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Janmashtami does not celebrate the birth of a commanding, compelling, imperious, pervasive and masterful God who expects the worshippers to follow exacting and enigmatic sacraments to please him and who would unleash his acrimony if one ritual goes wrong.
It is a festival that celebrates the birth of a tiny, little infant God who is born at midnight and expects nothing but love and a bit of care and tending. The rituals of Janmashtami are not different from what we witness at our own homes when a little one is born. Many are interesting customs followed since historical times. While some customs are common to all, others are unique and restricted to a particular region or city.
But one thing that has kept Janmashtami popular and uncomplicated through generations is its flexibility in terms or rituals etc.
Pooja begins with the birth of Krishna at midnight with priests/devotees giving bath to little Krishna’s idol with gangajal, ghee, water, honey and curd. The idol is then adorned with new clothes, garlands and jewellery. Nearly 56 dishes are offered to the little lord which include his favourites like white butter, mishri, milk, peda, kheer and laddus. The bal gopal is adorned in the best attire and is placed in a cradle and rocked gently.
Though some followers of Lord Krishna celebrate Janmashtami by keeping `Nirjal`(waterless) fasts, but it is mostly a matter of choice. Most devotees have milk, fruits and sweets during the fast. Fasting is accompanied by singing of devotional songs and mantra chanting. The best thing about this fast is that a number of mouth-watering dishes are cooked at homes which the people relish during the celebrations.
Devotees fasting on Janmashtami break the fast at midnight after the birth of Lord Krishna.
Dahi Handi is basically an enactment of Lord Krishna`s acts as a child of stealing butter from Matka (earthen pot), suspended from the ceiling.
It generally takes place on the second day of Janmashtami. An earthen pot containing a mixture of milk, dry fruits, ghee is hung at a height of 20-30 feet with the help of a rope. It also contains coins which are later distributed as prize to the winners.
Boys and even girls form a human pyramid by standing one on top of the other, trying to break the pot. Onlookers throw water on them in order to prevent them from breaking the pot. It is believed that the broken pieces of earthen pot will keep away mice and negative powers from homes.
Dahi Handi is celebrated with zeal at Mathura - Vrindavan, Dwarka and Maharashtra.
The theme of rasleela revolves around the formative years of Lord Krishna and it is mainly performed by Brahmin boys between the age of 10-13 years. The major types include: Janamleela, Shankarleela, Putanaleela and Nagleela. Rasleelas are usually performed in the local language, Brajbhasa by professional theatrical troops. .
The one point where Janamashtami strikes an uncanny similarity with Christmas is in context of tableaux and cribs depicting various stages of the Lord’s childhood and life.
"Jhankis" are miniature representations made of clay where humans are represented by dolls dressed up as kids, men and women with lehangas, chunnis, dhotis and kurtas.
Episodes such as the Birth of Lord Krishna, Vasudev carrying Baby Krishna across river Yamuna, Exchange of Lord Krishna with the baby girl, King Kansa killing the Baby girl, Baby Krishna in a cradle in Gokul, Killing of King Kansa, Killing Of Kaliya Serpent and the Lifting of Govardhan Hill come alive in the tableaux.
In various parts of South India, women draw patterns of little children`s feet outside the house with rice-flour paste, walking towards the house. This is symbolic of the entry of little Krishna into his foster-home.
On Janmashtami’s next morning, a ritual called “Nand Mahotsav” is celebrated. This day is also called Dahi Kala as Krishna was very fond of milk and milk products.
Gujarati women practice a very interesting custom during Janmashtami. They give up the household chores and play cards. They even bet during the game. And there is also the practice of eating cold food prepared two days in advance.