Janmashtami is celebrated with great pomp not only across India but around the world as well. While some rituals and practices are the same everywhere, there are a few places that give these festivities a unique, regional touch. Here, we list the principal cities in India that are associated with the celebrations of Lord Krishna’s birth. (Photo Courtesy: Chinmayee Mishra [CC BY-SA 4.0])
Janmashtami, the festival that commemorates the birth of Lord Krishna, is celebrated with great pomp not only across India but around the world as well. While some rituals and practices are the same everywhere, there are a few places that give these festivities a unique, regional touch. These cities are also associated with the legend and life of Krishna, or with the larger Hindu faith. They bring together people—irrespective of their religious affiliations—and collectives like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), making Janmashtami an all-inclusive celebration. Here are a few places in India where Janmashtami is celebrated with great vigour and enthusiasm.
Mathura, Uttar Pradesh
Mathura is one of the sapta puris—the seven Indian cities that are considered holy by many Hindus—and is said to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna. This ancient city, situated on the banks of the Yamuna river, comes alive on Janmashtami, with the people of Mathura putting up a spectacle (known as jhanki) depicting the story of Krishna’s birth. The celebrations, which go on for two days, include fasting during the day, feasting at night, jhankis or tableaus of mud and ras leela performances (dance–drama) that portray the life of Krishna. The ras leelas are mostly performed by children in the temples of Mathura.
While Mathura is home to many temples that are vital to the Vaishnava faith, the Krishna Janmabhoomi Mandir is the most interesting and important; it has a prison cell, called the garbha-griha, which is believed to be the birthplace of Krishna. The festival in Mathura has two distinct features, the first being the jhulan utsav, or the festival of swings. In celebration, people put out decorated swings in their yards as a way to welcome Krishna into their homes. Ghatas, the other element of Janmashtami, refers to the decoration of temples throughout the city.
Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh
Also situated on the banks of the Yamuna, Vrindavan is a temple town with hundreds of mandirs, the most popular among them being the Ranganathji, ISKCON, Govind Deo, Radha Raman and Banke Bihari temples. People flock to these sites to participate in the Janmashtami celebrations. Located close to Mathura, this holy land is associated with Krishna’s childhood and teenage years. During Janmashtami—the celebrations of which begin almost 10 days in advance—Krishna’s life is recreated through ras leelas and jhankis. However, in Vrindavan, these performances are not undertaken by children, but by professional artistes. Vrindavan is known for the abhishek, or the grand ritualistic bath of Krishna, before the ceremonies begin.
Dwarka, meaning ‘the door to moksha’, is one of the char dhams of India (a group of four Vaishnavite pilgrimage sites in the country). Situated on the coast of Kutch in Gujarat, it is believed that Krishna spent his adult life here. The kingdom was said to have been submerged in the ocean after Krishna’s death. Also called the ‘Golden City’, it contains a number of important temples and sites such as the Dwarkadhish Temple, the Rukmani Temple and Bet Dwarka—allegedly, the site where Krishna died. The Dwarkadhish Temple is known for its Janmashtami celebrations, which begin with the mangla aarti (auspicious aarti). This is followed by the utsav bhog (prasad), offered an hour before midnight. As the clock strikes midnight, devotees welcome the Lord by chanting his name and singing hymns. This is also the time when they break their fast and offer Krishna the maha bhog. These night-long celebrations, marked by bhajans and ras leelas, end at around 2 am.
Gokul, Uttar Pradesh
Gokul, located near Vrindavan, is associated with Krishna’s childhood. The local forests are recognised as the land where Krishna grazed his cows. Interestingly, Janmashtami is celebrated in Gokul a day after the actual festival, since, according to legend, Krishna was brought here the day after he was born, at midnight. Even the way it is celebrated is different—at midnight, the people of Gokul shower the idol of Krishna with curd, milk, nectar and holy water from the river Ganga. They also drench each other in buttermilk and turmeric. Some of the major religious centres that see the most footfall during this time are the Radha Raman and Radha Damodar temples.
Mumbai and Pune, Maharashtra
Krishna, as a child, was greatly fond of ghee and buttermilk, and, hence, is fondly called makkhanchor (butter thief) by his devotees. In remembrance of this, Janmashtami is celebrated as Dahi Handi in Maharashtra. On the second day of the festival, devotees form a human pyramid and compete with others to break an earthen pot (handi) that is hung at a great height and filled with buttermilk and dry fruits. Dahi Handi celebrations can be experienced in many places in Maharashtra, especially in Pune and Mumbai. The ISKCON Temple in Pune becomes a lively site of people fasting, praying and singing hymns together. Devotees sing bhajans and participate in the akhanda kirtan (devotional singing) and the maha-abhishek at midnight, similar to the temples of Mathura, Vrindavan and Varanasi.
The land of the Jagannath Temple, Puri, is said to be where Krishna lived with his siblings, Balarama and Subhadra. Here, the celebrations start 17 days prior to Janmashtami. Artistes enact episodes from Krishna’s life, such as the tale of Bakasura badha and the legend of Kalia dahan. The episode of Kamsa vadha, where he kills his uncle Kamsa, is enacted on the day of Janmashtami, at the end of the folk-theatre performances.
Udipi, one of the major pilgrimage sites in South India, is famous for its Shri Krishna Math—a huge temple surrounded by eight monasteries. This temple is known for its Krishna idol, which is adorned with jewels and is seated on a splendid golden rath (chariot). It is also known for the kanakanna kindi—a small window through which, it is believed, Krishna gave darshan to his devotee, Kanakadasa. As an important religious site associated with the life of Krishna, Udupi celebrates Janmashtami—known here as Gokulashtami—with great jubilation. The town celebrates this festival by performing arghya pradana—the ritual of pouring of milk or water on the idol of Krishna—at midnight. Along with that, devotees make laddus and chakkulis, to be offered to Krishna. Plays based on Krishna’s childhood (ras leelas) are staged on the streets, with the performers displaying clay idols, dancing, singing folk songs and playing the flute to pay homage to their Lord.
Guruvayur is a municipal town in the Thrissur district of Kerala and is home to one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the state—the Sri Krishna Temple. It is said to be the fourth-largest temple in India, in terms of the number of devotees that visit the spot every day. Naturally, Janmashtami or Ashtami Rohini celebrations (as the festival is known in Guruvayur) have an immense and splendid character.
The idol of Krishna in the temple is decorated for darshan. Devotees observe a fast on the day before the festival, singing hymns and chanting shlokas in the temple. They also hold special concerts, cultural programmes and satsangs throughout the night until the main Janmashtami celebrations begin in the early hours of the following day.
ISKCON temples in Assam and Manipur
Both Assam and Manipur have beautiful ISKCON temples, where Janmashtami celebrations begin a day early. In Assam, the Radha–Krishna ISKCON Sanctuary and the Shilanyas ISKCON Temple in Guwahati are the main centres of celebration, with devotees flocking to these places in large numbers. The latter temple celebrates Janmashtami with a special aarti, the singing of bhajans and the chanting of the Bhagavad Gita, where anyone—irrespective of their religion—can be present. Similarly, Manipur (especially its capital city, Imphal) has a few prominent temples where believers get together, do puja and cook food for the poor. In places like the Mahabali Temple, the Shri Shri Govindaji Temple and the ISKCON Temple, priests narrate stories from Krishna’s childhood.
This article was also published on The Indian Express.