British Hindu Children and their traditional festivals

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 and reinforced.

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 told us:

“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 on them”.

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 here.

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. These are:
    • 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.

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