By Monier Williams


Sir Monier Monier-Williams, KCIE (12 November 1819 – 11 April 1899) was the second Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, England. He studied, documented and taught Asian languages, especially Sanskrit, Persian and Hindustani.
Monier Williams taught Asian languages, at the East India Company College from 1844 until 1858, when company rule in India ended after the 1857 rebellion. He came to national prominence during the 1860 election campaign for the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University, in which he stood against Max Müller.—Wikipedia

Here is the presentation of fasts, festivals and Holy days in India in the 19th century as observed and recorded by Monier-Williams.

CHAPTER XVI. 426 (462 OF 644)    HinduFastsFestivalsAndHolyDays

Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days.

Although Hinduism has no ecclesiastical organization under any central authority it has a longer list of festivals (utsava), and seasons of rejoicing, qualified by fasts (upavāsa, vrata), vigils (jāgaraṇa), and seasons of mortification, than any other religion. Most of these take place on certain lunar days (tithi), each lunation of rather more than twenty-seven solar days being divided into thirty lunar days, fifteen of which during the moon's increase constitute the light half of the month, and the other fifteen the dark half. Some festivals are regulated by the supposed motions of the sun. To describe all the fasts and festivals would require a volume. I can only indicate some of the most common.

And first, with regard to the custom of fasting, it may be worth while to point out that no Christian man — be he Roman Catholic or Anglican — not even the most austere stickler for the most strict observance of every appointed period of humiliation and abstinence, can for a moment hope to compete with any religious native of India — Hindu or Muhammadan — who may have entered on a course of fasting, abstinence, and bodily maceration.

In point of fact, the constant action of a tropical climate, and the peculiar social habits of the sons of the soil in Eastern countries continued for centuries, have induced a condition of body which enables them to practice the most severe and protracted abstinence with impunity, and even with benefit; while European Christians, who, with a view of increasing their influence, endeavor to set an example of self-mortification, find themselves quite outdone and left hopelessly in the rear by a thousand devotees in every sacred city of India1.

1The truth is that any breach of the Creator's physical laws and laws of adaptation is sure to be followed by a Nemesis, and those devoted Englishmen who practice protracted abstinence from food in an exhausting Indian atmosphere cannot expect to be exempt from the operation of these laws. We have recently had examples of useful careers arrested through neglecting to study the account of the second or ‘pinnacle temptation‘ of Christ (St. Matthew iv. 6).

It must of course be borne in mind that fasting is practiced by Indian devotees, not as a penitential exercise, but as a means of accumulating religious merit. Moreover, severe self-mortification is always connected with the fancied attainment of extraordinary sanctity or superhuman powers. Amongst other objects aimed at is the acquirement of a kind of preternatural or ethereal lightness of body. By long fasting a man is believed to achieve what is called Laghimā, ‘lightness '; that is to say, his frame becomes so buoyant and sublimated by abstinence, that the force of gravitation loses its power of binding him to the earth, and he is able to sit or float in the air. It may seem the very height of credulity to give credence to an emaciated Hindu claiming to triumph in this way over the laws of matter; yet cool-headed and skeptical Englishmen of unimpeachable sincerity have been invited to
witness the achievements of these so-called Yogis, and have come away convinced of their genuineness and ready to testify to the absence of all fraud.

Preternatural. 1. out of the ordinary course of nature; exceptional or abnormal: preternatural powers. 2. outside of nature; supernatural.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that the rules of fasting, as practiced by natives of India in the present day, are by no means so stringent as they were in ancient times. Several severe forms of abstinence are specified by Manu. For example, the fast called ‘very painful ‘(ati-kṛiććhra) consisted in eating only a single mouthful every day for nine days, and then abstaining from all food for the three following days (Manu XI. 213).

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Another notable fast was that called ‘the lunar vow ‘(ćāndrayana-vrata). It consisted in diminishing the consumption of food every day by one mouthful for the waning half of the lunar month, beginning with fifteen mouthfuls at the full moon until the quantity was reduced to nil at the new moon, and then increasing it in like manner during the fortnight of the moon's increase (Manu VI. 20, XI. 216).

In the present day every religious Hindu fasts twice in every lunar month — that is on the eleventh day (ekādaśī) in each fortnight. These fasts are usually kept in honour of Vishnu, but are not very strictly observed, as fruit and milk are allowed. The Śaivas usually fast on the thirteenth or fourteenth day of the dark half of every month, on the day and night called Śivarātri, ‘Śiva’s night, ‘in anticipation of the great fast on the night of Śiva, kept once a year (p. 430). The evening before is called Pradosha. Some, again, fast in honour of Gaṇeśa on the fourth lunar day (Ćaturthī) once a month, in anticipation of the chief Gaṇeśa fast once a year(P- 431).

An Indian friend of mine told me that, when a little boy, he accidentally crushed a sparrow; whereupon his mother made him keep an eleventh-day fast, the merit (puṇya) of which was credited to the spirit of the dead sparrow. Other chief festivals and fasts beginning with Māgha — corresponding to our January-February — are as follow: —

Makara-saṅkrānti (popularly Sankrānt), in celebration of the commencement of the sun's northern course (uttarāyaṇa) in the heavens. To mark this, a kind of New Year's festival is observed towards the end of Pausha or beginning of Māgha (about January 12). The sun has then reached the most southern point of the ecliptic. It is a period of rejoicing everywhere, especially as marking the termination of the inauspicious month Pausha (December-January); but it is not really the beginning of a new year, which varies in different parts of India.

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In Bengal it may be called the ‘Festival of good cheer. ‘Practically, at least, it is kept by free indulgence in the eating of cakes, sweetmeats, and other good things. At one of the most sacred places in India, Prayāga (Allahabad), where the Jumna and Ganges meet, a celebrated religious fair (Melā) takes place during this season.

The same festival in the South of India is commonly called poṅkal (பொங்கல் or puṅkal). It marks the commencement of the Tamil year, and is the day for congratulatory visits. People purchase new cooking-pots and boil fresh rice in milk. Then they salute each other with the question — ‘Has the milk boiled? ‘to which the answer is given that ‘the boiling (poṅkal) is over. ‘In reality the South Indian festival seems to be dedicated to the glorification of agriculture. Cattle are decorated with garlands, their horns colored, and mango leaves hung round their necks. Then they are led about in procession, exempted from all labor, and virtually, if not actually, worshipped.

Vasanta-pañćami, on the 5th of the light half of Māgha (January-February). This is a spring festival. In Bengal Sarasvatī (also, like Lakshmī, called Śri), goddess of arts and learning, is worshipped at this season. The day is a holiday in all public and mercantile offices. Reading and writing are honoured by being suspended, but people worship an image of the goddess, or ink-stands, pens, paper, and other writing implements taken to represent the image. Sometimes an officiating priest is called in who reads the prescribed formulae, and presents rice, fruits, sweetmeats, flowers, etc., while the lay worshippers stand before the images or symbols with flowers in their hands, beseeching the goddess to grant them the blessings of learning, wealth, and fame.

Moreover, on this day, according to Mr. S. C. Bose, every Pandit in Bengal who keeps a school sets up an image of Sarasvatī and invites his patrons and friends to call upon him and do honour to the goddess. This they do by making offerings of rupees, which really form an important part of the Pandit's annual income.

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It is a significant fact that females are not allowed to take part in the worship of this goddess, though she be of their own sex.

Mahā-Śiva-rātri, or 'great Śiva-night, ‘is held on the 14th of the dark half of Magha (about the middle or end of February).
A fast is observed during the day, and a vigil kept at night, when the Liṅga is worshipped (see p. 90). At this season
many pilgrims flock to the places dedicated to Śiva.

Holī or Hutāśanī festival — identified with the Dolā-yātrā, or rocking of the image of Krishna1 — is celebrated, especially
in the upper provinces, as a kind of Hindu Saturnalia or Carnival, and is therefore very popular. It begins about ten days before the full moon of Phālguna (February-March), but is usually only observed for the last three or four days, ending with the full moon. Boys dance about in the streets, and inhabitants of houses sprinkle the passers-by with red or yellow powder, use squirts and play practical jokes. It is marked by rough sports, loud music, merriment, mid-night orgies, obscene songs, excesses and abominations. Towards the close of the festival, about the night of full moon, a bonfire is lighted and games — representing the frolics of the young Krishna — take place around the expiring embers.

1The meaning of Holī is doubtful. It may be merely an imitation of the sounds and cries made by the revelers. By some the festival is said to be in commemoration of the killing of the demon Madhu by Krishna.

Rāma-navamī — the birthday of Rāma-ćandra — is observed on the 9th of the light half of the month Ćaitra (March- April), and is kept by some as a strict fast. The temples of Rama are illuminated, and his image adorned with costly ornaments. The Ramayana is read in the temples, and dances (Nautches) are kept up during the night.

Nāgapañćami is held on the 5th day of the light half of Srāvaṇa, in honour of the Nāgas.

Two days later comes the Śītalāsaptamī, in honour of the Small-pox goddess (p. 228), when only cold food is eaten.

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Kṛishṇa-janmāshṭamī, the birthday of Krishna — kept on the 8th of the dark half of the month Bhādra or (in Bombay and the South) of Srāvaṇa (July-August) — is one of the greatest of all Hindu holidays (see p. 113).

The variation in time in this and other festivals is caused by the circumstance that the months of the Northern and Southern Brahmans differ in the dark fortnight.

Gaṇeśa-Ćaturthī — the birthday of Gaṇeśa — is observed on the 4th of the light half of the month Bhādra (August- September). Clay figures of the deity are made, and after being worshipped for a few days, thrown into the water.

Sixteen consecutive lunar days are devoted to the performance of Śrāddhas in the dark half of Bhādra, which is therefore called the Pitṛi-paksha (see p. 308).

Durgā-pūjā, or Nava-rātra, ‘nine nights, ‘beginning on the 1st and ending on the 10th day of the light half of Āśvina (September-October), are celebrated in many places as a great holiday, especially in Bengal, and connected with the autumnal equinox. Nominally they commemorate the victory of Durgā, wife of Śiva, over a buffalo-headed demon (Mahishāsur). The form under which she is adored is that of an image with ten arms and a weapon in each hand, her Right leg resting on a lion and her left on the buffalo demon. This image is worshipped for nine days — following on the sixteen Śrāddhas of the Pitṛi-paksha — and then cast into the water.

The tenth day is called Vijayadaśamī, or Daṡa-harā.

Kāli-pūjā is a kindred festival in Bengal, lasting only for one night, and that the darkest night of the dark fortnight of the month Kārttika. The image worshipped is that of Kālī, the dark and terrible form of Śiva's wife described at p. 189. The well-known temple at Kāli Ghāṭ near Calcutta and other shrines of the goddess are during this night drenched with the blood of goats, and buffaloes, sacrificed in honour of the sanguinary goddess.

Rāma-līlā, 'Rāma-play, ‘is celebrated in some parts of India on the day when the Bengalis commit their images of Durgā to the waters.

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 It is a dramatic representation of the abduction of Sita by Rāvanā, concluding with the death of Rāvanā.

Dīvālī (properly Dīpālī or Dīpāvalī), ‘the feast of lamps, ‘is observed twenty days after the Nava-rātra on the last two days of the dark half of Āśvina, and on the new moon and four following days of Kārttika, in honour of Vishnu's wife Lakshmi or of Śiva's wife Bhāvanī (Pārvatī). It is marked by beautiful illuminations, in the preparation of which Indians far excel Europeans.

In some parts of India the Sarasvatī-pūjā (described p. 429) is kept at this season, on the 8th of the light half of Āśvina.

The Dīvālī should be seen at Benares. There its magnificence is heightened by the situation of the city on the bank of the river and the unique grouping and somewhat bizarre outline of the buildings. At the approach of night small earthen lamps, fed with oil, are prepared in millions, and placed close together so as to mark out the architectural form of mansion, palace, temple, minaret, and dome in lines of fire. All the boats on the river are lighted up, and the city, under the serene sky of an Indian autumn, is a blaze of calm effulgence. Viewed from the water it presents a dazzling spectacle — a scene of fairy-like splendor, which cannot be matched in any other city of the world. Indeed similar spectacles in the great European capitals appear absolutely paltry by comparison. Perhaps the illuminations which took place on the occasion of the Prince of Wales' visit to India in 1876 reached the climax of perfection, and will never be equaled for beauty and magnificence.

Kārttika Pūrṇimā is a festival kept on the full moon of the month Kārttika (October-November), in honour of Śiva’s victory over the demon called Tripurāsura.

It must be noted that the months are lunar and that the calendar varies in different parts of India. Every month, such as Srāvaṇa, Vaiśākha, and the intercalary or thirteenth month.1

1There is an allusion to this thirteenth month in Ṛig-veda I. 25. 8, and in Atharva-veda V. 6. 4, XIII. 3.8.

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Every month, such as Srāvaṇa, Vaiśākha, and the intercalary or thirteenth month (Adhika-māsa), has its Māhātmya or special excellence.
When the intercalary month comes round every third year, preachers make the most of their opportunity, and recite its Māhātmya, hoping thereby to stimulate the generosity of the people. Then, again, if a conjunction of the moon (or in some places a full moon) fall on a Monday, this is an astronomical coincidence that must be turned to the best account. It is a conjuncture peculiarly favorable to charitable acts. The same may be said of eclipses. A single rupee given at such seasons is worth a thousand rupees at
other times.

Moreover, every day of the week has its sacred character. Monday is especially sacred to Śiva (Mahā-deva). Pious persons often fast on this day and worship the Liṅga in the evening. Saturday is Hanuman's day, and offerings are especially made to him on that day. Then the eighth day in every lunar fortnight is sacred to Durgā. This is a day when no study is allowed, and therefore called
Anadhyāya. Indeed holy days or non-reading days may be multiplied indefinitely. Thus a pupil will stop reading and go home if it
happens to thunder, if any person or animal chances to pass between himself and his teacher, if a guest arrives, and often during the greater part of the rainy season.

No less than four eras are commonly current among the Hindus in India: — 1. Saṃvat (of King Vikramāditya), reckoned from 57 B.C.; 3. Śaka (of King Śālivāhana), reckoned from 78 A.D.; 3. San, current in Bengal, reckoned from 593 A.D.; 4. The era of Paraśurāma, current in Malabar, reckoned from 1176 B.C. In almanacks it is usual to state how many years of the present age of the world or Kali-yuga (p. 398) have elapsed; thus at present 4984 out of 432,000 years have gone by. The three previous ages are the Kṛita or Satya, Tretā, or Dvāpara. Almanacks which follow the Śaka era begin the year with the light half of the month Ćaitra, but the Saṃvat year usually commences with Kārttika.