Festivals play an important part in British Hindu children’s
awareness of their religious tradition. They participate in the
celebrations and enjoy the special food or drink associated with
particular festivals. Their memories are particularly vivid if
they are lucky enough to have celebrated a festival in India while
visiting relatives there. They often see Indian festival celebrations
on videos of Indian films.
Many teachers know of Divali and some know that for their Gujarati
Hindu pupils there is a nine night festival of dancing and singing
to the goddess that begins one month before Divali. This is Navratri,
known in Gujarati as Norta. Of other Hindu festivals teachers
often remain unaware. This is partly because the dates, according
to the Gregorian calendar, vary each year. Also, as English words
do not exist for the festivals’ distinctive features, children
find it hard to talk in school about the celebrations. Many Hindu
children are themselves familiar with only a few festivals.
Teachers who are aware of Divali tend to regard it simply as
a festival of lights and to mark it in school by telling the story
of Rama’s defeat of Ravana. This in fact telescopes the Ramlila
(acted in North India during Navratri) and Divali into one. It
also overlooks the many regional variations and other aspects
of the festival, in particular the worship of Lakshmi, goddess
of wealth. The children of Gujarati shopkeepers in Britain know
that Divali is the time when new account books are begun. These
ledgers are ceremonially blessed in the temple. When talking about
Divali children mention the fireworks, presents, lights, hospitality
and worship in the domestic shrine among many other features.
One of the most widely celebrated Hindu festivals falls in the
summer holidays so escaping the notice of teachers who might otherwise
spot the decorative threads tied around boys’ right wrists. This
is the festival of Raksha Bandhan and the colourful decorations
are ‘rakhis’. These can be simple red threads but are usually
far more ornate, like flowers made of plastic, sequins, velvet
or tinsel and they sometimes incorporate Hindu motifs such as
the swastika. Early on Raksha Bandhan Day (the day of the full
moon in Shravan, the North Indian Hindu lunar calendar month roughly
corresponding to August) girls tie a rakhi on their brothers and
male cousins. In return the boys offer them money. During this
very simple ceremony at home the girls mark the boys’ foreheads
with red powder (kumkum) and uncooked rice grains. They put a
traditional sweetmeat in the boys’ mouths. Raksha Bandhan expresses
the love between brother and sister and the brother’s duty to
care for his sister. In Hindu families Cousins are regarded as
brothers. Raksha Bandhan is a good example of how once a year
particular family roles and relationships are symbolically demonstrated
Of Britain’s estimated 350,000 Hindus 70% are of Gujarati origin,
15% are Punjabi and the remaining families have come from Bengal,
Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and other states of India. Although
Divali is celebrated by people from all these areas there are
regional differences. Some other festivals are celebrated mainly
or solely in certain regions — for instance Ganapati Puja is a
supremely Maharashtrjan occasion. Festivals on the same day may
have different names in different states. For example the day
celebrated as Lohri in Punjab is Pongal in Tamil Nadu and the
celebrations are very different. Similar customs and foods may
in different communities be linked with different festivals.
For example in India and Britain both Gujaratis and Punjabis
celebrate the birth of babies born during the previous twelve
months and wish to safeguard them against evil. Punjabis do this
on the evening of the Lohri festival which falls almost always
on 13th January as it is a solar not a lunar date. Peanuts and
hard round sweets~ made of raw sugar coated with sesame seeds
are shared after some have been sprinkled on the fire. For Gujaratis
the corresponding festival is Holi (this coincides with the full
moon of the spring month of Phalgun) when they roast coconuts
in the bonfire. In both cases babies are carried around the fire
as a way of protecting and blessing them. The dominant feature
of Holi in India is the throwing of coloured powder and squirting
of liquid colours over everyone else regardless of social barriers.
To quote one boy who does not celebrate in England but has played
Holi in India:
“You just go round the street, you have to wear white, so
you get all coloured. You get these kind of sticks (syringes)
and put the powder in and put water in and squirt at everyone
. . . red, blue and green”.
In Britain Holi is a more subdued affair, an example of how Hindus
adapt their cultural traditions to the British context. But there
can be other unexpected excitements as a Gujarati Brahmin boy
“Last year when we went the Fire Brigade came. Some people
thought there was a fire”.
Children are sometimes conversant with the mythological origins
of festivals as well as the contemporary style of celebration.
The same boy explained how Holi had begun:
“When Lord Krishna was small he used to throw cream or milk
over the ladies. And he thought it was fun so he threw colour
His source of information for this explanation was his mother.
Children mention numerous sources for their knowledge of festivals.
In addition to learning about Divali from television, videos,
their parents and books children mention school assembly and teachers.
This highlights the role teachers play or can play in the transmission
of Hindu tradition and makes it extremely important for them to
extend their understanding of the range of Hindu festivals celebrated
Some of these mark the birth of a deity or avatar. Ramnavmi is
the annual celebration at midday of Rama’s birth. Janamashtami
is celebrated at midnight, the hour when Krishna was born. In
each case children enjoy taking a turn at pushing the swinging
cradle in which there is a picture of the newborn incarnation
of Vishnu. They are told not to push too vigorously! On Shivratri,
the festival dedicated to Shiva, everyone enjoys the warm milk
drink containing chopped almonds and other flavouring.
Some children attend supplementary classes organised by the community.
For festivals they often put on a play or dance or pupils sing
appropriate bhajans (hymns). For instance, in one Coventry temple,
for Janamashtami 1986, children mimed to a pre-recorded sound
track the story of Dhanna, a devotee of Krishna. For Dassehra
(also known as Vijay Dashmi, the climax of Navratri) children
were involved in cultural programmes at several venues. They became
more familiar with the mythological stories and with devotional
music and dance styles.
Hinduism is enriched by sectarian groups such as the Sathya Sai
Baba Organisation and Iskcon (International Society for Krishna
Consciousness, better known as Hare Krishna). These provide organised
instruction for children. Apart from major Hindu festivals they
celebrate other significant anniversaries. Children of devotees
of the living spiritual teacher, Sathya Sai Baba, celebrate his
birthday (23rd November) and his mother’s birthday (6th March).
Celebration of the former can take the form of continuous overnight
hymn singing. Iskcon children find the Rathayatra especially exciting.
This is a procession through central London. A decorated carriage
is pulled by devotees along the streets. The carriage (rath) has
a tall superstructure resembling a North Indian temple which is
winched up and down to avoid collision with overhead branches.
It bears the deity Jagannath (literally lord of the Universe)
amid joyful chanting relayed by loudspeaker.
Children may be aware not only of festivals but of seasons with
a religious significance. For instance the Ramayana epic may be
read in the temple throughout the spring month of Chaitra. For
a month before the colour-throwing festival of Holi ladies of
the Pusti-margi sect gather to sing and daub each other with streaks
of red powder. Weddings are performed during certain lunar months,
and not during others. Increasingly Hindu festivals in Britain
are opportunities for learning and sharing, for strengthening
group identity and for welcoming others. By recognising some Hindu
festivals in our schools’ social and artistic activities as well
as in Religious Education lessons teachers can extend this experience
of learning, fun and hospitality to a wider community. This in
turn will contribute to British Hindu pupils’ enjoyment and understanding
of their traditional festivals.
- Four BBC Education programmes include interviews with British
Hindu children and their parents on the subject of festivals.
- the radiovision programmes Hindus and Sikhs in Britain
and the radio programmes:
- The Festival of Holi,
- The Festival of Navratri and
- The Festival of Divali.
- These were broadcast in the Radio 4 series Quest in January
and April 1987. Copies may be made at R.E. Resources Centre,
but look out for repeats. The filmstrip for the Radiovision
programme is available from BBC publications (School Orders)
144—152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TH. Olivia Bennett
- Holi, Hindu Festival of Spring (Hamish Hamilton,
1987) is a very good text for juniors about a British Hindu
girl’s participation in a festival. Robert Jackson
- Religions through Festivals: Hinduism,
Longman, 1989, uses Hindu children’s own words in describing
their experience of festivals. Robert Jackson and Eleanor Nesbitt,
- Listening to Hindus, Unwin Hyman, 1989, includes
material from British Hindu children on Raksha Bandhan and Rathayatra.
- Details of festivals can be found in A. Brown (ed.), Festivals
in World Religions, Longman 1986, while festivals are
set in the wider context of the Hindu tradition in R. Jackson
and D. Killingley,
- Approaches to Hinduism, John Murray, 1988.
This last book contains ideas for teaching about festivals and
many other topics from the Hindu tradition.
This article is based on research conducted at the University
of Warwick as part of the Hindu Nurture in Coventry Project. We
would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Leverhulme
Trust in funding the project’s work.