Today is Saraswati puja – the feast day of the Hindu goddess Saraswati who is believed to have been born on this day – and Vasant Panchami, the arrival of spring. Saraswati is worshipped as the goddess of knowledge, learning and the arts. This is an important day for schools, musicians, dancers and artists.
This morning my dance teacher invited her students to a puja (a religious ceremony with prayers and other rituals) in her home. We decorated the Saraswati idol with flowers and gathered together all the articles needed for the puja: lamps, incense, sandalwood paste, flowers, water, milk, ghee, honey, yoghurt, tulsi (basil) as well as offerings for the goddess: fruits and vegetables, sweets, kheer. My teacher also included her ghungroos (the ankle bells worn by dancers), her son’s schoolbooks and pens, and pamphlets of the dance school so that these could be blessed by the goddess and bring good fortune and success.
The priest started the puja by blowing a conch shell. He then chanted prayers in Sanskrit, sometimes asking us to repeat after him, and rang a small brass bell. He poured a mixture of water and yoghurt in our right hands which we drank and then placed on our heads. He placed a dot of sandalwood paste on our foreheads and tied a red and orange string around our left wrists. Then arati was performed before the idol: a brass plate filled with camphor was lit and then moved in a circle in front of the goddess. We our hands over the flame and then over our heads to receive the goddess’s blessing. When the puja was over, we ate some of the prasad (the offerings for the goddess which have been blessed) and some vegetarian food.
This evening we won’t have dance class as usual but will perform a few dances instead, dressed in yellow which symbolizes the onset of spring. In some Indian states like West Bengal and Orissa, it's an official holiday and schools are closed as students are not supposed to read or write today. It is also considered to be an auspicious day to start learning something new.