Sep 8, 2010
Ever since we are old enough to read and write we are fed over and over with the knowledge that ours is a secular country where people of hundred different languages and religions live together harmoniously. ‘Unity in diversity is the hallmark of our society,’ our teachers and text books tell us and we too memorise it in the hope of scoring at least one mark with ‘fill in the blanks’ question. However, what we are not taught in schools is the miraculous ways in which this statement is made true in the natural course of our lives – how the festivals of three major religions decide to unite the people in a mood of festivity and coincide in a span of three-four days, the way it happens this month, or rather, this week.
It’s not often that such a phenomenon takes place in our country; even though we celebrate some or the other festival almost every other day it is not usual for festivals of all the three major religions to fall in half a week’s time. There have been occasions in the past when Eid-ul-Fitr and Diwali came around at the same time, but rarely have Feast of Nativity of Mother Mary, Eid-ul-Fitr and Ganesh Chaturthi bedecked our nation with such a festive atmosphere. If you are a believer in one God, then consider it His way of uniting us in the common fibre of love and celebration. If you believe in many gods, then it might be that the gods got together to come up with a formula for spreading joy across the nation, and if you are an atheist or agnostic, just revel in the celebrations without thinking too much. Take it how you will, we all have something to celebrate.
Feast of Nativity of Blessed Mother Mary
The Feast of Nativity of Mary is the first of these festivals, and by the time you read this, Christians (except Protestants) around the world are already busy with the celebrations. The Feast originated in Jerusalem, and in fifth century was celebrated as the feast of the basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est (now Basilica of Saint Anne). Later in the seventh century, the Byzantines and the Romans marked September 8 as the feast signifying the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and since then the tradition has continued. Her birth is said to mark the end of darkness and the beginning of human salvation. In both Christianity and Islam she is known for her purity, piety and as God’s chosen one to bear Jesus without sin.
The Feast of Nativity, known as Monthi Fest among the Konkani-speaking Catholics of west coastal region of India, is celebrated with much enthusiasm in these parts. The honouring of Blessed Virgin Mary and the blessing of the first produce of the harvest season are combined, and the occasion is marked by the distribution of the new corn among the devotees. The priests bless the harvest produce. Children carry flowers and shower them on the statue of Mother Mary, after which the Mass is offered. The children who shower the flowers are presented with sugarcane. There are also processions held to mark the ceremony, during which people carry corn, flowers and vegetables to the church. The corn, which is distributed among all, is powdered and had with milk. Perhaps the most special aspect of the feast is that it is a time for family reunion. Relatives staying abroad or far away too are remembered fondly and sheaves of corn are sent to them.
Next comes Eid-ul-Fitr, which will fall on either September 10 or 11 this year, depending on the sighting of the moon. The festival, one of the two major ones in the Islamic calendar (the other being Eid-ul-Adha or Bakrid), marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. On this day Muslims across the world offer special Eid prayers in congregation (at Idgah or a mosque, though women may do the same at home) and wish each other with the traditional greeting of ‘Eid Mubarak.’ Zakat, or charity, is offered to the needy before the prayers so that they too may partake of the festivities without constraint. Children especially enjoy Eid, for they are rewarded with ‘Eidi’ in the form of money or gifts by the elders.
Sweet dishes are prepared at the beginning of the day, while Biryani is usually served at lunch. Of course, that said, the cuisine would vary from place to place depending on the speciality of the region and personal tastes. However, it is customary to prepare at least one sweet dish and have it before going to Eid prayers to signify that one is not on fasting any more. The day is spent in visiting relatives and friends, with new clothes and perfume making up one’s getup. Muslim women get busy on the eve of the Eid itself, adorning their hands with exquisite mehendi designs. The very act of applying mehendi is exciting, as it sets the precedent for the festive mood in the household. Preparations begin days before the Eid - visit any tailor in the town during the last few days of Ramadan, and chances are they would refuse to take your order saying that they are busy until the festival!
That, in brief, is about how the Muslim brethren would be in celebratory mode this week. At the same time, our Hindu brothers and sisters too would be rejoicing the birthday of Lord Ganesha with the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. I have vivid memories of watching, as a child, the grand Chaturthi procession passing past my house. I would be awed by the mere size of the Ganesha idol, and fascinated with the splendid lights and colours making up the chariot. There would be hundreds of people chanting ‘Ganapati Bappa Maurya,’ dancing and whistling their way to the riverside where the idol would be immersed. The whole atmosphere may be described in one word – euphoria.
Lord Ganesha, with his elephant head that makes for easy identification, is the god of wisdom and protector against obstructions and problems (Lord of Beginnings and Lord of Obstacles as he is known), regarded as Vighneshwara. Devotees, before any important work, first seek his blessings and also make an invocation to him before any other god. The celebrations go on for ten days, at the end of which, on the occasion of Ananta Chaturdashi, the idol of Ganesha is immersed in the water. Some families though immerse the idol after the third, fifth or seventh day. The festival comes around in the Hindu calendar month of Bhaadrapada, between late August and early September. This year, it is slated to be on September 11. Interestingly, it was Lokamanya Tilak who declared Ganesh Chaturthi as a public festival, as a mark of solidarity against the British. It is significant that he chose this festival, because Lord Ganesha is worshipped across the Hindu pantheon, with no regional boundaries either.
With these three festivals regaling our lives with joy, light and colour, not to mention our appetites with scrumptious food, it is little wonder that this weekend will probably be the most awaited one in India and perhaps the world. And of course, business-wise it must indeed be a three-fold blessing. After all, it’s not always that the nation reverberates with such joy for three different, yet common reasons.