Today is Vinayaka Chathurthi. What is it?

 

Vinayaka Chathurthi or Ganesh Chathurthi is the Hindu festival for the birthday of Ganesh who is worshipped as the god of good fortune, wisdom and prosperity. All over India it is celebrated on the forth day after the new moon in the month of Avani in the Tamil calendar, in August or September.
 

Lord Ganesh

Lord Ganesh

Traditionally people believe projects started on this day will succeed and prosper because Ganesh will remove any obstacles which may arise. Ganesh is also called Vigneswara which means obstruction remover and Vinayakar which means there is no greater god.


Celebrations include making or buying an elaborately painted clay statue of Ganesh which is placed in a special structure in the area. A small statue is shown on the right. Priests conduct special poojas, or prayer services. Public celebrations are widely attended and communities compete to see who can have the biggest statue.

 

A dumpling called Modakam that is made from rice or wheat flour and stuffed with various sweets is an important palaharam (sweet cake) that is prepared during this festival.

 

 

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Here is a brief story of the events that led up to Indian Independence Day – 64 years ago today.

The freedom struggle to drive the British out of India gained tremendous momentum from 1930 onward. In 1942, the Congress headed my Mahatma Gandhi passed a resolution to start a “Quit India” agitation against the British rule.  The struggle was conducted in a nonviolent manner advised by Mahatma Gandhi.  Britain tried to suppress the agitation ruthlessly but could not succeed.  Britain realized that it was no longer possible to rule over the Indian people and they released all of the arrested leaders unconditionally. Prime Minister Winston Churchill vehemently protested the ending of British rule in India.  

In 1945 as the Second World War was ending in Europe, Clement Attlee, the labor leader, became Prime Minister.  Mr. Attlee decided to give independence to India and appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as the Viceroy of India.  He worked tirelessly meeting various political parties.  The Muslim League headed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted India to be partitioned to create a Muslim dominated country Pakistan. All the Indian leaders agreed to this partition and Lord Mountbatten decided to transfer power and declared India independent on August 15, 1947. 

Since the transfer of power to the Indian leaders in a ceremonious manner took place at midnight, it was called Freedom at Midnight which is also the title of a book on the subject.  Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and he continued in this position for 16 years until he died in 1964.

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Pongal is the harvest festival of the state of Tamil Nadu and is equivalent to Thanksgiving.  It is also the name of the recipe that is prepared during this time with newly harvested rice and lentils. The ingredients are boiled in a pot and when they start to boil over, people shout “Pongal O Pongal!” with the hope that they will have a bountiful harvest in the coming years. It is a four day festival and each day has a special significance.


The first day of Pongal (which occurs on the last day of the Tamil month Margazhi) is called Bhogi. Prayers are specially made on this day to God Indra, the God of rain, who helps farmers get a bountiful harvest.  On Bhogi, everyone cleans out their houses. All unwanted items are collected and burned in huge bonfires in front of the house in the evening. By the following morning, lingering smoke can be seen coming from the ashes.


The second day of the festival which falls on the first day of the Tamil month Thai is called Thai Pongal. The real celebration starts on this day. People in the cities usually celebrate only on this day. Women wake up very early and make elaborate Kolams in front of their houses.  Kolams are elaborate geometric designs that are traditionally made by hand with colored rice powder. Some women are real experts at making very complex and elaborate designs.  It takes anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to complete a Kolam so a lot of patience is required.  Today, templates can be purchased to facilitate design creation.  People wear new clothes and colorful sarees.  They use new pots and pans that replace the ones that were thrown away the prior day.  Ven Pongal (Hot Pongal) is prepared on this day and everyone cheers when it boils over.  Chakkara Pongal (Sweet Pongal), made with rice, lentils and jaggery or brown sugar, is served as dessert.


The third day of Pongal is called Mattu (cattle) Pongal. On this day people pay homage to cattle.  Their horns are painted, bells are hung around their necks and kumkum is placed on their heads.  (Kumkum is a brightly colored powder made from saffron and turmeric that used in celebrations across the country.) They are brought to every house by their owners. The ringing bells can be heard from far away and people flock to receive them and feed them sugarcane and bananas.


The last day of Pongal, called Kannum Pongal, is the day for visiting family members.  Younger family members visit their elders and give them presents and money.  In the morning young girls go in groups to neighboring houses to sing songs. Many different rice dishes are made, like Pulihodarai (Tamarind Rice) which is one of my favorite dishes and Thairu Satham (Yogurt Rice). Some take their food to a nearby park or a crowded beach for a picnic. Children wear their best clothes and jewelry to the beach.


In Kerala and other parts of India, Makara Shankaranthi is observed as a harvest festival at the same time as Pongal.

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Since each state in India was an independent princely state before unification, each celebrates New Year based on its own calendar and history with its own traditions. Today, everyone in the country considers January 1st as New Year’s Day and celebrates during New Year’s Eve just like the rest of the world. Celebrations range from small private gatherings at home with family and friends to very large public extravaganzas where celebrities, Bollywood movie stars and politicians can be seen. Five star hotels arrange elaborate dinner and dancing parties where, at the stroke of midnight, the lights are extinguished and immediately followed by a dazzling display of lights.  The cost per couple to attend one of these events ranges from 500 to 2000 rupees ($12 to $48). At this price, it seems that this would be a great time of year to visit! What a small world! 


Happy New Year everyone!

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Two popular legends about the origin of Deepavali remind us that good triumphs over evil:


The demon King Ravana kidnapped Sita who was the wife of Rama.  Rama went to rescue her and fought a battle with Ravana.  Rama cut off Ravana’s ten heads and then killed him.  A jubilant success, Rama went back to the city of Ayodhya with his wife arriving in the dark of night.  To help them see where they were going, the people lit small oil lamps outside their houses.  Rama was soon crowned king and ruled happily for many years.  Since that time, people have celebrated Deepavali by lighting oil lamps and placing them outside their homes.

 

Another demon King Narakasura is said to have reigned with fear and stole 16,000 daughters from many of the gods.  When Lord Krishna heard about these wicked deeds, he challenged Narakasura to a battle. Narakasura came with his regiment of four tusked elephants and a tough fight began.  Krishna cut off the five heads of Narakasura and killed him.  The people were so happy to be rid of the wicked king.  Narakasura was defeated at 4:30 in the morning.  Lord Krishna returned after the battle and was bathed in luxurious oils.  Since that time, people have celebrated Deepavali on that day and bathing with oil became part of the tradition.


Components of both legends, the oil lamps and the oil baths, are part of Deepavali as we know it today.

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Deepavali or Diwali is known as the festival of lights. Deepa means light and vali means row, so the name literally means row of lights. It is the most important festival in all parts of India except Kerala and Bengal. The festival is celebrated on Amavasi day (New Moon) in the month of Aippasi according to the Tamil calendar which corresponds to October/November. This year it is on November 5th. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the festival is known as Deepavali while the rest of India has shortened the name to Deepavali. Celebrating Deepavali every year symbolizes a culture which promotes knowledge over ignorance, light over darkness and goodness over evil. Today it symbolizes hope, friendship and the joy of life. It is a time for friendship and sharing.  Even though this is more of a cultural than religious holiday, Goddess Lakshmi is the main deity of Deepavali who brings wealth and prosperity to every home.  The sweet smelling herb tulasi (basil) is grown in most houses in Kerala and Tamil Nadu which people believe represents the Goddess Lakshmi.
 
 

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