As an author, a freelance writer and a columnist, I present my paper based on my book, ‘Festival Stories Through The Year.’
When my editor at HarperCollins pitched this idea to me three years back, I was both nervous and excited by the idea. To chronicle something that is both so extensive, as well as so deeply entrenched in our lives, wouldn’t be easy.
My editor and I had decided two things, one, that we would verify all the details before including them in my book, and two, we would not hurt the sentiments of any community by misrepresenting any facts, as festivals are tied to people’s emotions and feelings, to an aspect of their culture, that is so precious to them.
Before I started writing this book, my knowledge of festivals was very limited, restricted as it was to only the bigger and better-known festivals. I had no clue whatsoever as to the origin of many of the festivals or the stories behind them.
In fact, I came across so many festivals that I had to choose which ones I wanted to portray in the book. Other than the festivals that are celebrated pan-India, like Holi, Diwali, Janmashtami, Hanuman Jayanthi, Ganesh Chaturthi, many people all over India are unfamiliar with the regional festivals, other than the names.
I decided to highlight some of these festivals in my book.
I created two characters: Nikhil and Natasha, ten-year-old twins, through whose eyes the readers see the glorious colours of our festivals, of our culture. The twins chronicle all the festivals details in their blog and diary.
The more I researched, the more I realized that there is a story behind the origin of each festival (in some cases there was more than one story behind a particular festival) and the rituals behind it.
Stories play an important part in our culture and tradition, in propagating our heritage, in shaping our beliefs and in strengthening our faith.
The stories of the festivals, the stories behind their birth/origin have been passed down from one generation to the next, through the holy texts, through poems narrated by the travelling bards, through the dance dramas, through plays and story-telling sessions. Even grandmothers have done their bit in passing stories to their grandchildren.
Let me start with a question. What actually is a festival?
A festival is the birth-day of our tradition, culture and heritage. A birthday entire communities celebrate every year, to honour that tradition and pay their respects to that aspect of our culture.
Most of these festivals have been celebrated since ancient times. I noticed that the basic rituals behind each festival remain the same and are common across India. But with the passage of time, smaller rituals, (a part of people’s personal beliefs and faith) have slipped into the fabric of the larger ritual. These smaller rituals are very intrinsic to that particular branch of the family from where they originated.
Rituals Unique to Families
While researching for the festival of Pongal, the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu, as a part of my research, I called up a friend who celebrated Pongal. She said that in her family, it was customary to see the sun, early in the morning, through one’s clasped hands. She also said that her family followed the tradition of making a rangoli, resembling the sun.
I couldn’t find a mention of both these rituals anywhere. The other people I asked hadn’t even heard of these rituals.
Some family elder, a long time back, must have created these rituals, which have been passed down, from one generation to the next and have now become a part of that family’s Pongal tradition.
Unknown Family Ritual
My family follows the tradition of distributing sherbet to the less fortunate on Akshaya Tritiya day. I’ve seen this ritual since childhood and have been a part of it many times, going out to distribute the sherbet. When I asked my mother the reason for this tradition, she replied that she has seen her mother-in-law (my grandmother) following this tradition from the day she got married into my dad’s family. No one in the family knew the reason we have been following this tradition. For years this ritual remained a mystery.
While researching for my book, I came across the connection. Followers of Jainism consider Akshaya Tritiya as an auspicious day. It is associated with Lord Adinath, also known as Rishabhadeva, the first of the twenty-four Tirthankaras. Lord Adinath ended his year-long fast on Akshaya Tritiya day, by drinking sugarcane juice poured into his cupped palms. Many Jains keep a Varshi-Tap or fast on alternate days for an entire year to commemorate Lord Adinath’s tapasya, finishing their year-long fast by drinking sugar-cane juice. My grandmother had always admired the Jain monks, she must have adopted this custom from them, substituting sugarcane juice with sherbet.
Stories behind Raksha Bandhan
Many people who celebrate a festival aren’t familiar with the stories behind that festival. They know what the festival is, but that’s where their knowledge ends.
Most people are familiar with the rituals of Raksha Bandhan, a festival celebrating the sacred bond between brothers and sisters. But most are unfamiliar with the many stories behind it.
The most popular one dates back to the Mahabharatha. A legend says that once Lord Krishna injured his finger while using the Sudarshan chakra against Shishupal. To stop Krishna’s finger from bleeding, Draupadi tore a piece of her sari and tied it around the Lord’s hand. Lord Krishna promised to repay his debt whenever Draupadi needed his help in the future. This ritual has become the tradition of Raksha Bandhan. The sister ties a thread on her brother’s wrist, the brother offers protection.
There are two more stories as to the origin of Raksha Bandhan. According to one story from the Srimad Bhagvata Purana and the Vishnu Purana, after Lord Vishnu won the three worlds from the Asura king Mahabali and sent him to the netherworld, he decided to reward Mahabali for his devotion, by protecting him. Lord Vishnu then disguised himself as Mahabali’s doorman.
But Lord Vishnu’s wife Goddess Lakshmi wasn’t pleased. She wanted Vishnu to return to Vaikuntha, their abode. So, she tied a rakhi on Mahabali’s wrist and made him her brother. As a brother is supposed to give his sister a gift in return, Mahabali asked Goddess Lakshmi what gift she wanted. She replied that Mahabali should free Vishnu from the promise the Lord had made of staying with him. To honour the sacred brother-sister bond, Mahabali couldn’t refuse the gift, he allowed Lord Vishnu to return to Vaikuntha.
Yet another story about Raksha Bandhan is attributed to Lord Yama, the God of death and his sister the Yamuna River. It is believed that once Yamuna tied a sacred thread on Yama’s wrist. Yama was so pleased with her, that he blessed her with immortality.
Ganesha and Lakshmi
Ganesha is worshipped along with Goddess Lakshmi during Lakshmi Puja, on Diwali day. I asked a few people about it. No one gave me a convincing answer. Everyone assumed that as Lord Ganesha is always worshipped first, before all the other Gods, he is also worshipped during Lakshmi puja.
Like all the other stories, this story too came to light while I was researching for my book. According to one legend, Goddess Lakshmi’s arrogance about her power and wealth troubled her husband Lord Vishnu and he decided to do something about it. He told her that a woman is considered incomplete, if she does not have children. Vishnu’s intention was to bring a mellowness into Lakshmi’s behaviour. Hearing this, Lakshmi appealed to Parvati to allow her to adopt one of her sons. Parvati was worried that Lakshmi may not look after her son, as she is always moving from one place to another. Lakshmi assured her that she would take good care of Parvati’s son.
Worshipping the Sitting Lakshmi
Parvati agreed and allowed her to adopt Ganesha. Lakshmi then declared that whoever prayed to her for wealth, would have to first seek Ganesha’s blessings. As Ganesha is also considered the God of wisdom and Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and prosperity, worshipping both together means, that one should not seek wealth without the wisdom to use it wisely. This ritual is a blessing. Wealth in the wrong hands can be dangerous.
If we look closely, we will see that our rituals have a wealth of meaning behind it, there is a lot of thought and wisdom behind them.
Perhaps this is the reason people prefer to worship the idol or image of the sitting Lakshmi instead of one standing, as she will quickly move away.
Though I live in South India, I was not familiar with the tradition of Vishukanni which is done on Vishu day. Vishu is the festival of Kerala, and is celebrated as the New Year by the Malayali community.
A day before Vishu, people make a Vishukanni (an arrangement) before an idol or image of Lord Krishna. This arrangement consists of a large tray or several trays, some use banana leaves. Each leaf is filled with certain vegetables (a yellow vegetable like the pumpkin), lady finger, papaya, banana, other fruit, coconut, grains, sweets, gold coins, silver coins, notes of different denominations, a uruli (which is a brass vessel) filled with uncooked rice grains and a yellow cucumber.
The meaning of all these food items and other objects is clear. They are symbols of abundance that people seeked for the year. This tradition comes from the belief that the auspicious objects one sees on Vishu morning will continue throughout the year. On Vishu day, the moment people wake up in the morning, the first thing they see is the Vishukanni made by their family.
The Mirror in the Vishukanni
But one thing that really caught my attention was the mention of a metallic mirror placed in the arrangement. Why the mirror I thought?
The reason for this metallic mirror called Valkannadi (a mirror with a tail or a handle) is that when people come to see the Vishukanni, they first look at the idol of Lord Krishna in the centre of the Vishukanni, then they see their reflection in the mirror. When people see their reflection in the mirror after seeing Lord Krishna’s image, it is to remind them that God or divinity exists within us and that we must show love and respect to others, as everyone has the divine within them. The underlying principle of this Vishukanni is so beautiful, not only are people seeking abundance in material objects, they are also seeking the divine qualities which Lord Krishna has.
Vishukannis made by different people display different objects, which the people hold dear. A friend includes a silk sari and jewelry in her Vishukanni, another includes her holy books. As one desires, so one seeks. Again, people’s personal beliefs shape their rituals.
I wanted to explain the tradition of the dahi-handi ritual of Janmashtami to children through my book. Researching on Janmashtami brought that story to light. Bal Gopal as Lord Krishna was fondly called, loved eating butter which he would steal from his own house as well from the house of his neighbours. To safeguard this butter, his mother Yashoda would store the butter in an earthen pot tied to the ceiling, so that it was completely out of reach of the small Krishna.
The smart child that Krishna was, the moment his mother left the house on some work, he would gather his friends (the boys of the neighbourhood) and make a human pyramid. Climbing on their shoulders, the small Krishna could easily reach the pot of butter and with his friends feast on it.
Additions to the Rituals
With the passage of time many of the ancient rituals have gathered additions.
The dahi-handi ritual is enacted on Janmashtami to honour Bal Gopal’s life and lilas. With the passage of time, this ritual attained additions in the form people spraying water on the boys forming the pyramid, to make it difficult for them to reach the pot tied high. The original content of the pot which was butter, attained additions in the form of dahi, honey and money, which is a reward for the boys for their efforts.
Diwali too has some new additions. It is celebrated to welcome the home-coming of Lord Rama, after he defeated Ravana and returned to Ayodhya, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. As it was an amavas, a night of no moon, people lit the thresholds of their houses as well as the road with earthen diyas to light up Lord Rama’s path. The people must surely have made some sounds, something to celebrate the arrival of their prince, after 14 years of exile, which slowly metamorphed into the tradition of lighting diyas and bursting crackers. Light and sound.
The symbolism behind the smaller rituals.
Each and every ritual has a deeper sub-text and a deeper meaning.
The tradition of cleaning one’s house before Diwali or any other festival also symbolizes cleaning one’s mind of negativity, which appears in the form of negative thoughts and feelings.
The tradition of making rangolis outside the main door symbolizes the different experiences we must welcome into our lives and undergo with equanimity.
The different colours of the rangoli represent the different emotions and feelings we must accept and embrace.
The hanging of mango leaves on our main doors is considered auspicious, likewise we must fill our mind which is the main door of our body, with positive thoughts.
The exchanging of sweets is symbolic of the sweetness we must incorporate in our speech, as well as in our relationships.
The lighting of diyas symbolizes our inner awakening, as well as lighting the lamp of compassion in our lives.
Wearing of new clothes symbolizes the change we must accept in our lives, the change we must willingly undergo, by discarding the old clothes (our old habits) and cultivating new and better habits.
Different festivals, one soul.
Though India has diverse festivals, if one notices keenly the soul of all these festivals is the same. All the harvest festivals, be it Pongal, Makara Sankranti, Bihu and Vishu, are a form of expressing gratitude for the abundant crop. The food that appears on our dining tables is not just by our own effort, but there are several forces at play: Sun, Rain, Mother Earth, all play their part in agriculture. Expressing gratitude to these elements of nature, besides the hardworking farmer, is the common thread binding all these harvest festivals.
Festivals are incomplete without the traditional food associated with them. Each festival has its traditional food: The revris of Lohri, the Chakkara Pongal and VenPongal of Pongal, the gujiyas of Holi, the modaks of Ganesh Chaturthi, the shrikhand of Janmashtami, the Karha Prasad of Gurpurab, the ghevars of Teej and Raksha bandhan and the kajukatlis of Diwali.
These festivals are just a small fraction of our glorious culture and heritage. There are so many other festivals, that one book cannot do justice to them.
There are stories behind the stories. It’s a never-ending circle.
And there are the storytellers.
There is also the biggest story of them all.
The Story of Creation.
Feature Image Credit: hindustantimes.com
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