Major Fasting Festivals in India: A Deep Dive into Tradition and Culture

Fasting festivals in India

What are the major fasting festivals in India?

India, a land rich in culture and tradition, celebrates numerous festivals, many of which involve fasting (popularly known as vrat, upawas or upavaas in hindi). These fasting festivals, deeply rooted in history and religion, reflect the diverse spiritual tapestry of the country. This article explores some of the most significant fasting festivals in India, delving into their origins, significance, and when they are celebrated to help you learn about the roots of these major Indian festivals related to fasting.

1. Navratri

Navratri, meaning “nine nights,” is one of the most widely celebrated Hindu festivals. Dedicated to Goddess Durga, this festival symbolizes the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, Navratri commemorates the battle between Durga and the demon Mahishasura, culminating in the goddess’s triumph.

When Celebrated: Navratri occurs twice a year. Chaitra Navratri falls in the spring (March-April), while Sharad Navratri is celebrated in the autumn (September-October). The latter is the more prominent of the two.

Fasting Practices: During Navratri, devotees fast for nine days. Some opt for a complete fast, consuming only water, while others partake in a partial fast, eating fruits, milk, and specific non-grain foods. The fast is broken on the tenth day, known as Vijayadashami or Dussehra, with a grand celebration.

2. Karva Chauth

Karva Chauth is a significant festival for married Hindu women. It is believed that by observing a fast on this day, married women ensure the longevity and prosperity of their husbands.

When Celebrated: This festival takes place on the fourth day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Kartik (October-November).

Fasting Practices: On Karva Chauth, women begin their fast before sunrise and refrain from consuming food and water until they see the moon at night. The fast is broken after performing a ritual that includes sighting the moon through a sieve and then looking at their husbands. This tradition underscores the devotion and love between married couples.

3. Ekadashi

Ekadashi, observed twice a month, is a significant fasting day dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The term “Ekadashi” refers to the eleventh day of each lunar fortnight in the Hindu calendar.

When Celebrated: Ekadashi is celebrated twice a month, once during the waxing phase (Shukla Paksha) and once during the waning phase (Krishna Paksha) of the moon.

Fasting Practices: Devotees abstain from grains, beans, and certain vegetables on Ekadashi. The fast can be either a complete fast, consuming only water, or a partial fast, allowing fruits and milk. It is believed that fasting on Ekadashi purifies the mind and body and brings one closer to the divine.

4. Maha Shivaratri

Maha Shivaratri, meaning “the great night of Shiva,” is a major Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Shiva. According to legend, it marks the day Shiva married Parvati and also the night he performed the Tandava, the cosmic dance of creation, preservation, and destruction.

When Celebrated: Maha Shivaratri falls on the 14th night of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalguna (February-March).

Fasting Practices: Devotees observe a strict fast, often going without food and water for 24 hours. The day is spent in prayer, chanting, and meditating on Lord Shiva. Special night-long vigils are held in temples, where devotees perform rituals and offer prayers.

5. Paryushana

Paryushana is a significant Jain festival focused on self-purification and introspection. It is marked by fasting, prayer, and penance.

When Celebrated: This festival usually occurs in August or September, with the exact dates varying between the two major Jain sects, Shwetambara and Digambara.

Fasting Practices: During Paryushana, Jains practice various forms of fasting, ranging from consuming only boiled water to complete fasting for the entire eight or ten days. The festival concludes with the ritual of asking for forgiveness, emphasizing the importance of non-violence and compassion.

6. Ramadan

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is considered the holiest month for Muslims. It commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad.

When Celebrated: The Islamic calendar is lunar, so the dates of Ramadan vary each year. It lasts for 29 or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the moon.

Fasting Practices: Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, abstaining from food, drink, smoking, and sinful behavior. The fast, called sawm, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The day’s fast is broken with a meal called iftar, starting with the eating of dates and followed by a larger meal. Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, prayer, and community.

7. Ayyappa Deeksha

Ayyappa Deeksha is a 41-day fasting period undertaken by devotees of Lord Ayyappa before undertaking the pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala.

When Celebrated: The pilgrimage season typically starts in mid-November and ends in mid-January, with the most significant day being Makar Sankranti.

Fasting Practices: Devotees maintain strict celibacy, follow a vegetarian diet, abstain from alcohol, and sleep on the floor or a mat. The fast requires wearing simple black or blue clothing and observing high standards of personal hygiene and prayer.

8. Teej

Teej is a festival celebrated primarily by women in Northern India, dedicated to the goddess Parvati and her reunion with Lord Shiva. It symbolizes the onset of the monsoon and is a celebration of marital bliss and well-being.

When Celebrated: Teej falls in the Hindu month of Shravan (July-August).

Fasting Practices: Women observe a day-long fast without food or water, praying for the well-being of their husbands. The festival includes dancing, singing, and swinging, reflecting joy and devotion.

Conclusion

Fasting festivals in India are a profound expression of faith and discipline. They offer a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage and spiritual fervor of the country. Each festival, with its unique customs and rituals, highlights the deep connection between the physical act of fasting and the pursuit of spiritual growth. Celebrating these fasting festivals not only fosters community and tradition but also strengthens the personal resolve and devotion of millions of Indians.

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