In Hindu mythology, the cobra has a special significance and the earth, it is believed, rests on the head of 'Shesha' – the thousand-hooded cobra. Snake worship is an important ritual of the Maharashtrians, and on the festival of Nag Panchami, clay icons of cobras are venerated in homes. People offer sweets and milk to the snake deity and the day is celebrated with folk dances and songs, especially in the countryside. Snake charmers carry cobras in baskets and collect offerings from the public in the streets. A small village near Sangli, Battis Shirale, is famous for its snake catchers, and people throng the streets to watch the thrilling performances of expert snake charmers.
The full moon day of the month of Shravan is celebrated with characteristic fervor in different parts of Maharashtra and is known variously as Narali Pournima, Shravani Pournima, Rakhi Pournima or Raksha Bandhan. 'Naral' means 'coconut', and Narali Pournmia is thus called because offerings of coconuts are made by people to the sea-god on this day. Narali Pournima also marks the advent of the new fishing season and fishermen appease the sea-god before sailing out in their gaily-decorated boats. The festival is a day of singing and dancing.
Raksha Bandhan is also observed on this day. Sisters tie 'rakhis' or beautifully decorated threads on their brothers' wrists. The ritual renews the bond of affection between siblings and signifies the brother's responsibility of protecting his sister all her life.
Gokul Ashtami or Janmashtami
The birth of Lord Krishna is celebrated on Gokul Ashtami or Janmashtami. Most devotees fast till midnight and when the birth of Lord Krishna is announced, they eat a festive preparation of rice, butter, yogurt, puris and potatoes. This meal, according to Hindu mythology, was relished by Lord Krishna and his playmates in Gokul. Another fun-filled ritual performed on this day is dahi-handi – clay pots filled with curd, puffed rice and milk are strung high up above the streets and groups of enthusiastic young men (and even women) form human pyramids to reach these and break them open, the way Lord Krishna and his friends would, after sneaking into the houses of gopis (milkmaids) to steal and eat butter.
Lord Ganesh, the patron deity of Maharashtra, is the God of wisdom. Come August, preparations to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi – the auspicious day when Lord Ganesh was born – begin with great enthusiasm all over the state. The 11-day festival begins with the installation of beautifully sculpted Ganesh idols in homes and mandaps (large tents), colorfully decorated, depicting religious themes or current events. The Ganesh idols are worshipped with families and friends. Many cultural events are organized and people participate in them with keen interest. After ten exciting days comes the time to bid farewell to the beloved God. People take Ganesh idols in procession to the accompaniment of music and dance for immersion in the sea or nearby river or lake. Emotions run high as people chant 'Ganpati bappa moraya, pudhachya varshi lavkar ya' (Oh Lord Ganesh, please come back soon next year).
'Gudhi' – the bamboo staff with a colored silk cloth and a garlanded goblet atop – symbolizes victory or achievement. Maharashtrians erect gudhis on Padwa, the first day of the Hindu new year. People welcome the new year with gudhi worship and distribute prasad comprising tender neem leaves, gram-pulse and jaggery. Gudhi Padwa heralds the advent of a prosperous new year and is considered as a shubh muhurat – one of the most auspicious days – by Hindus.
The harvest festival is celebrated by farmers all over Maharashtra. On this day bullocks, which are an integral part of the agricultural chores and consequently the village economy, are honored. They are bathed, colorfully decorated and taken out in processions across the village, accompanied by the music of drumbeats and lezhim (a musical instrument made of a wooden rod and an iron chain full of metallic pieces). Pola brings out an important facet of Hindu culture, which does not look upon cattle as mere beasts of burden, but treats them with dignity and gratitude.
According to the great Hindu epic Ramayan, Dussehra is the day on which Lord Ram killed Ravan, the evil king of Lanka. It is considered as a shubh-muharat – a very auspicious day – to start a new venture. It is a symbol of the victory of good over evil. People decorate the entrances of their homes with torans, flower studded strings, and worship the tools of trade, vehicles, machinery, weapons and even books. As the evening falls, the villagers cross the border, a ritual known as Simollanghan, and worship the Shami tree. The leaves of the Apta tree are collected and exchanged among friends and relatives as gold.
Diwali or Deepawali means a row of lights. The most beautiful of all Indian festivals, Diwali is a celebration of lights. Streets are illuminated with rows of clay lamps and homes are decorated with rangoli (colored powder designs) and aakash kandils (decorative lanterns of different shapes and sizes). People rise at dawn, massage their bodies and hair with scented oil and take a holy bath. Diwali is celebrated with new clothes, spectacular firecrackers and a variety of sweets in the company of family and friends.
Dhanatrayodashi; Narakchaturdashi, Amavasya (Laxmi poojan), Balipratipada and Yamadvitiya (Bhaubeej) are the five days which comprise Diwali, and each day has a peculiar religious significance. This joyous celebration is, on the whole, symbolic of dispelling the darkness of misery and bringing the light of prosperity and happiness into human life.
Sankrant means the passing of the sun from one Zodiac sign to the other. People exchange greeting and good wishes on this day, which marks the Sun's passage from the Tropic of Dhanu (Sagittarius) to Makar (Capricon). Sweet and crunchy ladoos made of sesame and jaggery are the favorite treats.
Each year, after a successful winter harvest, people get ready to welcome the spring with Holi – the festival of colors. Holis or bonfires are lit in the night and people gather to worship the fire-god, who is believed to burn away all evil. On the next day, people of all ages come outside and playfully drench each other with colored water. Brightly colored powders are applied on faces, and there is plenty of music, dance and sweets to fill the rest of the day. The exuberant display of colors symbolizes the advent of a colorful and prosperous spring season.