The cultural landscape of Braj is permeated in legendary associations with Lord Krishna drawing millions annually to this area. The marvellous heritage of this place sits on place-based oral traditions that celebrate the life of Krishna through ritual enactment and festivals. These traditions are entrusted through pilgrimage activities in auspicious months like that of Kartik. Braj, and especially Vrindavan has been subject of this magnificent cultural oeuvre, wherein the participation of women devotees from various parts of Orissa in groups during this month holds great reverence. The connections between the Vaishnavas of Orissa dates back to the 16th century when several influential figures made trips to Vrindavan and thereafter popularised Krishnabhakti into the parts of Orissa and Bengal. At present, the devotees during the month-long festivities of Kartik bring a strong confluence of ritual practices, observances, performances, and most importantly pilgrimage art to the region of Vrindavan. Based on an already conducted ethnographic study this paper will focus on the annual pilgrimage of the women devotees of Orissa to Vrindavan during the month of Kartik. It would further attempt to contextualize the practice of Tulsi Pujan through the incremental representations of Rangoli and the enactment of lila performed during the month-long stay of these devotees. While doing so it would also look into the connection these pilgrims, in particularly women, forge through ritual art and behavior, giving way to the creation of ‘space’ not only in terms of actual physical movement, but through the ways these journeys get envisioned in the performance of rituals. The spatial and temporal encapsulation of this tradition gets represented through ornate Rangolis and mud figurines which are made afresh every day and wiped out by the end of the day setting up the temporal boundaries of ritual performance. It would further pursue to seek construction, renewal, and reaffirmation of traditions which helps in defining different gender roles traditions prescribe contrary to the normative setup.
This paper is the culmination of the fieldwork I did in Vrindavan during the year 2019. As part of my studies, I happened to stay at the temple complex of Shri Goda Vihar Mandir, Vrindavan during the month of Kartik. It was my first encounter with a group that was staying in the compound and was performing the tradition of Kartik Vrata day and night. Observing the Kartik Vrata has been a popular practice in India, but what stood out to me was the idea that these women came from most rural parts of the state of Orissa and most of them had not travelled outside their district ever. But they were here on a special purpose to fulfill their vow. As a curious researcher, I found their activities very liberating, the idea that these women chose to travel hundreds of miles to perform this vrata was rather fascinating. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that not just one group operates during the month of Kartik vrata, in fact the entire city of Vrindavan hosts these pilgrims, mainly women from various parts of the country, with a higher number observed among those travelling from eastern parts of India.
The group’s pilgrimage was arranged by a tour operator operating within the rural parts of Orissa. This trend of arranging group pilgrimages has gained prominence in the last two decades, thanks to improved modes of travel. The group studied during this course of my research hailed from Ganjam district. These women came from different rural villages of the same district where some knew each other while some got to know each other during their travels. They were further enunciated by a priest from Oriya background based in Vrindavan, who would pay them visit to recite the Vrat Katha. This paper is the product of the journey of two weeks of following them around the city trying to imbibe and articulate this tradition as an outsider whom these votaries most often welcomed, allowed to observe and at times also dragged to participate in the rituals. Their inclination was more towards Gaudiya Vaishnavism; however they could not be completely called as orthodox followers since the motive of their travel didn’t comply to the said sect – rather a phenomenon which has been going on for decades. They spoke Oriya, a language not known to me, but had some help from the women who knew Hindi and could answer my queries around this tradition.
This paper looks into the domestic ritual of the Kartik brata and attempts to look into the personal worship practices and the communion of performances of rituals which provides an arena of power and responsibility—the one which these rituals have always dedicated towards. Another important element of this paper is to study these rituals when done as a part of a pilgrimage. The travel from a known territory to an unknown territory has its own reverence, connotations and shared experiences attached to it.
The month of Kartik is an auspicious one in the holy Hindu calendar. While the Hindu calendar as a whole has important festivals and days falling in almost every month, Kartik supersedes the rest by having the most religiously fervent time. Vrindavan falling in the circle of Braj is associated with the frolics and ras-lila of Krishna and Radha during his growing up. The travels of devotees to Vrindavan have been a popular destination for pilgrimage, men and women from the Gaudiya faith have always revered Vrindavan more and even next to Jagannatha itself. For them it is not just a lila-sthal or the place of frolics of Krishna but, the embodiment of Krishna himself.
The relevance attached to Kartik month has been sanctified in Rupa Goswami’s Mathura Mahatamya. It attaches huge reverence to the pilgrimage done in the month of Kartik in Mathura Mandala.
Vidhi-hinam ca pujanam
Mathurayam mad-archanam [Text 178]
Worship offered in the month of Kartika in Mathura without proper mantras, proper ingredients, and proper rules and regulations are regarded by the demigods as worship of Me (Dasa, 2016).
The above lines vividly explain the greatness of visiting the holy city of Mathura. The city of Mathura on the banks of the river Yamuna and its surroundings are traditionally known as the land of Braj. After Mathura, Vrindavan has the prominence as a sacred space and is said to have gained extensively from the medieval Bhakti movement. The month of Kartik is a busy time in Braj and its environs, in particular Vrindavan, the main reason could be derived from the name ‘Vrindavan’ which in literal terms means Forests of Vrinda. Vrinda devi is also considered as the presiding deity of the land of Vrindavan, a temple dedicated to her stands in the complex of the famous Govindadeva temple constructed by Maharaja Man Singh in 1590 CE.
(Figure 1: Credit: iStock – Tulasi Pooja)
Popularly known as Tulsi puja, the plant is celebrated throughout the month with elaborate everyday rituals and vrat practices revolving around it. A common saying goes by Tulasi-tulana-atarva Tulasi, i.e., nothing can equal the virtues of Tulasi as it’s a meeting point of heaven and earth (Gupta, 2001). While the puja is mainly seen to be performed to gain certain spiritual and materialistic merits, it is an immersive experience for the votaries. The participation in groups while travelling across the country to be in Vrindavan during this month thus, serve a dual purpose, first as an individual for their own distinct desires while also performing the tradition in small or large groups in communion. Krishna is venerated in a marked progression from a small boy to adulthood (Damodar rup) and finally commencing with the marriage of Vishnu with Tulasi on Shuklapaksha Ekadashi of the month, another important link as to why pilgrims choose to travel to the region of Braj, particularly during the month of Kartik. They bring a small planter of the plant along with them to worship here—venerating their connections back home.
As the city of Vrindavan enlivens, the number of pilgrims during this month are seen to be coming mostly from eastern parts of the subcontinent. The interaction of the eastern parts of the subcontinent is known to have begun from Chaitnaya Mahaprabhu’s had visit to Braj in 1514 CE. Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s Chaitnya Caritamrta, recounts the circumambulatory path of Vraja-mandala which Mahaprabhu have known to have visited. This work appears to have influenced along with the discursive representations of Mathura-mandala in the Mathura Mahatmya of the Varaha Purana and the Mathura Mahatmya attributed to Rupa Gowami and, also the pilgrimage circuit established by Narayana Bhatt in the latter half of the sixteenth century (Holdrege, 2015:230). These works remained as frameworks to perform the Vana-Yatra parikrama that has been followed by the Gaudiya pilgrims till date.
“There is a place that is renowned in the three worlds by the name Mathura, whose roads and grounds have been purified by the contact with the dust from the feet of Krishna. By touching (sparshana) that [ground], a person is liberated (root muc) from all bondage (sarva-bandha)” [Mathura Mahatmya of Rupa Govamin 98] (CfHoldrege, 2015:239).
Rupa Goswami’s Mahatmya presents the ideals of Vaishnava bhakti that supersede liberation as the ultimate goal to be attained through pilgrimage to the region of Mathura. It celebrates the region to having powers to bestow the most cherished goals of human existence, meaning attaining the three mundane goals (trivarga)—kama, artha, and dharma—along with the transmundane goal of moksha, liberation, which together form the four purusharthas, ends of human existence (Holdrege, 2015:238-239).
Most of the votive observances are drawn from Puranas and their expansive procedures however, has been handed down within family or community traditions. As observed from interaction, these votaries having grown within such familial setups became conversant about the vratas much earlier in their lives, through participation, watching and hearing the stories being told by the women within the family. Hence, their introduction to the vratas appeared as a seamless and almost every day essential practice, which exhorted among the believer to perform them to gain similar merits.
Just like every votive observance has an accompanying katha or a story attached to it, the Kartik vrat katha is recited everyday as part of the daily activities. These kathas are precise and are told like a story by the reciter who in this case happened to be a priest. In their telling, they display elements of regional folklore most often spiced up with a pun by the storyteller. As stories invoke a sense of treatment of the vrata, they reflect onto the structure for which it is being performed and therefore, constantly reiterates the purpose of performing one. They also appear in a didactic manner, implying their intention to convey instructions by their portrayal for pleasure and entertainment purpose. Serving a dual purpose these stories hence convey a message which seemingly reflects the idea of Kathasrvana, or providing a degree of merit to the listener just by listening to it.
Within the Bhagavata traditions which takes Krishna to be the ultimate form, the role of feminine is considered paramount. The role of the divine feminine in Vaishnava traditions has been deeply nurtured and complex, an aspect which has challenged the Western theologists who have committed the mistake of confusing Krishna sometimes to a woman. The strong presence of feminine voice within the Vaishnava traditions is prominent and challenges the understanding of religion by the West. The latter regards no to less preference to any other form of arrangement other than the binaries of being ‘monotheistic’ or ‘polytheistic’. While in Vaishnava context, the supreme is described as having unlimited forms, Ananta-rupa, since it is believed that God has no limitations.
The women performing the rituals here identified themselves as gopis, their role as described began to be as mother where they sang lullaby to their lord, feeding him his choicest food during the initial days of the month to slowly making a progression after GopaAshtmai when the lord becomes old enough to herd the cows. They then progress to sing love songs in a manner to prepare for his impending marriage. The term gopi refers to being ‘a female cowherder’, in its plural form the term ‘the gopis’ is seen as group of married or unmarried cowherd women and girls who are passionately devoted to the deity of Krishna (Schweig, 2007: 443). The verses from Bhagavata Purana also describes this self-abandonment of the gopis and leaving to become partakers in the divine love play of God may also be seen in as part of these rituals. Time and again the votaries envisioning themselves as gopis defined their deep-rooted love and passionate devotion to Krishna renouncing their otherwise ‘normal’ lives. These gopis are well known for their songs of love and devotion. They long to be with Kirshna, in a sense that they can be seen being in a perpetual state of remembrance of Krishna (Schweig, 2007:454).
As the gopis of Vrindavan played a very important role in the union of Radha and Krishna, so are these women performing vrat visualize themselves to be. They remain uninterested in their own union with Krishna, but they derive pleasure from the union of Radha and Krishna as the divine love of the Krishna is easily accessible during this time. By taking a role of gopi they intend to further get closer to the goal of achieving vaikunth easily. The utter self-abandonment of the gopis for Krishna’s love becomes the accepted symbol of the soul’s longing for God. These women during the entire month only saw themselves as gopis and nothing else, the bhav being that as they came to Vrindavan leaving their world behind, their kids, and household, they see their deity as a small child to take care of just like their own.
As this brata is performed by all the women irrespective of their marital status, a significant number of widows also take part in this tradition. Such a presence of widows is different from any other domestic rituals where the marital status is considered as a qualifier for its performance. Vrindavan has always been an abode of widows who’d come here to spend their last days in the land of God himself to ultimately leave for their heavenly abode. Unfortunately, they live a life of austerity during their last days and manage their daily livelihoods by begging on the streets. As this brata is believed to be performed to suppress all the sins and extinguish any unfortunate incidents in life, it is performed by widows as well. This ritual has a lively presence in the contemporary society, rarely there has been an attempt to study with respect to the ‘space’ this ritual provides to have an arena of their own where deep bond of female comradeship are nurtured and practised irrespective of caste, class and marital standing.
For a long time widowhood has been stigmatised as inauspicious and hence, there have been a lot of discrimination which these women face on a daily basis. Their social life in particular becomes subjected to lot of constraints and difficult regulations are imposed on them to abide by. As the month of Kartik hold Vishnu in highest regards, it is believed that the vow taken during this time promotes propitiousness at different levels. In a day-to-day life it encourages a disciplined lifestyle along with being closer to pursuits of spiritual liberations. As the scope of widows in ritual affairs is generally limited, it is the latter purpose of spiritual upliftment towards attaining salvation these women tend to focus on during their brata. During the course of my study, I happen to speak with several such women who had lost their husbands a while ago and ever since, had envisioned making this journey to be here in the Vraja mandala to observe this brata.
Victor Turner’s communitas reflects on how a pilgrim when taken out from their familiar setup develops in the interstices of social structure: among the poor, out-castes, and those like artists and religious virtuosos who consciously remove themselves from some of the constraints of society (Badone & Roseman, 2004:3-5). In the case of Kartik vrat we observed the invocation of the gopibhav where the strong bonds of female companionship were forged among women themselves. These ties as may appear via the etic approach could be seen as blurring several hierarchies such as caste and marital status, and encouraging female companionship and mutual respect for women of all ages and positions in life. Irrespective of the marital status, the eldest in the group occupied the chief role in the conducting the rituals as most of them were married but there were few widows and also few young maidens accompanying and performing this ritual. Their marital status wasn’t a deciding factor in the performance of the Kartik Vrata. This gave an idea of how traditions provided power and an arena for women of the subjugated group too.
There were conversations when asked whether they all came from different castes to which the most common reply was that they all came from different caste and backgrounds, yet here they all are Krishna’s beloved gopis and once they’ll return back to their native villages those hierarchies will be resumed. However, in Vrindavan they all remain equal participants.
Furthermore, the rituals that are prescribed during the Karitk vrata are arduous and involve taking holy bath in the Yamuna early in the morning. As a result of which one can witness a long line of votaries gathering at the banks of river as early as four in the morning to perform the rituals such as making mud figurines and perform puja archana before them. Participants construct several icons (murtis) out of the Yamuna mud, including those of Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesha, Radha Krishna, Tulsi, Chandrama, Surya. Forming a circle around the clay icons, they would perform puja while singing songs celebrating Kartik. Many deities are honored by, several songs which focus specifically on Krishna, and informants told me that the puja itself is largely dedicated to Krishna with the other deities called to be present chiefly to participate as devotees. The ritual ends with an arti and then immersing these idols in the Yamuna itself. Once this ritual ended, they would quickly head back to dharmshala and this time most often would take a different route to pray at the temples which weren’t covered earlier. At each of these daily temples visit a tiny dip would be kept as a marker of dip dan. This whole ritual would involve more than three hours and they would come back to the ashram to prepare for their second set of rituals.
The next series of rituals that would take place were rather elaborate in nature. Women formed smaller groups often consisting of people they liked being with or who came from the same village. A few of them mostly middle-aged women would draw elaborate alpanas which would often take more than an hour of preparation. These alpana designs are an important part of the brata and would take an hour or more to make it. Once alpanas were drawn, the women would sit together and do their daily archana by singing songs dedicated to Krishna lila (divine love play of lord Krishna) and would enact episodes of these lilas among themselves. It was observed while doing so the elderly in the group would take a central role of ensuring the right course of the rituals. They would then celebrate these performances by breaking into dance and celebration followed by the arti which would mean the culmination of the morning rituals. The devotees were seen completely fasting during their day and would only take a light meal in the form of boiled rice and curd before retiring to their respective rooms in dharmshala.
Drawing alpanas has been analyzed as being decorative, representative and illustrative in the sense that it displays the practitioner’s artistic whims, the aspirations from performing the vrata and depicting the scenes connected to the ritual. In this regard, Joseph Heizman’s study reflects on the symbolic meaning alpanas represent. He emphasises on the ‘auspiciousness through the use of popular Hindu iconography’ (Heizman, 2011). In a similar manner, the drawing of alpanas by these women during their stay is something that is organically fitted into this ritual. Alpanas have been an important element of the tradition, at first look they may appear as merely decorative and beautiful works of art but, it is important to read them within a context. Diana L. Eck’s work Darshan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, put forth this argument that Hindu sacred images have to be understood as ‘visual texts’ themselves and that they display sacredness within a ‘context’ like an image used during the worship is considered as sacred during that ceremony (Eck, 1998). Correspondingly, the tradition of alpana making displays an amalgamation of regional elements of the divine. The ritual imagery in the form of ornate alpana and mud figurines is the strongest element during this time; they are made afresh every day and wiped out by the end of the day. Through these arts’ anthropomorphic elements of the deity and their representation in physical form are created. Thus, creating a moment wherein temporal boundaries are established for preaching the image.
One of the striking features of the observance of these rituals is the role of women these vratas prescribe. Contrary to the patriarchal setup Hindu traditions hold for women, they do lay an important position for them. As Dilip Kumar Lahiri and Bhaswati Lahiri in Loksanskriti Patrika put in the context of Bengali women observing Bratas:
“When a male-dominated Brahminical society had laid the responsibility of praying for their welfare on the shoulders of men priests, in Bengal, it was the women who took up the task to be performed by the classless women priests or ‘bratis’. It has to be noticed that, unlike the male priests, these women did not necessarily have to be Brahmins and were truly ‘secular. They prayed for the general good, keeping their personal interests away which could not have been said of the male priests. The male-dominated society, however, has never sought to evaluate the role that these brati’s played in the task of social reforms” (Lahiri, 1993, p. 93).
“The Kartik Puja embraces imagery of Krishna’s playful behavior as transgressive. Simultaneously, however, it supplements such imagery with alternative imagery, reconfiguring Krishna traditions in ways that Sanskritic theologies may not emphasize but that resonate with women’s ideals and concerns” (Pintchman, 2005, p. 44). Studying the elements deeply embedded in the everyday religious lives of women, Judith Butler opines that the nature of gender in rituals that are primarily performative and creates that gender identity through a stylized repetition of acts (Butler, 1990). These can be studied to observe change as opposite to the patriarchally defined structures of tradition, with the engagement of a tradition like vow or a brata women may make distinctive contributions to tradition as a living entity (Pechilis, 2013).
Hindu traditions are laden with complicated belief systems and often are projected in manifold processes, they can’t be simplified as being entirely depicting folk elements or Brahmanical models. However, with links to Kartik Vrata one can be seen as incorporating several regional traditions. The women who travel from rural parts of Orissa during this time to be in Vrindavan bring with them their culture and thus resulting into a magnificent oeuvre of cultures.
Women as we saw through this study played an important role in observing these vratas. Pilgrimage and performance of the rituals gave them a temporary space to reaffirm the traditions as per their standards. The nature of these rituals allowed them to sing, dance, draw and listen to stories without anybody looking down upon them. These rituals gave way for them to be emotionally expressive, creative, and a perspective of religious romance. At the same time, the strict adherence to the conduct of each ritual gave them a sense of discipline. Traveling to unknown territory is a desire most of them had vouched for all their lives. It gave them a sense of liberation and strengthened the aspects of female communion; in totality, it gave them an experience of a lifetime which they were highly grateful for.
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I am greatly indebted to Shri Laxmi Narayan Tiwari ji (Founder Secretary, Braj Sanskriti Shodh Sansthan, Goda Vihar, Vrindavan) and his wife Smt. Varsha Tiwari who allowed me to stay in the temple complex and encouraged me to take up this study.
Feature Image Credit: istockphoto.com
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