Lord Krishna, The Eighth Avtar of Vishnu was born in the Duapar Yug which came just before Kal Yug (the yug in which we find ourselves today). His birthday falls on the Ashtami of Krishna Paksh or the 8th day of the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadon (eight days after Raksha Bandhan), some time in July or August, according to the English calendar. This is during the rainy season and is known as Janam Ashtami.
This festival is celebrated on two days, once on the actual day of his birth in prison at Mathura, and then on the very next day on his being discovered in the house of Nand and Yashoda at Gokul.
According to Hindu mythology, Naradmuni, had told Kans, the cruel king of Mathura and maternal uncle of Krishna, that he would be killed by the eighth child of his favourite cousin (sister) Deviki, who had just got married to Vasudev. Kans vowed to kill the eighth child as soon as it was born, but Narad wanted the godchild to come soon. It is said that nursing mother does not conceive, and if Deviki nursed each child for a number of months, the eighth one would take long to come. Narad took a lotus with eight petals and began counting from one of the petals, one by one to the last, and then counted from the next petal and ended at the one that he had taken as number one previously, thereby telling Kans that in certain situations, one does not know which one is the first and which one is the last. Consequently, Kans was full of anger and decided to kill all the children born to Deviki. He locked up Vasudev and Deviki in the palace prison.
So it came about the Deviki gave birth to a child every year, and Kans came to the prison and killed each one. This happened seven times, but when the eighth was born, a miracle happened. All the guards went to sleep, the doors of the prison flew open, and the shackles of Vasudev and Deviki burst open. The child was a beautiful boy beyond compare, and very dark in complexion. There was a voice from the sky (akashvani): 'Take this child O Vasudev, to your friend's house at Gokul - Nand and Yashoda. They have had a little girl just born to them, bring her here in place of this little boy, they will not know about the exchange. Go now, or else Kans will destroy this one, born to get rid of evil from this world'.
Gokul, where Nand and Yashoda lived, was across the river Yamuna, which flowed near the city of Mathura. Vasudev Found a chhaaji (reed contraption by which all foreign matter is removed from any lentil, rice, wheat, etc) in which he put little Krishna and took him to the banks of the great river Yamuna. It being the rainy season, the river was in full spate, and it was still raining. On stepping into the river, poor Vasudev tried to save the baby from the rising river by holding him higher and higher. He was getting very frightened and anxious, but then he remembered the akashvani, which is the voice of angels, and he was reassured. Little Krishna knew of the dilemma facing his father, and quietly put one foot out and touched the water, and behold, the water after touching the foot of the Lord, started to subside and soon the river split up making a dry path for Vasudev to walk upon.
At Gokul, Vasudev entered the house of his friend Nand, who was asleep and so was his wife Yashoda, and so were all the attendants. He saw a sweet baby near Yashoda and quickly exchanged the babies and carried away the little girl. Back at Mathura, he placed her beside his wife. Soon the shackles were back in place, the doors shut and the guards work up. The attendants on seeing the baby, rushed up to their master Kans, to give him the news. Kans came in a great hurry, because it was the eighth child. He picked up the baby and threw it against the wall, but the little girl flew up into the sky, and a voice was heard: 'O Kans, your destroyer has already been born, and is elsewhere', and, a long with laughter, the child suddenly turned into lightning and vanished. This little girl has come to be worshipped as Deviji ever since, taking various names like Durga, Tara, Ishani, and Mandakini.
Janam Ashtami is celebrated with great pomp and show in temples and homes. Krishna is the one who has given us the life-enduring message of the great Bhagavad Gita.
It is great fun planing and executing the decoration, as the whole family is occupied for the entire day. Little children get very much involved in cutting the grass, bringing the mud, gravel, leaves and plants, and watch, bright-eyed, as elders dress up the dolls with zari, gota and other shining material.
It is best to decorate the crib in a room where it can be displayed for a few days, as people can admire the effort and the beauty.
Most families keep a fast on this day, but one meal is allowed. This is known as phalar, and consists of fruit, methai, curd, kuttu singhare-ki-puri, pakori or any root vegetable. This phalar is taken in the afternoon (around 2-3 p.m.). Tea and coffee are not forbidden, and can be taken at any time of the day.
In the afternoon the prasad is prepared for distribution in the evening. This prasad consists of the same eatables that a new mother used to be given after childbirth, and is still give in traditional homes. This is known as paggi-hui-meva. Fruits like banana, guava and apple, cut in pieces or slices, can be added to the prasad. Of course, kasaar and charnamrit are a must. A piece of fruit or only kasaar can also be given as prasad, if too much workload is not desired. It is not essential to distribute prasad, even if a crib has been decorated and bhajan singing has been arranged.
Krishna is the main deity of the day and his idol or picture is placed in the centre, and should be garlanded. Teeka should be applied on all pictures or idols except perhaps on Lord Krishna on whom it could be applied at midnight, welcoming him at the exact time of his birth, but only if possible. A lamp (jyot) should be lit in front of the gods as soon as it starts getting dark. Another table for keeping the prasad is placed in front of the main chowki. There should be place also for a small thaali, containing the roli, aipun, water, rice and flowers, a small bell and the arti. These items are to be used at the time of birth and should be kept handy as the birth of Krishna is welcome at midnight by the gentleman or the lady of the house by applying the teeka and then doing pujan by sprinkling of water first and then aipun and roli and, lastly, showering some rice.
In the evening, the family members gather together, and sit down in the room, where all the decoration has been done, and sing bhajans in praise of the good Lord Krishna. Children are greatly encouraged to bring their talent to the fore. Musical instruments like harmonium, talent to the fore. Musical instruments like harmonium, tabla, khartal and cymbals are brought out to accompany the bhajans. People who drop in also take part in the singing with gaiety. Since Krishna was born at the stroke of midnight the singing should commence with a view of ending it at midnight. 'Om Jai Jagdish Hare….' Is sung on this night as arti. Everyone should stand up for the arti, after which flowers are showered on the main idol or picture of Lord Krishna. Prasad and charnamrit are then distributed to all present. The prasad can be easily distributed on pieces of paper or in thonas available in the market. Charnamrit can be served in cups or in matkenas.