most popular in the country, and the memory of whose amorous achievements better fitted him to represent love and loose morals than Madana himself, should supplant the latter in popular festivals.

Take, again, the festivals in honour of Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity; but the word "Lakshmi," or "Sri," which is another name for the divinity, also means prosperity itself or wealth. In early times, when agriculture was the only and the direct source of wealth, wealth differed little in popular idea from the produce of a good harvest. Now, we find that there are four festivals in honour of Lakshmi; or, in other words, there are four seasons during which she is worshipped. The first is in autumn, after the Durga Puja, just before the winter harvest commences. We find her next worshipped in Pous, just as the winter crop has been, or has nearly been, gathered in. We find her again worshipped at the end of Choitra, just before the first rains are expected, and the early rice crop is about to be sown. Lastly, we find her worshipped again in Bhadra, just as the early crop has been gathered in. These facts are calculated to lead to the inference that the festivals in honour of Lakshmi were, in their origin, purely agricultural festivals, and probably had then in them no religious character whatever.

Other festivals clearly have an astronomical origin, and are mere representatives of celestial phenomena. I shall advert here to some ingenious hints, for which I am indebted to a paper by Babu Bhudeb Mukarji. The most important of our festivals, that of Durga, is probably resolvable in this way. Indian astronomy or astrology gives to the twelve months of the year the names of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and each month is named after the sign in which the sun is supposed to be during that month. Thus, Baisakh is Mesha, or the Ram; and Jyastha is Brisha, or the Bull. Similarly, Aswin, in which this festival is held, is the Virgin following on the back of Bhadra, the Lion. Now the image worshipped in the Durga Puja is that of a virgin on the bade of a lion. Durga is not indeed supposed to be a virgin, she is fabled as a married goddess; the wife of Siva and the mother of Ganesa. But what may be contended for is not that the present worship is that of a virgin, but that at the original institution of the festival, the worship was that of a virgin: in fact, of the constellation Virgo. The image actually worshipped even now is that of a young female, and Durga, as thereby represented, is popularly described as sorasi, or in her sixteenth year. Just as it is possible that the obsolete deity Madana gave place to the popular god Krishna, so it is possible that the constellation gave place to an almost equally popular deity Durga.

The origin of the festival of Rath is, perhaps, to be explained in the same way. This festival takes place about the time of the summer solstice. It does not now fall exactly on the day on which the sun is on the solstitial point, or on any fixed solar date, but the variation must be owing to the substitution of lunar for solar dates, which is the general rule for regulating the recurrence of festivals. It is not improbable that originally the date of its celebration was regulated according to the solar calendar, though now it has been made to conform to the general rule. Now, the plain facts regarding the phenomenon of the solstice are that the sun, in its apparent annual motion, approaches a certain point in the heaven, seems stationary there for a short time, and then recedes again towards the equator. In Hindu mythology, the sun is represented as moving in the heaven in a car, or rath. And so his car, or rath, is represented on earth, and made to conform to his motions in the heavens. At the same time that the sun moves in the heavens towards the solstice, stops there for a short time, and then recedes, his car on earth is in the same way made to move to a certain place, kept there for eight days, and then taken back in the same direction from which it was originally moved. It is true, Jagannath now rides the car, not the sun. But, like Madana and the Virgin, he has probably been made to give place to a more popular deity than himself.

It may be said that if there be any foundation for this theory of the origin of this festival, there ought to be found a corresponding festival in celebration of the winter solstice; and so there is the Makar Sankranti. This, unlike the other, is regulated by the solar, and not the lunar calendar. The reason why this festival escaped being made to conform to the general rule, probably is that it falls on the last day of a month, and is thus of a class which forms the only known exception to the general lunar rule. Even, however, with the unchanged date, it does not fall on the exact date which corresponds with the solstice. But my theory, that this is a solstitial festival, would be wrong if the two dates coincided. We must take into account the effect of the precession of the equinoxes. If they coincided at the original institution of the festival, they cannot coincide now, for the Sankranti is a day fixed by the calendar. The difference at present is one of 21 days. At the rate of 50″.1 for a year, nearly fifteen centuries must have elapsed since the institution of this festival, to account for the difference. So that if you accept the supposition, this festival must have been instituted towards the latter end of the fourth century after Christ,—as probable a date as any other.

On the Makar Sankranti the sun's car is not represented on the earth, as in the festival of the summer solstice; but one of the names given to the day succeeding the festival leaves no doubt that it is a solstitial festival. It is called the Uttarayana Dina, or the day on which the sun starts on his northern course. And in some places, though not in all, the sun is the only deity worshipped on the Makar Sankranti. Mr. Long, in the five hundred questions on Indian subjects, which he put in a paper read before the Royal Asiatic Society, asks "why is the sun the only deity worshipped on that day?" The answer is now clear; it is because the festival is a solstitial festival. I do not think that the answer could have been given on any other supposition.

I am aware that another, and a very reasonable, account of the origin of the festival of Rath has been given by General Cunningham in his work on the Bhilsa Topes. He there traces it to a similar festival of the Buddhists, in which the three symbols of the Buddhist faith, Buddha, Dharmma, and Sangha, were drawn in a car in the same fashion, and I believe about the same season as the Rath. It is a fact greatly in support of the theory, that the images of Jagannath, Balaram, and Subhadra, which now figure in the Rath, are near copies of the representations of Buddha, Dharmma, and Sangha, and appear to have been modelled upon them. The details of the evidence in support of this supposition will be found in the work of General Cunningham, to which I have referred. That evidence is by no means conclusive, and it is possible that the Buddhists themselves may have transformed an astronomical commemoration into a religious one.

The name of the festival of the Rasjatra would also seem to point to an astronomical origin. The word is derived apparently from "Rasi," a sign of the Zodiac. As to what its precise meaning may be, I am unable to offer any opinion. This festival seems to be the autumnal counterpart of the vernal festival in honour of Spring, and may have had a similar origin. The vernal festival is celebrated on the day or night of the full moon of the season; the autumnal festival is also celebrated on a similar night in autumn. So there is a summer festival, the Phul-dol, celebrated on a full-moon night in summer; and there is a rainy season festival, the Jhulan, falling on a full-moon night in the rainy season. All these four festivals were probably in their origin festivals merely in honour of the respective seasons, and had no necessary connexion with religion. They are now all religious festivals in honour of Krishna. It is to be observed, also, that there are these Mi-moon festivals for only four of the six seasons into which Hindus divide the year. There are none for the two divisions of the cold season. The reason is obvious. A spring night, or a summer night, or an autumnal night, with a splendid full moon lighting up the earth and heavens, is a very proper season for festivity, and such a night, even during the rainy season, may be so if the sky happens to be clear on the particular day. But a black night in December or January, with a full and chilly moon appearing to render the cold night colder, however agreeable to those accustomed to the climate of Europe, appears to have been thought by the children of the soil as little inviting to festive proceedings, and I for one should consider them wise in their opinion.

Another festival, that of Kartick, is, I am inclined to think, also of astronomical origin. The name of the god, as well as die name of the month in which he is worshipped, is clearly derived from that of a star, "Nakshatra Krithika." Kartick is fabled in the Purans as the son, born or adopted, of Uma or Durga the sister of the twenty-seven Nakshatras. May it not be that he was probably originally fabled as the son, not of a sister of the stars but of one of those stars themselves, that from which he derives his name; and mythology, coming after astronomy, transferred the mothership to its favourite goddess? If so, the process must have been something analogous to the following: Kartick must have originally signified nothing more than a festival in honour of Krithika; then it probably led to the supposition of a god who represented Krithika in the festival as her son, and lastly Kartick came to be the son of Uma, the sister of Krithika. But I admit that the conjecture is too remote to be of any weight.

If there be any truth in the foregoing suppositions, Hindu festivals may, in regard to their origin, be classified as follows:—

  1. Solstitial festivals, viz., the Rath and the Makar Sankranti.
  2. Astral festivals, as the Durga Puja and the Kartick Puja.
  3. Season festivals, as the Dol Jatra and the three other full-moon festivals.
  4. Agricultural festivals, which are in honour of Lakshmi, the Hindu Ceres.
  5. Mythological festivals, like the Kali Puja and the Jugaddhatri, which appear to be the most modern of all.
  6. Lastly, festivals which apparently owe their origin to the popular dread of some physical agent of mischief, as the Manasa festival, celebrated to propitiate snakes.

In the whole range of Hindu festivals, I have been unable to trace any to a historical origin. Indeed, historical festivals can scarcely be expected to be found among a nation devoid of historical associations.

There are, however, many festivals which cannot at present be attributed to any of the sources which I have enumerated—the Dewali, for instance. This festival indeed is, from its nature, one of the most interesting. Its principal feature consists in the rows of lights with which houses are decorated on the night of its occurrence; and what gives it its interest, is that accompanying circumstances seem to show that it must have had its rise in some peculiar and remarkable event or idea. Thus, we find it is celebrated in the month of Kartick, and this month is held peculiarly sacred to light. During the whole month, lights arc hung up on a pole on the top of every house. During the same month, ghats are lighted up with splendid rows of lamps in Benares and other places up-country. During the same month young females light little lamps and send them floating down the stream of the river—an act which very often typifies their own journey down the stream of the world. I confess that the origin of these and other usages have for me a greater interest than the origin of the festivals themselves. Some of these usages are easily intelligible. It is easy to understand why grain should be worshipped with Lakshmi, and books and musical instruments with Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and of music. Purple powder is used in the Huli, probably because that may be supposed to be the colour of nature at the time, decorating herself with new leaves. Bhang is taken on the day after the Durga Puja, because that is supposed to be a very auspicious day, and the name of the drug—siddhi—signifies success, which is supposed to be imbibed with the drug for the whole year. But other usages are more curious and more difficult to understand. Why this profusion of lights in Kartick? Why are people obliged to swallow, without chewing, a bit of ginger with a bit of plantain, on the day of the Dusahara? Why should Manasa be worshipped in an oven? Mythology throws no light on these questions; popular superstitions throw no light. They are clearly attributable to ideas and associations, which are now matter of the past.

Whatever that may be, it is my belief that most of the festivals and usages connected with them, at all events all the older festivals, had in their origin no necessary connection with religion, and their present religious character is owing to the later Puranic superstition. I leave it to the public to estimate the effect which would be produced on their observance, if this truth, if such it is, could be clearly established to the conviction of those who observe them.

  1. "The Festivals of the Hindus" by Kissory Chand Mittra, published in the Transactions of the Association for 1868, Vol. II, pp. 107-124.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.