In a country that lays so much significance on a woman's wedded status, it is no wonder that there are rituals and ceremonies to ensure longevity of life for husbands. The most popular and well known of these, is Karwa Chauth. The day married women fast all day, pleading with the Gods to grant their husbands long lives.
Women offer prayers seeking the welfare, prosperity, well-being, and longevity of their husbands who provide food, shelter, clothing, respectability, comfort and happiness.
There are numerous stories believed to be the origination of Karwa Chauth, and are all equally fanciful. One of them is of Veeravati, a lovely newlywed queen, who decided to keep this fast for the long life of her husband, the King. However, not being used to the hardship of a fast as stringent as this, she found it very difficult, and became increasingly weak as the day progressed. Unable to see her distress, Veeravati's brothers tricked her into believing the moon had come up. But as soon as the queen broke her fast, she received the news that her husband had died.
She rushed to the palace, and on the way, bumped into the Goddess Parvati, who told her that the King was dead because of the queen's inability to complete the fast. Veeravati begged for forgiveness and agreed to undertake the fast along with the strict rituals in order to bring her husband back to life.
Then there is the story of Karwa, which some believe to be the true story behind the festival of Karwa Chauth. Karwa was a woman who was deeply devoted to her husband. One day, while her husband was bathing, he was grabbed by a crocodile. Karwa ran and tied the reptile with yarn, and then asked Lord Yama, the God of Death to banish the animal to hell. At first Lord Yama refused, worriedly relenting only when Karwa threatened to curse him. He then also blessed Karwa's husband with a long life. Such was the power of a devoted wife!
Apart from the religious and spiritual implications, Karwa Chauth holds a certain amount of social significance as well. There are rituals and ceremonies that women perform together, gifts that they exchange and typical Karwa Chauth songs that they sing on this day. This festival is celebrated most widely in Northern India, with women getting together to fast.
Preparations for the fast start days before the actual festival. Shopping trips are undertaken together and hands are painted with henna together. In some castes, the women wake up early in the morning of Karwa Chauth, and eat a meal called "Sargi" which must be eaten before first light. Sargi is a heavy meal of sweets and delicacies, and is the only meal that is permitted to married women on this day.
Once the sun comes up, no food or water can be consumed, until the moon is sighted at night. The wife looks at the moon through a sieve and then looks at her husband through the same sieve. After that, the fast can be broken. The first sip of water and morsel of food is traditionally given to the fasting wife by her husband.
Chhaya Gupta, a young housewife from Delhi believes in the festival whole heartedly. She thinks the festival is a beautiful and significant one, and the rituals that accompany it are equally meaningful. She says, "I don't know whether it is effective or not -- whether my husband really will live longer, but it's a lovely gesture to show how much I care."
She also finds the festival a very romantic one and looks forward to the dinner her husband cooks for her each year on this day. Chhaya lives with her husband's parents, and the fast is observed by herself and her mother-in-law. However, she does think it's a little one-sided and playfully adds, "The men never fast; they should also do it along with us. Chhaya used to work with her husband in his ad agency, but now has decided to take a break for a while. Karwa Chauth is an important festival for her; one that she looks forward to each year.
And then there are those who have shunned the concept, believing it to be a mere superstition and an unfair one at that. Says Radha Saluja*, a 28-year-old wife who has been married for a year and a half, "All this is superstitious rubbish and I don't believe in any of it. My staying hungry won't make my husband live longer, any more than his staying hungry will grant me a longer life. My mother-in-law is not too happy with these views -- she considers them far too westernized and overly liberal; but since we don't live together, I don't have to deal with it. My husband doesn't care about these things, and that's all that matters to me." Radha works as a consultant in an IT company. Though she comes from a background wherein Karwa Chauth is observed, she and her husband don't believe in this festival.
Mansi Dutt*, another young wife from New Delhi says, "Look, it's more than an ideological thing. Yes, I think the idea is chauvinistic and superstitious. But it's also impractical for us urban women. We have jobs, we have children, and we have priorities that I consider more important than a festival that I don't even believe in." Mansi lives in New Delhi and has a one-year-old son. She works with an NGO and sometimes keeps erratic hours.
Neha Arora, however, agrees with Chhaya. She feels that Karwa Chauth is a lovely way to express your love for your husband. Her husband showers her with gifts on this day, and dinner is always at a fancy restaurant. "It's a part of our tradition; all the women in my family keep it. I wouldn't want to be the only one left out. And its fun as well; we get gifts and go shopping and apply mehendi," she says. She does find it hard to keep this stringent fast, but considers it worthwhile. Neha works at an e-learning company and always takes the day off on Karwa Chauth. While she enjoys all the pampering and being the focus of her husband's attentions, she also accepts it as a part of her culture; and the thought of not keeping the fast does not occur to her.
Important as this festival is for all married women, it is performed on the grandest scale and holds the greatest significance for newlyweds. Women who keep the fast for the first time find themselves showered with attention and gifts from everyone. They are required to dress elaborately, often in their wedding saris, adorn themselves heavily with jewellery and make-up, and seek blessings from elders for a happily married life.
Mansi's sister, Kamini Tyagi*, unlike her sister, did fast once. "It was my first year of marriage and all the women in the house were doing it. I was quite excited and decided to do it as well. My husband was indifferent; he said I should do what I wanted to do. So I got caught up in all the excitement and kept the fast. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. By the end of the day, I thought I was going to faint from hunger. And those heavy clothes and jewellery…never again! I'm just not cut out for these things."
Kamini decided not to celebrate the festival because she found it too hard to do. The religious and spiritual aspects hold little value for her. As for her parents and in-laws, Kamini says they were a little taken aback when she announced she was never going to fast again, but now they've accepted it and are even somewhat amused by her violent reaction to the one experience she had.
Karwa Chauth as a festival is a sensitive one, and for those who follow it, all other events take a backseat. Women will still resist all temptation to complete their fast and follow the festival as it is meant to be. This cannot be demonstrated more vividly than the ongoing fashion shows in Delhi which had to adjust their timings to suit that of the moon. Karwa Chauth falls on the October 17, bang in the middle of Delhi Fashion Week as well as Wills India Fashion Week. Normally, the last show of each day starts at 9 pm, but an exception has been made for this day, keeping in mind the North Indian woman's priorities. Designer Payal Jain's WIFW show which was scheduled for 6.30 pm is now scheduled for the next day. The Delhi Fashion Week will also wrap up early that day, scheduling the last show for 5 pm.
Is Karwa Chauth celebrated in your home?
What do you make of the festival? Many feel that it is a regressive practice that takes away from gender equality, while others believe that it is a long-standing Indian tradition which should be kept alive and enjoyed.
What is your opinion? Do you/ your partner celebrate Karwa Chauth? Do you celebrate it of your own accord or does your family pressure you into it?
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Text: Insiyah Vahanvaty | Photograph: NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
*Names changed to protect privacy.
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