It’s another festival season. We have so many of them in India that we have many opportunities to celebrate … and, if we do it wisely, we could unleash formidable centripetal forces. Goodness! We really need them these days.

This kind of variety is one of the beauties of living in a large country with so many varieties of cultures.


Culture is an organized collection of beliefs, practices, and objects. It helps us live together and prosper both materially (e.g.: money, goods, etc.) and non-materially (e.g.: happiness, support, philosophical development, etc.). We could also look at culture as the way in which particular groups of people relate to their environment.

Because different groups of people relate in different ways to their environment, we have diverse cultures. With each culture we get different festivals, and many other things.


Festivals mark important events for a culture. It may be part of the agricultural cycle (e.g.: pongal and its many variants celebrating harvest), seasonal change (e.g.: holi and its variants celebrating the arrival of spring), lore (e.g.: daśarā as the symbolic fight of good and evil with good triumphing in the end; the coming of Vāmana to Bali; birth dates of divine personalities – Krshna, Jesus, Mohammad, Kanakadāsa, Vālmīki, Nānak, and hundreds more) and so on.

All these are rich with symbolic acts of shedding that which is worn out (old things, old habits that cloud our minds, etc.) and acquiring or renewing freshness (new things, new habits that help us become stronger, recollecting ancient events, etc.). The ‘spring cleaning’ during pongal is one such practice – cobwebs are cleared away, old things are discarded, houses are refurbished and painted afresh, new clothes are worn, and so on.

Pongal is merely one of the many harvest festivals celebrated elsewhere in India and the world.

Festivals are also often connected to astronomical occurrences. What happens ‘in the sky’ is mapped on to Earth and celebrated here. Look at the solstice festivals.

“The term solstice is derived from the Latin solstitium. It’s made up of the Latin sol, “the sun,” and sistere, “to make stand, stand still.” Found in English since at least the 1200s, the term solstice is used to describe the exact moment when the sun reaches its northernmost point (around June 21, when the North Pole tilts closest to the sun) or southernmost point (around December 22, during the winter solstice) from Earth’s equator.” [Source] “[A]t the solstices, the Sun’s declination appears to “stand still”; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) stops at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction.” [Source]

In the northern hemisphere, the June solstice is the peak of summer. Many cultures in the northern hemisphere observe this event with a festival. The most widely known is the gathering of people at Stonehenge in the UK (United Kingdom, not Uttara Kannada!). [Read this.]

In a few days, it will be the winter solstice for us. Here are seven winter solstice celebrations listed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica: Soyal (Hopi Indians of northern Arizona), Yazda (Persian), Inti raymi (Peru; this happens during June!), Saturnalia (Roman), Midwinter (Antarctica!), St. Lucia’s Day (Italy), and Dong Zhi (China).

“Katsinam are Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests and a prosperous, healthy life for humankind. They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior.” [Source  Accessed: 18 Dec. 2019]

However, people in Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Botswana, Australia, New Zealand, and such countries are enjoying warm temperatures! In Australia, there is a lot of suffering right now due to vast forest fires that are making life very difficult indeed; particularly for wildlife.

The Inti Raymi’rata (Quechua for “Inti festival”)[1] is a traditional religious ceremony of the Inca Empire in honor of the god Inti (Quechua for “sun”), the most venerated deity in Inca religion. It was the celebration of the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year in terms of the time between sunrise and sunset – and the Inca New Year, when the hours of light would begin to lengthen again. In territories south of the equator, the Gregorian months of June and July are winter months. It is held on June 24. [Source Accessed: 17 Dec. 2019]. Click on the image to view a larger version in a new tab.


Around this solstice, the most widely observed festival is Christmas, signifying the birth of Jesus Christ and symbolic of a message of hope for the world. In geography and anthropology (the study of human beings; anthropo ‘human’ + logy ‘study’), we classify religions based on several different criteria. One such criterion is whether a religion believes in converting people of other religions. Those that believe in conversion are called universalizing or proselytizing religions. Christianity is one example of such a religion.

One of the fascinating aspects of such religions is how they adjust to pre-existing local conditions in practice. The adjustments are very easy to see. I have mentioned several examples in other essays elsewhere … the wrapping of the Holy Mother Mary’s idol in Velankanni in a traditional Indian saree, the use of Indian-style floral garlands to decorade dargahs, the dhvaja-stambhas in church yards, etc.

Christmas takes on many local flavors. One very easily noticeable local variation is the choice of foods associated with Christmas. In southern India at least, you will find kal-kals and rose cookies everywhere. Buying new clothes for the festival is another such practice.

Santa Claus is a bit of a problematic figure for us in South Asia. The geographies here are not Santa-friendly at all. So, technically, he is unable to use his traditional means for delivering gifts to you. I have discussed these in two earlier essays (Geography – Santa’s Frenemy  and Merry Geographic Christmas to You.)

I’ll end with this beautiful video that my colleague Dr. Muthatha Ramanathan shared with me recently. It is about Christmas in Nagaland. You really must watch it.

Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy time celebrating whatever you wish to celebrate – Christmas, the winter solstice, etc.

Things to do:

  1. Inti raymi is a winter solstice festival observed in Peru. But it’s in June! Is that right? Explain your answer.
  2. Find out about the different kinds of summer solstice festivals around the world (including India).
  3. Make a list of proselytizing religions and mark their areas of origin on a world map. Find out about how these religions spread in geographic space.
  4. What are the geographic points you notice in the Nagaland video mentioned above?
  5. At the opening of this essay, I mentioned centripetal forces. Explore the TIGS blog to find the definition of that term, and its opposite.

Join us for the 6th International Geography Youth Summit, IGYS-2020,
24-26 July 2020, Bengaluru

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 18 December 2019

Featured image: Screen grab from Nagagenous, Christmas in Nagaland as told by Nagas. [Source. Accessed on 17 Dec. 2019]



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