Raksha Bandhan (Lit. "Tie of Protection") is celebrated on a full moon day in the month of Shravan (which falls in July-Aug). Shravan is a Hindu lunar calendar month considered to be extremely holy, and as such a lot of fasts and rituals are undertaken and vegetarianism is enforced.
This festive occasion is also known as Rakhi Pournima ('Pournima' means full moon day). This festival is celebrated all over the country with different names such as Rakhi, Kajari Poornima, Kajari Navami, Nariyal Poornima, Jandhyala Poornima, Sravana Poornima and Avani Avittam. This festival is also known as "Saloono" Persian, for New Year.
The highlight of this festival is the Rakhi a silken thread - that sisters tie around the wrists of their brothers. Those who do not have elder brothers tie this piece of sacred thread to their younger brothers. Those who do not have any brother tie it to friends or even strangers who then becomes a brother for life! In a broader sense, the tying of Rakhi signifies the duty of the strong to protect the weak. Rakhis are designed out of Zari, silk, plastic, semi precious stones or embroidered cloth and sequins. Globalisation has taken near and dear ones across the seas; yet traditions have not died Rakhis get mailed well in advance for the auspicious occasion to remind the brother of his sister!
This festival is very significant in India where the society considers interpersonal relations sacrosanct.
The Raksha Bandhan festival is also called Nariyal Poornima ("Coconuts on a full moon"). As the festival falls on a Pournima (full moon day (night)) the tide is usually at an ebb and calm in the late afternoon and evening. Fishermen, who rely on the seas for their sustenance, thank the seas by offering coconuts to the sea gods. Nairyal Pournima is celebrated with zest and fervour on the western shores of India – especially Mumbai.
When Daitya Raja, a Rakshasa (demon) gained advantage over Indra, the King of Heavens, in a fierce battle between them. Indra's wife, Sachi, on advice of sage Brihaspati, sought help from Vishnu. Vishnu gave her a "Raksha Bandhan" and advised her to tie it around the wrist of Indra, on that full moon day; this brought success to Indra who subsequently won the war and riches that he had lost to the demons.
This story was cited by Krishna when Dharmaraj wanted to know how to protect this world during the expected oncoming evil in Kaliyug.
People of Northern India celebrate this festival to wish their siblings to be hale, healthy and strong as the Emperor Bali was wished once, as per their belief.
Brahmins change their Yagnopaveeta, also known as Jandhyam, (a sacred thread worn over the shoulder) this day. Hence this day is called Jandhyala Poornima by the Brahmins. The Brahmin boys start their lessons in Veda in "Sravana Nakshatram" on Rakhi day and conclude the same after four and a half months as ordained by Manu. It is believed that by doing so they receive the blessings of Lord Vinayaka for betterment in their Vedic studies.
Brahmins also perform a ritual called "Kamo Karshit" which grants them immunity against the results of inadvertent mistakes committed while reciting the Vedas. After this ritual they go to a lake or river to take a ritual bath where they discard the old and wear a new Jandhyam.
An exhaustive account of Jandhyala Poornima is available in "Panditaradhya Charitra" the famous work of the Telugu Poet Palkuriki Somanathudu.
There is no specific reference in history to exactly pinpoint the genesis of Raksha Bandhan.
There is a reference of Raksha Bandhan from the history of Alexander the Great. During his invasion in India, his wife is known to have tied a Rakhi to King Porus asking him to spare her husband in the war. Porus was pleased and assured that her husband’s life would be spared. Later, even when Porus had the opportunity to sever Alexander's head, he left Alexander unharmed as per his word given to Alexander’s wife. This serves as an example to the sanctity attached to Rakhi.
This festival commands respect from Hindus as well as Muslims. There is a story from history to prove this. At the time when Humayun was ruling from Delhi, Mewar was ruled by queen Karunavathi. The king of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, once invaded Mewar with a huge army. The queen's army was unable to withstand the onslaught. Expecting an imminent defeat, queen Karunavathi sent a Rakhi to emperor Humayun seeking his help. Humayun cut short an attack on Bengal and instead set out for Mewar to help the queen. However by the time Humayun reached Mewar, the queen was defeated – she had killed herself to avoid captivity. Humayun avenged for her defeat by waging a war against Bahadur Shah and killed him in the battle. Humayun resurrected the Mewar Crown to the descendants of the Queen. This incident in history presents a shining example to the excellent relations that existed in our country between Hindus and Muslims.
In Uttar Pradesh, mothers whose first child is a son, follow a tradition in which they place wheat or barley grain in a bowl of water nine days before this festive day. These grains are then placed near the idol of "Bhagavathi Devi" in their house and prayers are offered these nine days during which the grains sprout. This ritual concludes on the day of Raksha Bandhan.
In Punjab, women recite their traditional prayers to God for the well being of their brothers.
As with all festivals, this Raksha Bandhan too involves a traditional bath. Females place a Rakhee, one for each brother being honoured, on sweet-meats in a plate. A traditional aarti (a ritual involving lighting of camphor balls) devoted to their brothers and place a "Tilak" on the brothers’ foreheads. After this ritual, the sisters tie the Rakhis to their brothers' wrists and offer them sweets, and pray for the well being and prosperity of their brothers.
It is customary on the part of brothers to gift some money or valuables to their sisters. On that day brothers take lunch at their sister's house.