Janmashtami or Gokulashtami, is one of the most popular and important Hindu festivals. It marks the birthday of Lord Krishna, the eighth re-incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who gave the vital message of the Bhagwat Gita – the guiding principles for every Hindu.
It is celebrated with great enthusiasm by Hindus. In this article, we take a whistle stop tour around India and beyond to look at how Janmashtami is marked.
Mathura, Uttar Pradesh
If you are going to celebrate Krishna’s birthday, the first stop on your tour has to be Mathura, Shri Krishna’s birthplace where Devaki gave birth to him inside a prison. This makes Mathura the most important location during Janmashtami for devotees of Krishna.
Customs include reading the Bhagavad Gita, keeping cradles rocking with an idol of baby Krishna (Gopal) in temples and homes. Devotees perform the ceremonies from midnight and some may also perform the Raas Leela, a dance ritual that was first performed by the Lord Krishna along with Radha and other Gopis in the forests of Vrindavan. There are over 400 temples in Mathura dedicated to Krishna.
Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh
The source of the Raas Leela makes Vrindavan a place of great significance on Janmashtami.
The many temples dedicated to Lord Krishna are full of lights, and adorned with beautiful decorations, with devotees singing and dancing while praying to the god. People will fast until midnight then the customs are similar to those observed in Mathura. Important places to visit in Vrindavanare the Bankey Bihari temple and Prem Mandir (The Temple of Divine Love).
Gokul, Uttar Pradesh
We don’t have to travel too far from Vrindavan to find another place that is important in the story of Krishna. Almost immediately after his birth, Lord Krishna was taken to Gokul by his father in order to protect him from his maternal uncle Kansa, the king of Mathura. Krishna was raised in Gokul by his foster-parents, Yashoda and Nandal.
Janmashtami is celebrated as Gokulashtami here and devotees start the preparations a day later than the actual date because they believe that Krishna was brought to Gokul a day after he was born. Devotees play with buttermilk, curd, turmeric and use these to bathe idols of Krishna.
Our next stop takes us out of Uttar Pradesh and westwards to Dwarka, a coastal city in the state of Gujrat. According to legend, Dwarka was built by Balram, Lord Krishna’s brother. Krishna settled here after he defeated and killed Kansa at Mathura, making it a sacred and holy place to Hindus.
After Lord Krishna left this world in physical form, the city is believed to have submerged under the sea.
Here, Janmashtami celebrations begin before midnight where people dance and sing to usher in the Lord’s birthday.
While almost all other Indian states will celebrate Janmashtami with their own customs, we can leave India and took a brief look at how this festival is celebrated around the world:
Janmashtami is a national public holiday in Bangladesh and a special festival for the people living there. The major celebrations take place in the main Hindu temple of the country, Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh.
Pakistani Hindus will celebrate the festival at Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Karachi with bhajans and sermons on Krishna.
Our last destination on the subcontinent is the Himalayan country of Nepal. Celebrations here are held at the famous Krishna temple located at Patan Durbar Square where devotees offer flowers, food and coins to Lord Krishna.
Heading into South-East Asia, we reach the city state of Singapore. Here a large Hindu community means that Diwali is a public holiday. And while Janmashtami may not be a holiday, you will still find plenty of festivities marking the occasion. Religious processions with “Hare Krishna” chanting take place on Serangoon Road, a street that stretches from Little India to Kallang. You’ll also see colourful celebration at Shree Lakshmi Narayan Temple in the Little India district.
Now, we can see the international reach of Janmashtami as even far across the Pacific Ocean, we will find devotees celebrating. In Fiji, the festival is called ‘Krishna Ashtami’ and celebrations are spread over a week, with the eighth and last day being celebrated on Lord Krishna’s birthday. During these eight days, the Hindus in Fiji gather at temples or at their homes to immerse themselves in prayers. The devotional groups celebrate by singing songs, dancing and reciting prayers.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was founded in New York by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Janmashtami celebrations are held in New York and those parts of the US that also have sizeable Hindu communities, such as Orlando, California and Massachusetts.
In London the festivities takes place over two days. Over 60,000 people will attend Janmashtami celebrations at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the UK headquarters of ISKCON. This country house was donated to the Hare-Krishna movement by George Harrison, lead guitarist, songwriter and singer of The Beatles.