From gods descending to earth to Guru Nanak Jayanti, from cattle fairs to symbolic celebration of India’s maritime link with Indonesia, Kartik Purnima means various things to various communities. In 2018, Kartik Purnima is on November 23. However, since rituals are governed by traditional religious calendars, check with the state tourism departments for the exact date and timing of the festivals before planning.
Popularly known as Guru Nanak Prakash Utsav or Guru Nanak Jayanti, Kartik Purnima is celebrated around the globe as the birth anniversary of the first Sikh Guru. And what better place than Amritsar in Punjab to observe the day? Usually celebrations begin a few days earlier, including the ‘akhand path’ or the non-stop reading of the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. One day prior to the main celebration, a religious procession is held with the holy book kept in a palanquin and the procession headed by five armed guards and the flag Nishan Sahib. Catch the experts displaying the ‘gatka’, a style of martial arts. The faithful begin to throng Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, from early in the morning on the day of the festival, engaging in prayers, singing of hymns, listening to preachers, volunteering for various activities. The ‘langar’ or community kitchen runs through the day. Display of holy artefacts are usually organised. Illuminated at night, the Golden Temple is a magnificent sight.
Known as Bali Yatra, this popular festival of Odisha is also a part of India’s maritime history. In the ancient period, Kalinga (a former name of Odisha) maintained a flourishing maritime trade with Bali and other states in the Orient. The journey to and from the distant shores was full of danger. So before the men set off on their journey post monsoon, women would pray for their safety and also sanctify the boat with chants and rituals. This was known as ‘boita bandana’. Even today, women gather at river banks and offer prayers. Miniature boats made of banana stem (now paper and thermocol are also used) are decorated with flowers and a small clay lamp, and floated in the rivers as a symbolic reminder of the ancient practice. One of the best places to observe this festival is Cuttack, where hundreds of people gather on the banks of the Mahanadi River to perform the rituals. A huge trade fair is also organised in Cuttack.
Thanks to the state tourism department, a traditional fair held around Kartik Purnima, in Pushkar, Rajasthan, has become a global attraction. One of the largest camel and livestock trade fairs in India, it usually lasts for a week, concluding on the full moon day when everyone goes for a dip in the holy Pushkar Lake. Buyers and sellers arrive from far and near, often entire families, and camp in the open. It is interesting to watch the business transactions; it may take anything between a couple of hours and a day or two for closure. Beware of the dust. The state tourism sets up a tented colony for travellers’ accommodation and various entertainment programmes, such as bridal competition, competition for the longest moustache, football matches, etc. are held. Musical programmes, handicraft shops and food kiosks, hot air ballooning are also part of the fair.
Better known for its handwoven cotton textiles, Santipur in West Bengal is also the seat of Vaishnav and Shakta cultures. One of the popular festivals is the Raas-jatra associated with the tales of Krishna. The third and final day of the festival is the most interesting. Known as ‘bhanga raas’, it attracts a large crowd. On the day of bhanga raas, a long winding procession carrying deities of Krishna and others, accompanied by tableaus, musicians (including bagpipe players) and decorative illuminations (don’t miss the antique Belgian glass lamps) go around the town. Young girls dressed as ‘Rai Raja’ are part of the tableau. Various raas-jatra committees and temples participate in the procession.
It is during Kartik Purnima that Varanasi prepares to welcome the gods descending to earth. Known as Dev Deepavali (Dev Deepawali), it is a veritable festival of lights. In the wee hours of dawn, people descend to the various ghats of Varanasi to take a holy dip and offer prayers to the Sun god. After the crowd departs, various committees and individuals begin decorating the steps of the ghats with small clay lamps. As the sun sets, the lamps are lit. The old buildings along the ghats are also illuminated. Firecrackers are lit. Elaborate arrangements are made for Ganga Arati. Dasaswamedha Ghat draws the biggest crowd. You may hire a boat (expect steep rates) and take a ride along the ghats for a panoramic view of the illuminated bank. Uttar Pradesh Tourism’s five-day long Ganga Mahotsav, an extravaganza of open air concerts at Rajendra Ghat, concludes on this day. Handicraft and food fairs are also organised as part of the tourism festival.