Desert Festival of Jaisalmer is celebrated every year in January February. Jaisalmer is a World Heritage Site located in Thar Desert, in Rajasthan.
The city is nicknamed ‘The Golden City of India’, for when the sun light is reflected on the sands of the desert city, it appears Golden.
Jaisalmer, the Golden City of India
Raja Maharaval Jaisal Singh
Jaisalmer City is named after Rajput king, Raja Maharaval Jaisal Singh who established this city in 1146 CE.
Raja Maharawal Jaisal Singh
The word Jaisal refers to the King and the word Mer, Meru, means ‘Hill’, ‘Pyramidical Hill’. The word Jaisalmer literally means, “Jaisal’s Hill Fort”.
The dry bed of Sarasvati River flows near Jaisalmer. This whole region became a desert since the drying up of the river 4500 years ago.
Dry Channel of River Sarasvati near Jaisalmer
The Jaisalmer Desert Festival is organized by the Rajasthan Government Tourism Department.
This festival was started to attract foreigners to the state, who want to experience the culture of the state. This festival is celebrated over three days, when visitors from all over the world attend. The rich cultural heritage of Rajasthan is showcased. The audience is treated to the state music and folk dance.
Jaisalmer Desert Festival
One of the main features of this festival are the Camel Races.
Apart from these Camel races, other contests like Turban Tying contest, Best Mustache contest and Mr Desert contest are conducted.
Mr Longest Mustache
The festival culminates at Sam sand dunes with scintillating performance by folk artists under the Full Moon, reflecting light on sand dunes, making for a wonderful ambiance.
February is a short sweet month. It is a time when the cold winters have just receded. A month which is not yet hot. A transitory month. A month of spring in some parts of the world. A month where trees, plants and over all nature bloom forth with life after the cold, when they were in hibernation.
This is the month, when nature begins to bloom. In recent times, this month is much awaited for, for the celebration of Lovers’ Day, Valentine’s Day on February 14th.
Why is this day alone celebrated as Lovers’ Day? And what is its connection with Saint Valentine?
There are at least 3 Saint Valentines in the early part of the first millennium. These three different Saints were all known by the name Valentine or Valentines.
Emperor Claudius of Rome thought that single men made better soldiers than married men with wives and families.
So he outlawed marriages for young men. Saint Valentine defied the decree of Emperor Claudius and got young lovers married, in secret. When this act of Valentine was discovered, he was put to death. This probably could be the reason for linking Saint Valentine to young lovers.
St.Valentine getting a couple married – A painting
In all the old cultures of the world, including India, this transitory month between winter and summer, February and March, was earlier celebrated as the Vasantha Utsav month. The Vasantha season was considered fit not only for humans to fall in love this month and marry, even the divinities thought this month fit to marry in. Thus Rama married Sita, Shiva married Parvathi, and in South India, Kartikeya married Devasena during this period.
It is a season of celestial marriages when nature is more pleasant and conducive for endearing thoughts and deeds. It is in this month that Krishna played with the Gopika.
Krishna playing Holi with Gopika – a painting
The Vasantha Utsav, the month long celebration culminates in the Holi festival, festival of colours, festival of joy when people come together, forgive each other, bond with each other, forgetting the mistakes of the past.
Colours of Holi
In Punjab it is celebrated as Basant Panchami, also has “Hola Mohalla” festival.
Mustard Fields in Spring
In Rajasthan as “Gajh Shingaar”, “Jamboo Holi” and in Bengal as “Nabanna Utsav”. In Goa it is celebrated as “Shigmotsav”.
In down south, in Tamil Nadu, from time immemorial, it has been celebrated as “Indira Vizha” or the festival of Indra, for the whole month.
In Tamil Nadu, one of the descendents of the Maratha King, Chatrapati Shivaji, a king by the name Sarfoji Maharaja of Tanjavur, used to visit the Manmada temple, the temple of Cupid, with his wife everyday of this month and encouraged young lovers to visit the riverside and enjoy the beauty which nature has to offer.
What comes forth to us from this, is that, much in contrast with a single evening, spent in pubs or night club parties or hotel dinners, it is not February 14th alone that is the Lovers’ Day, as celebrated in the limited sense now, but it is a ageless tradition of a whole month of celebration of the beauty that nature has to offer us.
A beauty to be enjoyed in the company of our loved ones, adhering to the norms of a civilised society, in a civilized manner. It is a time for re-establishing the sense of harmony between loved ones and with nature.
The day on which the sun turned northwards to greet Bheeshma so that he could breathe his last, has aptly come down across millennia by the name “Ratha Sapthami”.
Sun in India is expressed as travelling across the skies in a chariot, ratha.
Sun depicted as a chariot
Uttarayana is the day the Sun turns northward in its journey.
The day this chariot turned northward during Bheeshma’s times, according to Mahabharata text, was on Sapthami i.e., the 7th phase of the moon. Hence, the momentous Uttarayana that was awaited by Bheeshma is also known as “Ratha Sapthami”, the Sapthami of the Sun’s Ratha, chariot.
Ratha Sapthami – The Day Dedicated to a Great Warrior
Another perspective comes from a different angle, that of the character of Bheeshma.
This 7th day of moon, Sapthami, was the last day in the life of Bheeshma – an elderly, wise, righteous and brave warrior of all times, who stood by his vow of safeguarding his kingdom. To keep the memory of this compelling personage, a Maha Ratha, alive across generations, through the land, this Sapthami probably came to be called Ratha Sapthami, the Sapthami of Bheeshma a great Ratha, hero, warrior.
Bheeshma breathed his last on the day after Ratha Sapthami, which day is commemorated as Bheeshma Ashtami, “Ashtami” meaning the 8th phase of the moon.
VasantaPanchami or Basant Panchami festival heralds the arrival of spring in India, VasantaRitu.
After winter solstice, the sun starts its northward journey from the tropic of Capricorn, Uttarayana. With this, winter slowly ebbs and warmer days begin to arrive.
VasantaRitu – A change in Season
VasantaRitu is welcomed in the northern parts of India which reel from severe cold in winter. We see a pleasant change in seasons with the arrival of spring.
In the celebrations of Vasanta Ritu, the pinnacle is the festival of Vasanta Panchami.
While VasantaPanchami is celebrated as spring festival, it also was the festival of River Sarasvati. In many parts of India, Sarasvati Brahmotsav, a festival spanning 5 days, starts from VasantaPanchami.
VasantaPanchami – A Festival for Sarasvati
One may wonder what is the connection between VasantaPanchami and the festival for Sarasvati?
With the arrival of spring, the glaciers in the Himalayas, which used to feed the River Sarasvati would melt causing an increase in the flow of River Sarasvati in days gone by.
Mother Sarasvati – The very life line
River Sarasvati, the mother of all rivers, nourished the Sindhu Sarasvati civilization which flourished more than 5000 years ago. She was literally the life line of this civilization.
Greek records of 300 BCE, i.e., a little over 2000 years ago speak of over 1500 prosperous cities along the banks between the Sindhu and Sarasvati. This finds mention in Elphinstone’s book, ‘History of India’.
1500 cities along Sarasvati River
For all these people of this civilization, the gush of fresh Himalayan waters augured prosperity. With Sarasvati waters, also came the Himalayan riverine soil which made the lands on either banks very fertile and that led to good harvest in the seasons to come.
Yellow flowers – A sight to behold
During this season, the mustard plants, Sarson, cultivated along the banks of this river, go into full bloom. In days of yore, when this mighty Sarasvati was in full flow, it must have indeed been a breath taking sight to see miles and miles of land along its banks swathed in yellow colour from the mustard flowers.
Yellow Mustard Flowers
This sight is what gave River Sarasvati and Goddess Sarasvati who was embodied by this river, a yellow drape during this time, and since time immemorial people have therefore associated Goddess Sarasvati with the colour yellow during this season.
Goddess Sarasvati draped in yellow
As a tradition, people continue to wear yellow clothes on Vasanta Panchami.
Birthplace of Veda
Along with the fertile lands on the banks of the river, education also gained prominence during the times when Sarasvati was in flow, because, the Rishis of India lived along these banks and composed the Veda, the universal knowledge base, on the banks of this river.
Hence, the River Sarasvati and Goddess Sarasvati embodied by this river came to be associated with education and knowledge.
Vasanta Panchami –The day to Revere knowledge
So, for people across India, VasantaPanchami is also the day to revere knowledge and education. Children are initiated into education system on this day with the understanding that their knowledge will grow in leaps and bounds just as the gushing flow of the mighty River Sarasvati.
Today, instead of the flowing river, we have only dry rivers beds of River Sarasvati here and there along its original path.
This river went dry more than 2000 years ago. But, the mustard flowers continue to bloom in this belt, bathing it yellow even today.
People may have forgotten the River Sarasvati with the flow of time, but, the traditions from those times have continued from generation to generation, and VasantaPanchami is a living festival even to this day.
The Republic Day festivities last for four days until the 29th of January, since 30th January marks the day when the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead. Therefore 30th January is also observed as Martyrs’ Day in India besides being remembered as Gandhi Martyrdom Day.
Beating the Retreat Ceremony
On 29th January, Beating the Retreat, starts at sun down, from Amar Jawan Jyothi, the memorial for martyrs, who lost their lives during the freedom struggle. It is a march to the tune of mellifluous music, signalling the end of Republic Day festivities, with which the armed forces return back to their respective duties.
Celebrating festivals with Nature is not only for the humans. The people not only realized but also cherished the animals as part of nature. The domesticated animals had their own festivals every year which was celebrated with gusto and gaiety.
Worship of Animals
Different parts of India had their own festivals in which they worshipped the animals and had animal races. The cows, the oxen, the buffaloes are washed, painted, anointed with Turmeric, Kumkum, taken round in processions in festivities.
In Tamil Nadu and Andhra, the cows and oxen festival is celebrated the day after Shankaranti, Pongal as the festival of Mattu Pongal.
Pongal being a harvest festival, the cows and the oxen that help in the harvest are the key components of Mattu Pongal. As part of the festival the oxen are washed, decorated and paraded with tilak on their forehead. The oxen are also offered the fresh food in appreciation of their contribution to the harvest.
This festival Kannu Pidi also known as Mattu Pongal is specially celebrated in Tamil Nadu, one day after Pongal. The varieties of rice dishes prepared from the newly harvested rice is taken by the women of the house to their mother’s or brother’s house and made into ceremonial rice bowls. These are then fed in the courtyard to birds-the crows, house sparrows, squirrels and such other domestic creatures.
This festival has twin perspectives. When you feed the birds and the squirrels, with the remnants of your rice dishes after your major festival Pongal in a ceremonial way, then you recognize your coexistence there with these birds and squirrels that live with you in the same living space.
We then tend to look at them as people who share the space and not as people who compete for the same space. This brings in our heart a sense of live and let live. A sense of compassion for our fellow creatures. If we do it one day of the year in a ceremonial way, then we tend to continue this practice through the year.
Keeping up Bond with family
The Kannu Pidi festival has another important aspect packaged into it. The lady of the house takes these house dishes and visits her mother’s house, maternal house, brother’s house to offer these dishes to the birds. This act keeps up the bond of the married women with her parents and siblings.
Breaking the Ice
In villages and small towns, where families live in close proximity through the year, there could be instances where frictions arise between families. These frictions could drift the families apart. On Kannu Pidi occasion, the married lady visits her estranged mother’s, brother’s house; then it is an opportunity to break the ice and get back to a congenial relationship.
These two nice aspects of oneness with the creatures living in the house area and continuing the relationship on the maternal side is built in beautifully in this one festival Kannu Pidi.
Commonly people think of it as a star and it is celebrated in Sabarimala as Makara Vilakku.
D K Hari and D K Hema Hari discussed about Makara Jyothi in an interview.
Q. What is Makara Jyothi ?
Commonly people think of it as a star and it is celebrated in Sabarimala as Makara Vilakku.
This very word Makara Jyothi has 2 words – Makara and Jyothi. What is Makara ? In the sky, we have 12 Rasis or Zodiac signs or constellations. The Sun is in one rasi for a month and transits through to the next rasi in the next month and so in. Like this the sun covers all the 12 Rasis in a year. As per the Indian calendar, the Sun moves into the Makara Rasi on January 14th or 15th. This movement of the Sun into the Makara Rasi is called as Makara Sankranti. This event is part of the annual celestial calendar.
Q. If the sun is moving every month into the next Rasi, what is so special the Sun moving into the Makara Rasi ?
The sun is constantly moving between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricon which is called in the Indian context as Uttarayanam and Dakshinayanam.Makara Sankranti falls in the period when the Sun, which is in the Tropic of Capricon in the Southern Hemisphere, has started moving northwards towards us in India. Which means we start having longer days. We are starting to come out of the cold season to warmth and it is this Change, new beginning of the seasonal cycle that we celebrate.
Q. The other word – Jyothi . What is the significance of the Jyothi with Ayyappa who is prayed to as MakaraJyothi ?
As we have seen here, when the sun is in Southern Hemisphere, we are in the darker period. In darkness it is the Jyothi that lights us all up.
Ayyappa as the name suggests is the embodiment of 5 pre -mordial elements.They being – Akasha ( space ), Vayu ( air ), Agni ( fire ), Apah (water) and Prithvi ( earth ). That one visible to us is Jyothi – Tejas (fire or light).
In the long dark nights what stands out is Jyothi or light. It is but appropriate that, during these long dark nights, when we celebrate a fresh breath of life, we celebrate it with light or Jyothi.
Ayyappa is also known as an embodiment of Dharma .Dharma is not just noble deed but means the very characteristic of Nature itself. This celebration of Makara Sankranti every year, brings to our focus, our understanding of the annual turning of the Sun , of the changes taking place in Nature and new hope of life.
The very name Ayyappa in the South Indian languages, denotes the embodiment of 5, the 5 Primordial elements of which this Universe or Prapancha is made of.
Celebrating the festival of this Makara Sankranti in association with Ayyappa, brings to our attention that we and everything in this Prapancham is made up of Panchabhuta – the Primordial 5 elements.
So when we say, Ayyappa Saranam, we pay obeisance to these 5 Primordial elements themselves. We pay obeisance to Ayyappa, son of Shiva the cause for the manifestation of matter and Vishnu, the all pervading force which together keep this Universe conforming to the Dharma of the Universe and Nature.