Although Janmashtami is a Hindu religious holiday, it is only widely celebrated here in the state of Maharashtra. Furthermore, there are only 2 major cities in Maharashtra that go all out for the festival celebrating Lord Krishna’s birthday, and I’m lucky enough to be in one of them: Mumbai! Here, the day is celebrated with dahi handis. A handi is a clay pot and dahi means yogurt; so dahi handis are traditionally clay pots filled with yogurt. These handis are tied to a rope and hung high in the air all over the city. Groups of young boys travel throughout the city on Janmashtami looking for these handis, trying to break as many as possible.
But it is the way they break the handis that makes this holiday so fun to watch. The handis are hung around 30-40 feet above the ground and the boys must form a human pyramid to reach the handi. This usually means forming a pyramid with anywhere from 6-8 levels!! Once the pyramid is complete, the person at the top of the pyramid breaks the handi by smashing it (usually with a coconut because it symbolizes truth and purity), and the contents spill over the entire group. This shower is considered auspicious because it symbolizes achievement through unity.
So what exactly is in these handis? Buttermilk. The reason? As a child, Krishna was very mischievous and would steal butter from handis throughout his village. The butter was churned from cream, so once Krishna stole the butter, all that was left was buttermilk. So even today, in honor of Krisha, the handis are filled with buttermilk.
Over time, political parties and wealthy communities have become involved with the celebration and offer prize money to the groups that successfully break the handis (thus fueling competition throughout the city). The group that I watched today got Rs. 10,001 for breaking theirs…which converts to $222…not too shabby!! Especially considering that these boys only do it for the fun of it in the first place.
My mom and I were getting so nervous watching it all! As you can see in the photos, the boys stand straight up and hold each other only on their shoulders. One slip and it’s bad news bears! But it was such an experience and I’m so glad I got to see it.