Synonymous with joy and celebration, the festival of Janmashtami celebrates the birth of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, who was born in Mathura and spent his early years in Vrindavan. Days before Janmashtami, festivities begin in homes and all the temples spring to life anew to welcome the lord on his birthday.
Decorations with twinkling lights, strings of leaves and flowers, paintings and rangoli make each temple a shutterbug’s delight and visitors never fail to be charmed by the charged atmosphere of Krishna temples as people flock to be part of the celebrations.
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The dahi handi celebrations in Mumbai are legendary. Groups of young men called Govinda pathaks scale a human pyramid to break a handi (clay pot) filled with Krishna’s favourite drink – curd/buttermilk hanging by a rope sometimes over 30ft high, while their attempts are thwarted by onlookers who splash water on them. Old Mumbai neighbourhoods with chawls – Dadar, Worli, Thane, Lalbaug – are famous for dahi handi celebrations. It has become a sport of sorts –competitions are organised during Janmashtami with people vying for the prize money. The handis are set up around the city and thousands of Govinda pathaks (including some all-women troupes) travel around in trucks trying to break as many handis as possible during the day.
While many devotees fast on the day, there is an array of special treats to mark the occasion. The offerings for Lord Krishna on Janmashtami focus on what the divine toddler loved: dairy products. Milk, butter, ghee, buttermilk, curd and lassi along with a platter of fruits are offered in temples and at homes. While the best treats are made at homes, sweetshops across the smallest towns and cities also turn out the region’s special sweets and snacks to mark the day.
Malai Peda, Makhan Misri & Panjeeri- North India has a few favourite delicacies for Krishna. Malai Peda with a swirl of cream and ghee and flavouring is a delish offering. People in North India, especially around the Braj region of Mathura and Vrindavan, swear by the makhan misri, a sweet that’s a cloud of beaten butter with powdered sugar and a dressing of elaichi, pista and almond flakes. Another favourite, panjeeri is made of powdered coriander seeds and sugar mixed in ghee with almonds.
Shrikhand and Dahi Kala- In many states, particularly Maharashtra, Dahi Kala is prepared, as an offering to God, using beaten rice, curd/milk, sugar and pomegranate. Shrikhand is a delicious soufflé of beaten curd and powdered sugar savoured during Janmashtami.
Taler Bola & Malpua- Nanda Utsav is marked in Bengal with taler bora (sugar palm fritters) because this is the season for the Asian palm fruit or tal to ripen. Another treat for the occasion is the perennial favourite malpua (crisp pancakes coated with sugar syrup).
Seedai, Murukku, Thatai & Vella Aval- Gokulashtami in Tamil Nadu is marked by a large menu of fried snacks and sweets offered to the idol of Krishna at home marked by special shaped kolam (rice-paste designs) of infant feet across the homes. Savouries include the deep fried rice flour snacks of seedai, murukku and thattai. Sweets include jaggery laced vella seedai and vella aval, a sweet reminiscent of the true friendship between the prosperous Krishna and his friend Sudama, also known as Kusela.
Vella Appam & Paal Payasam- Kerala’s favourite celestial infant, Guruvayurappan is offered special prasadam on Krishna Jayanti. The vella appam and the delicious steaming uruli of paal payasam (condensed milk pudding) are famous Janmashtami treats.