For Your Well-Being, I Forego Food Today
Every year, Hindu women fast on the day of Karva Chauth to bring blessings for their husbands. What is a modern-day Indian wife's take on this?
It is Karva Chauth, the festival hugely glamorised and popularised by Bollywood. That is when all the married women of the locality dress up in bright colours and jewellery, sit in a circle and sing a traditional song rotating the thalis (plates) containing sweets and fruits for their mothers-in-law (MIL).
So I am in my traditional best, sharing the customs and rituals associated with it.
I don't hesitate to say that I am, well ehmm (!!), a modern woman who can handle stilettos and cotton sarees with equal élan. I – like many of the women Internet users here – will read up on the historical background of this immensely popular fast kept for the well-being of one's husband on the Internet, in English, and be equally attentive, while the neighbourhood auntiji will narrate the Vrat Katha during the pooja in the evening.
In fact this occasion will not go without my scrutinising it nice and proper! Above all, I am non-conformist enough to question the very faith, the very mythological tale behind the ritual of this fasting. I also want to question why does the Indian husband not fast for his wife?
But, first let me give you a bit of the background.
What is the fast of Karva Chauth?
The fast is observed by married women, and sometimes by unmarried girls who are praying to get a good groom!
The states of India observing this tradition are Delhi, UP, Rajasthan, Gujrat, Himachal Pradesh, etc., although in different states, this kind of fasting exists in various names, such as Teej, Vat Savitri Puja, Mahashivaratri, Gangaur Pooja, etc.
Women fast from dawn to dusk without food or water. Before sunrise, women bathe and dress up (do shringar) and have food, sweets, fruits given by the mother-in-law (it's called sergi). In the evening, it's community pooja for many people, though many perform the pooja at home.
Women sit in a circle and rotate the thalis seven times, singing the vrat song. One elderly woman would sit in the middle of the circle, with some pooja material and a doll made from dough, and will narrate the story to the women. Afterwards, after seeing the moon and one's husband (Pati Parmeshwar!), the women would break their fast. (And, this I need not elaborate upon, as this has been shown in the movies so many times! It's so mushy mushy and romantic na?!)
For this festival, mehandi (henna), glass bangles, jewellery and bright-coloured sarees are a kind of a must. Women should not touch a knife or scissors or needles throughout the day.
How it could have started? Karva Chauth could have started when men would go out fight in battles or work in different place for long and women would worry and pray for their well-being.
It was those two mistakes of the woman Veeravati which makes her lose her husband twice.
The story behind the fasting is a little unclear. I have heard different narrations of the tale. So, things are not so fixed that way. But only thing is common that it was those two mistakes of the woman Veeravati which makes her lose her husband twice – once to death and the second time to another woman, the maid servant! So, the story is a way to teach women a moral lesson of virtue and tolerance.
In brief, this girl Veeravati (Veera) goes to her parent's place on her first Karva Chauth (so, if she was also observing this fast, then this tale can't be the origin of the ritual). Her loving brothers light some fire and show the glow in the sky, saying that it was moon, so that she could break the fast and eat something. They did it out of affection for their younger sister. But, because Veeravati breaks the fast, her husband dies. (So, the fear factor put in the fast)
He not just dies, but has hundreds of needles pierced in his body (was he some Bhishma Pitamah?!) The poor girl prays to Shiva and Parvati and goes on taking those needles till it is next Karva Chauth (she kept a corpse at home for one year). But as the last needle is left on her husband's body (who is a king too), she goes to buy Karva (a earthern little pot) for her fast. And the clever (or was she helping) maid pulls out the last needle.
The king regains conciousness and takes the maid as his wife (he had some memory loss too it seems!). The poor Veeravati waits and fasts, with a lot of tolerance.
Once, when the king was going out, he asks his wife and maid, what do they want? The wife (actually the maid) asks for jewellery and the maid (actually the wife) asks for a doll. Veeravati keeps saying this story of changed roles to the doll (Rani became Goli, Goli became Rani, goli probably was the name of the maid). When the curious king asks about it, Veera tells the truth. Now the king realises his mistake (Oh,now!) and accepts Veera as her queen.
Fasting in today’s context
In the modern times, when rituals, customs and even true spirits of festivals have become subdued or diminished, only some symbolic gestures are left, which our generation doesn't even understand or practises just for fun. Yet why then has such a rigorous fasting ritual sustained the test of time?
This surprises me! In fact, it should not. Bollywood movies have definitely added a certain glamour to it and we should not forget that there is a number of retailing and services sectors associated with women, which benefit from this custom. These could have been the factors for making this a popular ritual.
Karva Chauth is the time for shopping for self and the MIL. Gifts include heavy sarees, gold and diamond jewellery. Then women want their matching sandals, jewellery, glass bangles, bindis, cosmetics, hair accessories and flowers to dress up. Also, this is a booming time for beauty parlours as they offer special "Karva Chauth packages"! Skin clinics for hair reduction, skin lifting, wrinkle corrector shots, specialised facials are the service areas which flourish during this festive time.
Consider, too, how it affects the woman psychologically.
Imagine, a woman on fast cooks for the whole family, feeds them but remains hungry herself. The husband on the other hand, gets some spiritual high of being born a male?
When women are working as hard as the men are in this day and age, does this ancient ritual, dating back to the time when women were not working outside, need a relook and some updating with changing times?
Is there something religious left in it? I doubt it.