Krishna is the most significant avatar (reincarnation) of Lord Vishnu, one of the trinity of the Hindu pantheon - the other two being Brahma and Shiva. He was born to Vasudev and Devaki, who had been imprisoned by Devaki's brother, the evil King Kansa. This was because seers had predicted that the Devaki's child would slay Kansa. Krishna was Devaki's eighth-born, all the others having been killed by Kansa the day they were born. However, miraculously Vasudev managed to save this son of his and on the day of his birth somehow transported him to his friend Nandlal's house in a village in Vrindavan. Here Krishna grew up amongst the cowherds and was looked after by Nand and his wife Yashoda as their own.
As a child Krishna was the naughtiest and most mischievous kid in the whole village. His childhood and teenage years were spent amongst the cowherds and village belles, also called gopis, for whom Krishna was the supreme mate. Their love for him bordered on worship and they all took him to be their eternal partner. When Krishna came of age, he killed his uncle King Kansa and installed his grandfather Ugarasen on the throne and became a prince himself, who was known to be a just ruler. He was well aware of the intrigues royal life thrusts upon one and made full use of the double-speak of diplomacy and politics. On the war field, Krishna was the one who inspired the Pandav prince Arjun, his cousin, to fight against his other cousins the Kauravas for what was right. These inspirational words are enshrined in the Holy Gita and are considered to be one of the world's most profound philosophies.
So popular is the figure of Krishna in India that his day of birth is celebrated as a birthday of one's own family members with reverence and love in equal measure. It rivals Christmas in its magnitude and is one of the most auspicious Hindu festivals.
Krishna was born on a rainy night at the stroke of 12 and his birthday is celebrated all across India as well as amongst Hindus overseas as Janamashtami or Gokulashtami. Janam means birth and ashtami is the eight day in the Hindu calendar. He was born on the eight day in the Hindu month of Shravan (which falls in July-August according to the Christian calendar).
In different parts of India, this festival is associated with various nuances. In the northern part of the country as well as in Bengal, in the east, people install miniature idols of baby Krishna in the cradle and everyone swings the cradle singing bhajans (hymns) to Krishna as they do so. Some people also set up jhankis (tableaux) of a miniature village made of clay to show Nandgaon, the village where he grew up, something quite similar to what is done during Christmas.
Many people observe a day long fast on this day, which they break at midnight. Also, all across the nation people visit temples devoted to Krishna, which are especially lit and decorated on this day. The temples are abuzz with activity throughout the day and people are specially called for to sing devotional songs to mark the occasion. And just like the home tableaux, cradles with small idols of Krishna are also established in the temples, where everyone present take their turns to rock the crib.
At exactly midnight, a special aarti is conducted (an aarti is a hymn sung to the Gods to ask for blessings. The process involves lighting a lamp and chanting the aarti while holding the lamp) and temple bells are rung to announce the birth of the Lord.
In Mathura, the city of his birth and Vrindavan, where he grew up, (both these towns are in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh) several plays are staged on this day where incidents from Krishna's life are enacted amongst a gathering of people. These two cities become a major pilgrimage centre too during this festive season, where a huge number of people head to participate in the festivities. Celebratory programmes including the Rasleela, a form of dance, are organised on this day where young boys and girls gather to dance to the glory of the Lord.
Govinda Aala Re!
In the western part of India, the day is also marked by the breaking of handis (pots) containing butter and curd, which are hung at great heights suspended with ropes between buildings of a locality or across the city square. In fact, in most parts of Maharashtra, including its capital city of Mumbai, handi-breaking competitions takes place between people from various localities. Young boys organise themselves in a pyramidal structure, amidst chants of Aala Re Aala, Govinda Aala (rejoice, for Govinda is coming!) and the most nimble of feet climbs this human pyramid and breaks the suspended handi. The genesis of this practice perhaps traces its roots to Krishna (or Govinda as he is also known) himself, who was so fond of butter that he would steal the butter out of the pot, no matter where his mother would hide it.