Growing up in the heart of urban India, I would find the Indian Hindu festival of Karwa Chauth the strangest. Every year my mother would dress up in her red bridal finery, decorate her hands with henna and observe the fast of Karwa Chauth. She would refrain from drinking a single drop of water and a single morsel of food till the moon shone through the sapphire sky. Sometimes the moon would rise early. Sometimes it's appearance would be blighted for hours by the clouds. Yet fast, she would. Her lips untouched with food in order to pray for my father's long life. As a teenager I always wondered why my father's life was more important than my mother's. I loved them both equally. I wanted them both to have long lives. Over the years, I went abroad to complete my studies and forgot all about this seemingly inane festival. Until now, that is. Having gotten married this year, I was faced with a rather interesting question. Is the ritual of Karwa Chauth relevent in the 21st century India?
The practice of Karwa Chauth & its Origin
Traditions in each household vary, but on the day of Karwa Chauth, most women rise before the sun for a meal known as Sargi, often sent by their mother-in-law. After this, they spend the day decked in bridal attire and the traditional 16 'shringaar' (adornments), their hands painted with henna and a forehead smeared with vermilion. Women of the family or locality gather in the afternoon, recite 'vrat kathas' (legends pertaining to the practice) and pass around trays full of sweets and an earthen pot. In the evening, at moon rise, they look at the moon through a sieve, and then look through the seive at their husbands. They touch the feet of their husbands, who then give them their first sip of water and bite of food from the tray. Wives across many states of India, observe a vrat (vow of abstention) for the welfare and long life of their husbands.
Historical tales are an integral part of Karwa Chauth. Amongst them, is the story of princess Veeravati. Princess Veeravati kept the fast for her husband's long life. Seeing her delicate health, she was tricked by her brothers into breaking the fast. Soon she heard the news that her husband died in battle. Very emotional, she ran to the battlefield and found his body. She decided to preserve it until next year's Karwa Chauth. At that time, she prayed fervently and fasted diligently. She was blessed with her husband returning to life. Two other stories associated with the ritual of Karwa Chauth are that of Savitiri and Karwa. The protagonists of both stories were women who successfully confronted and defeated 'Yama' (the Indian God of death) to win back their husbands' lives. Karwa's husband was devoured by a crocodile. So she tied it with a yarn and told Yama to return her husband and send the crocodile to hell. Yama refused so she threatened to curse him. Afraid of a 'pati-vrata' (a devotional wife's) curse, Yama relented. He gave her husband back and sent the crocodile to hell. Similarly, Savitiri, was a princess married to a prince in exile called Satyavan, whose husband was doomed to die young. When he died, she followed Yama and was able to trick him into granting her a series of wishes, including her husband's life. On the day of Karwa Chauth, these stories take centre stage and are sung by married women who have gathered. Some of these oral 'vrat-kathas' (stories) have been circulating, being recited since hundreds of years. Some of them come from ancient Hindu epics and some are versions of local legends.
While ancient Hindu epics haven't always been the greatest example of gender equality, several tales do emphasise this issue. Alongside the acquiescent and delicate characters of Veeravati or Sita, are examples of strong women such as copper skinned Draupadi, the Lion-taming Durga, and the warrior goddess Kali. However, when it comes to representing the ideal Indian woman, our society tends to hold all-sacrificing, submissive and devotional women as exemplars.What is particularly interesting is that our emphasis of the acquiescent and demure characteristics of mythological women may have come at the expense of highlighting other virtues of the very same women. I have always strongly been of the opinion that if meaning is to be found in mythology, it cannot be through singular elements. Meaning of myths in legends is often contained in an over-all message. It is thought provoking that the story of Savitiri also unveils her resilient, quick and brainy nature in tricked the God of death. Similarity, Veeravati and Karwa represented very courageous and fierce women who confronted war and fought a crocodile and God of death respectively. However, rather than focus on these latter characteristics, our society has more often than not preferred to idolize these women for their devotion and subservient nature. Was this the original intent of these legends? Or has their interpretation been increasingly skewed over time by the agents of a patriarchal system? To examine this further, we can look closer into the symbolism associated with the evolution of this ritual.
Karwa Chauth- symbolism and a regressive evolution
How did the ritual of Karwa Chauth and the legends associated with it evolve? The word Karwa Chauth comes from the words 'Karwa'- meaning an earthen pot and 'Chauth'- meaning 4th day after the full moon. An earthen pot in many cultures has been associated with prosperity, fertility and is a symbolic representation of the womb, or mother Earth. It shouldn't be a surprise that a festival for married women would have symbolic associations to fertility. The festival falls on the 4th day after the night of full moon, a day which according to Indian astrology is often considered auspicious. Fasting in Hinduism is often associated with sympathetic prayer. An object of desire is integrated into a ritual in symbolic form. Consequently, early observers of this festival may have envisioned a link between their self-sacrifice and fertility. The ritual of Karwa Chauth was originally observed in Sapt Sandhu or the North-West belt of India (comprising Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). This region is also the wheat growing belt of India. Since wheat in India is typically sown in the winter, the festival may have originated as a prayer for bountiful crop and prosperity (as symbolised by the earthen pot). Moreover, since the North-West has been the scene of many military campaigns over time. From the war of Kurukshetra to the battle of Patiala, the region has been a hotbed favourite of military campaigns and invasion. Over time, women (at that time, financially dependent on the male members of the family) may have started keeping the fast that was meant as a prayer for prosperity as a means to pray for their men's safe return home.These stories or 'vrat-kathas' may have been used to provide solace to women whose husbands were away on war. They reinforced the belief that a 'pati-vrata' or loyal and devotional wife had the power to confront and defeat death. These stories and rituals probably also served as a tool to control female desires, with their men away at war.
As with many other rituals, I believe the ritual has slowly drifted away from its original meaning and its interpretation further bastardized to suit the views of a traditionally patriarchal society. Karwa Chauth slowly came to be seen as a practice that encourages sisterhood over a common cause - their husband's long life and welfare! The observance of Karwa Chauth highlighted the traditional 'dependency' of women on men. Consequently, it be seen as another way to reinforce a hierarchical relationship between a man and his wife. It isn't a surprise that the states where Karwa Chauth was (and is) most practiced are notorious for the worst treatment of women. The states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh top the list of number of domestic abuse and cruelty to women. These are also the very states where women are the least empowered and least educated. A mere coincidence or food for thought? I would argue the latter.
Karwa Chauth today and as portrayed by media
One would believe that with the advent of modern India, the practice of Karwa Chauth - a festival that can encourage gender inequality - would have faded. However, Karwa Chauth, remains firmly entrenched in modern India with fervid passion. Adoption of this practice by youth role models such as Kareena Kapoor, Suzanne Roshan, Twinkle Khanna, and Aishwarya Rai has led to significant popularity of this ritual. Commercialization of the ritual and its romanticised portrayal in dramas and Bollywood movies (DDLJ, Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gum, and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to name a few) have further fuelled this practice. Thanks to Bollywood, the practice of Karwa Chauth has come to symbolise un-daunting love and romance. Indian media lends supports the false moral universe of Indian cinema where social duties and pativrata-ness of women far outweighs their individualism. So too does the notion that man's life is worth more than a woman's. It is appalling that in n the 21st century, a ritual that perpetuates the idea of 'Pati-parmeshwar' -husband as lord, master and God has been fervently rising in popularity.
Women from other religions and regions have also started to follow the ritual without necessarily realizing what they are promoting. In my opinion, there is no romance in a ritual which implies that in the husband-wife relationship, the man's wellbeing depends upon the woman's self-denial. Neither should there be romance in a ritual that alienates men and widows. In a time when women work shoulder to shoulder with men, why isn't a fast kept by men to promote prosperity of the household and to prolong the life of their wives? Rituals such as Karwa Chauth perpetuate unequal power relations and encourage female subjugation. Gender inequalities have been shown to be associated with poor health and well being. It shouldn't be a surprise that India has much higher rate of maternal deaths (200/100,000 women) compared to its GNP counterparts such as China (37 /100,000 women) or Brazil (56 /100,000 women).
Karwa Chauth in the 21st century India
So what does the ritual mean in today's world? Should it be abolished like the ritual of Sati? Many would argue that many religions encourage fasting as a means to cleanse one's body and soul. Lent in Christianity an Ramadan in Islam are but just few of the examples. I agree. Fasting is great for the body. What I am against, is the idea of sacrifice as a means to fulfilment of a woman. I am strongly against the gender annotations of the ritual of Karwa Chauth. Norms and culture are known to influence the world around us. I believe rituals need to change with time. Rituals such as that of Karwa Chauth sub-consciously and consciously promote gender-specific and one-sided equation in households. Gender inequalities have been known to be a key causal factor behind increasing violence against women in any society. It is time we challenged the norms and rituals that encourage the idea of subservience and inferiority of women and turn them around. The very ritual of Karwa Chauth can be used to spread a better message and to encourage gender equality. After a year which saw episodes such as the attack of Nirbhaya, which enraged our nation, it is time a time we tackled the roots to incidents such as these.
So what does the ritual of Karwa Chauth mean in today's world? Should it be abolished like the ritual of Sati? Many would argue that other religions also encourage fasting as a means to cleanse one's body and soul. Lent in Christianity and Ramadan in Islam are but just few of the examples. I agree. Fasting is great for the body. What I am against, is the idea of sacrifice as a means to fulfilment of a woman. I am strongly against the gender imbalance portrayed in the ritual of Karwa Chauth. Against its exclusion of widows or men. Furthermore, I am against it being an involuntary practice. Norms and culture are known to influence the world around us. I believe rituals need to change with time. Rituals such as Karwa Chauth subconsciously promote a one-sided equation in households. Gender inequalities have been known to be a key causal factor behind the increasing violence against women in any society. It is time we challenge the norms and rituals that encourage the idea of subservience and the inferiority of women. The very ritual of Karwa Chauth can be used to spread a better message and to encourage gender equality. After a year which saw episodes such as the horrid attack of Nirbhaya, which enraged our nation, it is time a time we tackled the root causes of such incidents.
Many women I know fast for Karwa Chauth. Some do it out of family pressure, some do it for tradition, some to relive a bollywood idea of love, and some to just hop on the bandwagon. However, why not fast for a different reason? Let us all fast this day, irrespective of sex, religion or marital status. Fast for gender equality. If you are a man reading this, I encourage and implore you to fast on Karwa Chauth. Fast to end domestic violence. Fast to promote gender equality. Fast for the women in your life. Fast to bring about a change. A change of mindset. Fast towards an awareness of the gender inequalities that exist in the India of the 21st century. It is time that actors and other male role models come forward and challenge the very ideas behind our cultural backwardness, which indirectly promote cruelty towards women. Until that happens, Karwa Chauth will always be a day that will remain a grim reminder of our patriarchal past - of an India where incidents such as that of Nirbhaya still happen. Such is the relevance of Karwa Chauth in the 21st century India.