Posted in Culture, Festivals

A story of two Indian festivals

One story, two regions
Today is Rakshabandhan, or Rakhi, a festival that celebrates the special bond between brothers and sisters. It is celebrated all over India but is a bigger festival in the North. Did you know of a story that connects it with the festival of Onam that is celebrated in South India?

This 7th-8th century carving from Mamallapuram tells a story that connects two different festivals, celebrated in two different times, and in two different parts of the country.

Onam
Many, many eons ago, there lived a demon king called Mahabali. This wise and powerful king was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and he was as popular in the heavens as he was on earth. But Indra, the King of Heaven, was unhappy with Mahabali’s rising power and started feeling insecure about his own position. He complained to Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu had to find a way to settle this matter.

It was well known that Mahabali was a very generous king who rarely refused to grant a request. One day, a little man named Vamana came to meet him. He didn’t want much and asked for only as much land as three paces of his feet would cover. It was a strange request, but Mahabali agreed. Miraculously, Vamana grew taller and taller. With one step, he covered the Earth, with the second he covered the sky. He now asked Mahabali where he should place the third step. Mahabali understood that Vamana was none other than Lord Vishnu. So he knelt and offered his own head. Vishnu put his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushed him down to the Netherworld, which now became Mahabali’s Kingdom.

But Mahabali had always been kind and just. So, Vishnu left him with two new boons. He promised that Mahabali would always have his protection. And he also promised that once every year Mahabali would return to Earth and spend time with his beloved subjects. Even today, the state of Kerala celebrates this annual return of Mahabali as the festival of Onam.

Rakhi
Mahabali is responsible for one more Indian festival. Story goes that one day a woman came to meet Mahabali at his palace in the netherworld. She had a grievance. Her husband was always at work and she felt lonely and scared. Mahabali invited her to live in the security of his palace. She moved in and all was well. Mahabali looked upon her as his sister. But very soon, she came up with another grievance. She said she missed her husband and wanted him back. Mahabali promised to make that happen. But who was her husband? The palace watchman. He was always on sentry duty and had no time for her. And that’s when Mahabali remembered Vishnu’s promise of eternal protection. That watchman HAD to be Lord Vishnu himself, quietly keeping watch over him. Mahabali was delighted. This meant that his newfound sister was none other than Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, and Vishnu’s wife. Between them they had ensured that his kingdom stayed safe and prosperous.

Just as he had promised, Mahabali sent Vishnu back with Lakshmi. On her way out, Lakshmi tore a strip of cloth from her shawl and tied it around Mahabali’s wrist. She promised that the strip would be his protection, and a symbol of her sisterly affection. Mahabali gave her many gifts and sent her on her way.

Rakhi
Colourful threads on sale in the market, just before Rakhi

Even to this day, North India celebrates the festival of Raksha Bandhan, where sisters still tie a length of string around their brother’s wrists as a mark of affection. And the brothers still reciprocate with gifts. Not only the Hindus, but also the Sikhs and Jains celebrate this tradition. This is one of the many stories behind the very charming festival of Rakshabandhan.

Can you identify one more popular story hidden in the panel above? Hint: Southern Cross.

Photo Credits:
1. Bas-relief at the Mamallapuram caves: Courtesy: Neetesh Photography
2. Rakhi threads: Photo by Shriyash Jichkar, courtesy Wikepedia

 

Posted in Culture, Festivals

Akshaya Tritiya

Today marks Akshaya Tritiya, the day when Chennai buys lots of gold, apparently.

But we got to wondering what more this festive occasion could actually signify. We delved into research and came up with quite a few interesting if amusing interpretations of the day.

Gastronomically, Yuddhishtr was presented with the Akshaya Patra ensuring that the Pandavas, especially Bhima who ate everything in sight, would never run out of food.

Theologically, ‘Akshaya’, meaning ‘Eternal’ or ‘Imperishable’ is said to have been the first word God uttered when he set about creating the Big Bang.

Mythologically, we found, today was the day Lord Ganesha and Veda Vyas started writing the Mahabharatha. It also marks the birthday of Lord Parasurama, Lord Vishnu’s sixth incarnation.

Sentimentally, it was when Sudama received material wealth beyond his wildest dreams from his best friend, Lord Krishna.

Economically, today is the day you can bribe Goddess Lakshmi onto your side; buy some gold, breeze through life undefeated with Her next to you. She’s now a gleeful resident of your house, after all, what with all the gold chains and bangles and bracelets and earrings we’ve weighed Her down with.

However, going by analyst talk this year, it seems She’s likely lost out on 12% investment from last year. Shame.

Chronologically, it marks the beginning of the Satya Yuga, the Golden Age.

Astrologically, Akshaya Tritiya marks the third day of the month of Vaishakha, when the sun and moon are in their brightest states of the year. It is a day of prosperity and wealth.

Meteorologically, it is the start of the infamous Madras summer – a time when humidity drapes its sticky self over the city, jigarthanda sellers crop up all over, previously non-existent sweat glands (if that’s possible in Chennai) make merry, and the sun comes out, all guns blazing.

Literally, it is when T.Nagar is packed to the gills, pickpockets merrily trotting alongside harried women, salespeople shouting themselves hoarse to sell that one piece more than their counterparts, and parking is the devil’s nightmare.

And realistically, this is the day when men and women part with their hard-earned money to buy jewellery they’ll later find they don’t really want.

Posted in Festivals, Food, Traditions

Sundal and suchlike

We’ve just seen the end of one festival. Kolu padis are being dismantled, dolls are getting packed away, fancy lights disconnected and friends and relatives will again be relegated to the background of busy daily life. The city is limping back to reality after a surfeit of sundal and holidays. Good food, renewed ties among the family and friends, and a time to thank a higher power – such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But ever asked yourself, why Navaratri and why a kolu?

Some believe that this festival commemorates the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura had somehow managed to get himself a boon; that he would be killed by no one. Not man, not God, not demon. And with that, he marched straight into heaven and threatened the Gods. The canny Gods did some quick thinking and found a loophole. The boon didn’t say any thing about not being killed by a woman!

So they created Goddess Durga, gave her their most powerful weapons and sent her off to kill the ruthless Demon. A terrible combat broke out and continued for nine long days. Finally, on the tenth day, Durga pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and cut off his head with her sword.

And today, this is celebrated all over the country in one way or another. Here in South India, this battle is recalled every year during the Navaratri. The Goddess comes down to fight and the Gods too come to Earth to cheer her on. And almost every house sets up an elaborate kolu, arranging colourful idols of Gods on each step, making sure they get a nice ringside seat in the battle.

Kolus have come a long way. They still tell stories, but not just of Gods and goddesses. They unabashedly show off the family’s travels, hint at their political affiliations, and end up being a commentary on everything from their financial status to their child’s latest class project. So sitting quietly in the midst of all the Gods, you may very well spot Thomas the train or the Incredible Hulk.

You will invariably spot a pair of crudely finished but beautifully decked up wooden dolls in a corner of the kolu. They are called the Marapachis. These were said to be gifts given by a girl’s father to his daughter, who, at the time of her marriage would typically have been a child herself. Today, many households take pride in the Marapachi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with Navaratri? Most customs begin with a very simple story. And one such story swears that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas or the nine planets, each of whom has a taste for a particular variety of grain. And it is these grains that were used in preparing the offering. One could prepare any dish using the grains -vada, payasam, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain elaborate cooking. Perhaps that’s how the humble sundal came to stay? Easy to make, easy on the pocket and easy to pack as a give away?

Come Ayudha Pooja, and it is difficult to miss the sandal paste adorning office equipment and machinery. Cars, autos and trucks are ‘dressed’ in their finest and do the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it started this way. One story says that the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga fervently prayed to the weapons which came in so handy in her battle against the demon. In today’s context, weapons have given way to the tools that help people in their daily lives. So everything, from the dosa grinder to the gaming console gets smeared with a dollop of sandal paste.

But like every other Indian festival, this one too means different things to people living in different parts of the country. In the North, Dusshera is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain in this story and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as wise, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, people celebrate the Goddess’ victory over Mahishasura. Many look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When it is time for her to go back, on the day of the visarjan, everyone turns out to bid farewell to her, and there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place. On the other hand, in Gujarat, they dance their way through the Navratri. It’s the time when you can spot men and women wearing their finest and boogying away to pulsating music.

Different names, different styles, different stories, even different Gods! Only the holidays coincide. Whichever story you subscribe to, and however you celebrate it, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. So …Viva Navaratri!

Posted in Festivals

Tales of Diwali and Deepavali

The last of the crackers have been burst. The haze is beginning to lift, and the noise levels are considerably lower compared to the previous week. And as you pack those decorative lights and the fancy ‘diyas’ away for re-use next year, you might just wonder why these elements have come to be so closely associated with this festival. Why do you burst crackers during Diwali at all?

Diwali, like many other Indian festivals, also has a pan-India following. But Diwali to some and Deepawali to others, the festival is celebrated for very different reasons in different parts of the country, and on different dates too.

In Northern India, it is believed that it was on this new moon day of the Kartika month, that Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. The citizens of Ayodhya decorated the entire city with the earthen lamps and illuminated it like never before. This symbolic practice continues in houses all over India. And noisy firecrackers are just the best way of letting the world know that you are celebrating.

One view says that since Lord Ram traveled from South India to his kingdom in the North, the festival is celebrated a day earlier in the South.

Other legends ascribe an entirely different reason for the celebration of the festival in the south. Celebrated as ‘Naraka Chaturdasi’ one day before the Diwali in the North, the festival commemorates the killing of the demon Narakasura, by Sathyabhama, Lord krishna’s wife. So while the Diwali celebrations for North Indians essentially start in the evening, people of Tamil Nadu celebrate the festival early in the morning. Small lamps are lit all around the house and after a special puja for Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu, children burst firecrackers, celebrating the defeat of the demon.

But why the early hour, you might ask. Some believe that the demon was killed in the morning, while others believe it falls in line with the practice of that period of the day before sunrise (called the Brahma Muhurtham) as being considered the most auspicious.

The concept of Good and bad, is always relative and contextual, especially so when it comes to myths and legends. As you move from one end of the country to another, the roles of the hero, villain, and the anti-hero in these legends often get seen in different lights.

Take the interesting Diwali legend of King Bali.Though known to be an extremely just and righteous ruler, he was of a demonic lineage and therefore, had to be slayed. Lord Vishnu did the deed in his incarnation as the dwarf, ‘Vamana’, the day after Diwali, now celebrated as ‘Balipadyami’

However, Bali was a popular king, and according to legend, he visits his beloved people at least once a year, during the Onam festival. People in his kingdom of Kerala celebrate this festival by decorating their homes to welcome him. So while one part of the country celebrates the slaying of the demon Mahabali during this period, another celebrates his return.

Gambling is another custom that most North Indian homes enthusiastically take part in, during Diwali. It is believed that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Lord Shiva on this day and it is hence believed that whosoever gambles on Diwali night would prosper throughout the year. So invite your friends home, and engage in some flush and rummy, and you could give it some legitimacy by claiming to be partaking in Diwali rituals!

Many North Indian business communities start their financial year on the day after Diwali. It is believed that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth emerged from the ocean of milk on this day and merchants symbolically open new account books on Diwali. Tamil New year falls on a different day that is in no way linked to Diwali. Solar, Lunar, Luni-solar calendars – all have a following in different parts of India, making the same day auspicious or extremely inauspicious depending on which state you are in. But then that is another story…

Diwali may actually be many different festivals being celebrated under the same banner. Contradicting stories, different customs and different days –  the strength of our society’s fabric must surely have something to do with our comfort levels with such diversity. As long as they all celebrate the victory of good over evil, and bring in some festive cheer, each to his own, and we seem happy to leave it at that…

Posted in Festivals

Sundal and sundry matters

Photo: Jayanth Visweswaran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jay_boi/)
Photo: Jayanth Visweswaran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jay_boi/)

Cool mornings, balmy evenings and the fragrance of parijaatham in the air – This last month was a festive time in namma Chennai. The dolls were out, golu padis (steps)were fixed up, silk sarees were aired out and recipe books consulted for sundal. The city wore an air of expectancy and there was a feel of unrestrained joy- such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But have you ever asked yourself, why a golu?  Why all this for this particular festival?

Well, every family seems to have their own reasons for keeping a golu. Many say it is to celebrate the fight of the Goddess Durga against the demon Mahishasura. But again, the question arises, why keep a golu? Apparently, this fight was very important because Mahishasura was a great warrior and there was a feeling that Goddess Durga may have met her match. So the Gods united to give the goddess their most potent weapons and she is said to have carried them with her to battle. All of them came down to Earth to witness this great battle. This is symbolically represented by the people of Tamil Nadu by keeping a golu wherein all Gods are present. Again, this agrees with the way a golu is organised, with the gods on the on the topmost padi (step), followed by the ten avatars of Vishnu, the spiritual heads, then the temporal heads and finally common people.

Have you paid attention to the wooden, distinctly ugly Marapacchi dolls in a corner? Earlier made of Red Sanders, these wooden dolls come from Tirupati, and always in a pair. It was a gift given by a girl’s father to their daughter, who, at the time of marriage would have been a child herself. Perhaps in those days, when there were no cameras to click the occasion, a doll dressed in all finery would have been a good memory of the most important day in the bride’s life. Further, the wood was said to have medical properties, and was ground into a paste and used. Today, it stands as a keepsake and many households take pride in the Marapacchi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with this period of the year? Most customs stem from a simple story and grow over the years into some pretty heavy stuff. One theory postulates that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas ( celestial star spirits), who are associated with nine varieties of grains. These grains were used in preparing the offering, and one could prepare any dish using the grains –vadas, kheer, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain exotic food and so the humble sundal came to stay. Easy to make, easy on the pocket, fairly light on the stomach and easy to pack as a giveaway – all of these could have contributed to ensure that the humble sundal came to stay.

The Ayudha Pooja, now means sandal paste in new designs adorning all appliances and cars, autos and trucks “dressed” in their best and making the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it had started this way. One legend says that it was the time when the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga prayed to the weapons she had gotten from the Gods after she had killed the demon, and so the practice began.

Navratri is celebrated very differently across India and for different reasons too. For a Tamilian, more than anything else, it symbolizes the victory of good over evil or new beginnings on Saraswati Pooja day, including education and fine arts. In the north India, Dussehra is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain of this version and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in places like the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as learned, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, during Dussehra, people celebrate the Goddess killing Mahishasura. Many also look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When she leaves to go back to her husband, Shiva’s home, the whole city turns out to bid farewell and after her departure, there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place.

Photo: Hamsini Hariharan
Photo: Hamsini Hariharan

Most of these stories do converge, but the emphasis on particular stories varies across the country. Different styles, different reasons, whatever, let’s celebrate the differences and celebrate the festival. Viva Navaratri!