Celebrated across India with fun and fervor, Janmashtami popularly known as Gokulashtami and Krishnashtami marks the birth of Lord Krishna, one of India’s most widely respected and popular Hindu Gods.

Considered as the eighth most celebrated avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, Krishna was born to King Vasudeva and Devaki Devi on the eighth day of the dark fortnight in the month of Sravana under the ‘Rohini’ Nakshatram (star). However as the star ‘Rohini’ and Ashtami (8th day of the dark fortnight) may not be on the same day, celebrations can be also be on two different days. This year Janmashtami falls on the 22nd August 2011.

According to Indian mythology Kansa was the demonic king who ruled Mathura after imprisoning his father Ugrasena, an upright and loving king. On the day his sister Princess Devaki married King Vasudeva, it was prophesized that Devaki’s 8th child would kill Kansa, which made him very anxious. A worried Kansa immediately tried to kill his sister but was intervened by Vasudeva, who asked that his wife’s life be spared in return for every child born to them. Though Kansa relented he imprisoned the couple, and killed six sons born to them, leaving the couple distraught.

While the seventh child was transferred by divine powers to the womb of Rohini (Vasudev’s first wife) and grew up as Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother, when Devaki was carrying her eight child Lord Vishnu appeared to them and told them he was coming to save them and the people of Mathura.

Lord Vishnu also instructed Vasudeva to take the child and exchange it with the baby girl that would be born simultaneously. According to mythology on the midnight of ashtami, when Krishna was born, the doors of the prison opened mysteriously, and while the sentinels slept, Vasudeva was able to take the child to Gokula where he exchanged the child for the daughter born to Yasoda and Nanda.

Though there was a heavy downpour that night, Vasudeva was proctected by Basuki – a great snake according to Hindu mythology who protected the baby from the rain and guided Vasudeva to Nadgaon. It was at Nandgaon, Vasudeva handed over Lord Krishna to Nandaraj and brought back the baby girl.

When Kansa heard about the baby, he rushed to the prison to kill the baby, but she transformed into Goddess Yogamaya and told Kansa that his nemesis was already somewhere else.

Angered, Kansa approached the Demoness Putana and requested her to kill all the new born male infants within the land. The demoness smeared poison on her breast and went around nursing infants and killing them, but when she reached the divine infant and attempted to kill him, he kept sucking and sucked the life out of the demoness thereby killing her.

Many other legends are also told of his divine childhood, one such story is that of a fruit vendor. It is said that once Bal Krishna asked a woman for some fruits in exchange for a handful of grains, but on reaching home the lady was stunned to see the grains had changed into precious gems and stones. Another story tells of how once Yasoda scolded Krishna when he playfully put some mud into his mouth; on asking him to open his mouth Yasoda saw an image of the entire universe.. the sun.. moon.. stars.. planets.. etc.. all displayed in front of her.

There are also stories that tell of how as a child though he encountered many dangers, but he was always triumphant and an unchallenged hero. Stories of his youth tell of how as a mischievous child he would steal butter and curds from earthen pots beyond his reach. Janmastami the celebration of his birth, is marked by great merry making and enjoyment. Devotional songs are sung till the midnight of ashtami with scrumptious delicacies prepared especially for the festival.

In many parts of India celebrations carry on for two days, with merrymaking reaching its zenith at midnight the time the lord was born. Conch shells are blown and bhajans are sung. Cultural programs and plays enacting the birth of Krishna and other incidents from his life time are also held across the country by devotees who dress traditionally, and the Raslila or dance is done with great fervor and enthusiasm with special pujas also organized.

In places like Mathura, Vrindhavan, Dwarka and Gokul that are closely associated with Lord Krishna, temples dedicated to Krishna are visited and ceremonies take place in the holy temples at midnight. After bathing an idol of the infant Krishna it is normally placed in a silver cradle.

Janmashtami is a two-day celebration in many parts of India. The first two days are celebrated colorfully and the merrymaking reaches its zenith at midnight of the first day, when Lord Krishna was born.  The conch shell is blown and the idols of Lord Krishna are offered ‘chappan bhog’ (fifty six dishes) though devotees fast till midnight.

On the second day of the festival, a popular ritual called ‘Dahi Handi’ is organized. Popular in Maharashtra, and Northern India, here a pot containing curds or butter or milk is broken by the youth. In Maharashtra this festival is extremely popular, with the hundi being hung high up and human pyramids being organized by youth to try and reach the pot with spectators cheering and throwing water in an attempt to stop them.

Various sweets are made and distributed; however in most cases milk and curds are the key ingredients of dishes prepared on this day. In Tamil Nadu, Murukku and Vella Seedai are specialties prepared, while in Kerala, Paal Payasam and Neyyappam is the dish of the day and other places like Mathura, Pedaa is served, sweets like Gulabjamun, Shrikhand  and Singhade Ki Poori are also offered.

From many romantic tales associated with Radha to being lovingly described as a child god and ‘makhan chor’ Krishna is unlike any other God in the Hindu Pantheon and also one of the most loved and respected Gods, making his birthday one of the most important religious festivals celebrated not just across the country but the world.