In India, the celebrations of fairs and festivals form a wondrous and joyful series of events, marking the rites of passage between birth, death and renewal. There are said to be more festivals in India than there are days of the year; not unlikely in a country where small, local village rituals of worship and propitiation are celebrated with as much as fervor as are high holy days across the nation, occasions that can draw floods of people numbering half a million or more. Fairs and festivals are moments of remembrance and commemoration of the birthdays and great deeds of gods, goddesses, hero's, heroine's, gurus, prophet's and saints. They are times when people gather together, linked by ties of shared social and religious beliefs. Each of India's many religious groups - Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and others - has its own such days.
The ancient tradition of celebrating festivals goes back to the Vedic times of the Aryans. The Vedic scriptures and literature give many references to festivals when celebrations where carried on to honor gods, rivers, trees, mountains, the coming of monsoons, the end of winter or the first flush of spring. The celebrations included not only fasting and prayers, but also equally events of social and cultural significance. Performances of music, dance and drama took place side by side with more rugged physical activities: displays of valor and virility through chariot and boat races or wrestling matches and animal fights in which rams, wild bulls, elephants, oxen, horses and even rhinoceroses took part. Then, as always, there was feasting and merriment to be enjoyed. There were YAJNAS (sacrificial fires), where milk, clarified butter and ghee were offered to gods before being shared between worshippers. Special foods were cooked and served, prepared from freshly harvested crops. Elaborate garlands and ropes of flowers were woven as an offering to the gods and also to be worn over festive robes and jewelry. Such an assembly provided opportunity to trade, buy and sell all manner if goods, from live stock to silks, spices and handcrafted objects of ritual or daily use.
Ancient Indians used to express these occasions through the words 'SAMAJA' (a gathering of people), 'UTSAVA' (a festival) and 'YATRA' (a pilgrimage or temple chariot procession). And though today we might use the word 'MELA' (meaning a fair) rather than a SAMAJA, it is astonishing how steadily and faithfully these traditions have endured over the centuries. Even today, festivals are symbolic of a link between the home, the villages and a larger outside world. Within the home, celebrations are expressed by the love and care given to its decoration by the women of the house; the freshly washed courtyards are embellished with designs made in flower petals, colored powder or rice flour; walls are painted with scenes from the epics is made brilliant with bits of mirrored glass; doorways are hung with auspicious mango leaves or marigold flowers. Each festival in each religion has its own particular foods and sweets appropriate to the season and crops, and days are spent in their careful preparation.