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)
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
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.
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
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.
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).
428 Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days. 428 (464 of 644)
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,
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.
Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days. 429 (465 OF 644)
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.
430 Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days. 430 (466 OF 644)
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.
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
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
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.
Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days. 431
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 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
432 Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days. 432 (468 OF 644)
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.
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
is an allusion to this thirteenth month in Ṛig-veda I. 25. 8, and
in Atharva-veda V. 6. 4, XIII. 3.8.
Hindu Fasts, Festivals, and Holy Days. 433 (469 OF 644)
Every month, such as Srāvaṇa, Vaiśākha, and the intercalary or
thirteenth month (Adhika-māsa), has its Māhātmya or special
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
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
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.