Dr. Kundan Lal Chowdhury

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The Shivratri Spirit

by Dr. K. L. Chowdhury

I claim no more knowledge of Shivratri than that we observe it every year with enthusiasm, gaiety and devotion on the auspicious night when lord Shiva, the destroyer and protector, and goddess Parvati, his consort, united in eternal wedlock.

A lot of myth and legend is woven around this most celebrated of Kashmiri Pandit festivals. Parvati, in her previous birth as Uma , sacrificed herself to become  “Sati”. This was a mark of protest against the dishonor to her husband, lord Shiva. She jumped into the consuming flames of Yajna, which her father, Dakshya Prajapati, had organized. He had invited all gods, rishis and sages to his Yajna but deliberately ignored his own son-in-law to insult him and show him down. The incensed Shiva had burst into Tandava Nritya (cosmic dance) which shook the earth, the sea, and the skies and threatened whole creation with eternal doom. Only after petitions of mercy from the gods did he retire to mount Kailasa to resume his meditation and restore equilibrium to the universe.

In her new birth, in a new incarnation as the daughter of Himalayas , Parvati had to go through a long period of meditation and penance to claim the hand of lord Shiva again. The groom arrived on his buffalo mount - smeared all over with ash, his hair matted into locks, wearing a garland of skulls and accompanied by his marriage party of yakshas - to the horror and shock of the bride’s parents and guests who shuddered at the idea of giving the hand of the beautiful maiden, to an uncouth god. However, Parvati stood firm against the admonition of her parents and insisted that she would marry the ash-smeared groom.  Appeals flew to the groom from all guests and he went away to return soon in a more presentable form in the company of gods, sages and celestial beings and to the welcome of flowers and songs, dance and drums. The event is being re-enacted in every Hindu house all over the world with great religious fervor.

A lot of ritual goes into the festival. A marriage ceremony is performed between Shiva and Parvati, in every house. Pitchers, pots and pans symbolizing the lord, the goddess, and the marriage party, are arranged and adorned at a vantage place in the house. A pitcher filled with fresh water and dried walnuts by the first lady of the house or by the elder daughter-in-law, represents the “Vatuk”. Delicacies of rice, fish, turnip, lotus-stalk, mutton, water-fowl, vegetables and sundries are cooked and fed to the groom, the bride and the guests after the performance of a full ritual marriage  ceremony with the recitation of  mantras  and hymns and to the accompaniment of conchs and bells. Incense and aroma fill the house as oil lamps are lit and camphor is put to flames, and gums and resins, seeds, grains and cereals are fed to the fire. The ceremony ends with the recitation of Aarti (mass prayer) by the inmates who then break their fast and enjoy the feast.

That is as far as the ritual goes but Shivratri is not just that. Like the Yuletide Spirit that grips Christians all over the world and heralds the birth of Jesus Christ, Kashmiri Pandits get into the Shivratri Spirit much before the wedding night of the lord and his consort. As a prelude to the great event, a full month of prayers and fasting in the manner of “Dahem Kah” (an alternate day of single meal and no meal except fresh fruit and milk) and recitation of scriptures, Shiv-Purana and the reading of epics, are undertaken during the month of Magha.  ‘Kaw Poornima’ or Magha Purnima, celebrated on the 15th day of the bright fortnight of Magha, heralds the celebrations proper. On that day we bid an adieu to the prolonged hibernation and incarceration of winter, go for a holy dip in the Vitasta and offer yellow rice on triangular contraptions of stick and soft grass called ‘Kaw Potul’, to the crows who come home to roost around that time to the welcome song, ‘Kaw Batta Kawo’.  The children sing singly and in chorus to the delight of one and all:

Crow, crow,

crow of Battas,

my childhood crow,

my khichidi-eating crow!

Crow, crow,

my cawing crow;

my daring  crow;

come, to our new house,

come to the roof above,

come to the eaves below,

come to the windowsill

come, eat  your heart’s  fill.

Come, fresh from a dip in Gangabal, 

the sacred thread  round your neck,

a saffron mark on  your forehead,

your body smeared with brown clay.

Come, flying across the valleys, pray!

Come to my right, 

and come to my left.

To the right is the green grapevine,

to the left the pomegranate and the pine.

Come, it is time for bonhomie,

come, let us eat a full belly.

Crow, crow,

my   friendly  crow,

my lucky crow.

Come to my house,

come with your babes,

come with your spouse.

Come one, come all,

come, there is a windfall.

The infectious spirit catches everybody in a mood of joy and generosity and the blossoming of the dormant urges and aspirations. Even as the earth is often white with fresh snow, the thaw has already started and the spring smells waft in the air, as the countdown on Shivratri starts on the first day of Phagun following on the heels of Kaw Poornima. Children get into their act on the very first day of the dark fortnight of Phagun (Jan-Feb) by their non-sense number rhymes to which grown ups readily lend their voice.

 “Akh tu akh Khodaya….” (One, the very first, is God)

One, the very first, is God

Two, is a bundle of firewood

Three, a trio of sacramental walnuts

Four, a perfect square

Five, the Pandava brethren

Six, the six Rishis

Seven, the seventh circle of heaven

Eight, the purifying Ashtami

Nine, the ninth wonder

Ten, the women’s homecoming from Malyun (parents’ house)

Eleven, the day of fish eating

Twelve, the day of Wagoor (filling of the pots and pans)

Thirteen, the great Hea`ret (Mahashivratri)

Fourteen, the salutation (Salaam)

Fifteen, the grand finale (Dooni Mavas)

It is during this fortnight that the ghosts of winter are driven away from the houses which are dusted, swept and cleaned and mud-washed or whitewashed. People go shopping for new utensils and new dresses. Parvati, the bride, gets her ceremonial bath on Devgon preceded by the Mehndiraat (the night of the henna) on the Ashtami. The tempo rises as all married women of the house, young and aged, return home on the 10th day of the fortnight after having paid a visit to their parents, and bringing in loads of gifts - foot wears, firepots (Kangri) and packets of salt; mittens, mufflers and socks; candy, cowry and cash.

The joyous spirit does not escape anybody. Kids play with cowry and other sea shells, young boys and girls take shovels in hand and clear their backyards of snow to pave the ground for cricket and other games, lovers arrange rendezvous to renew their pledges, the orthodox start visiting the temples, the devotees go for morning parikrama (rounds) of the Pantheon of gods at Hari Parbat complex. The sixteen temples (shurah yaar) on the shores of Vitasta in Srinagar come alive with the devotional chanting of hymns and songs, the ringing of the bells and the sound of conchs. The high-water mark of the season is the Salaam, the day after the night of wedding, when, in a spirit of bonhomie and intense social interaction; people go visiting their friends and relatives. Elders give away ‘Heart Kharach’ (pocket money) to youngsters who come to pay their respects and receive blessings. Muslim neighbours come with good wishes and greetings.

The grand finale comes a day after on the fifteenth day of the fortnight, the Dooni Mavas (the walnut Amavasya) when the ‘Vatuk’ filled with walnuts is taken to the riverbank. Here a ritual ceremony is held with a wash or swim in sacred Vitasta and the first offerings of the walnuts and rice made to the river.  The man of the house returns from the river with the ‘Vatuk’ and the housewife is waiting behind the closed door. An interesting conversation ensues as he knocks and she asks questions before she opens the door:

Knock, knock

‘Who is there?’

‘Rambroor’

‘What have you got?’

‘A lot of gifts.’

‘Speak out.

‘Food and riches, work and wisdom, health and wealth,’ 

‘For whom?’

‘For one and all.’

The door opens wide in a great welcome. The sacramental (‘prasad’) walnuts and fresh-baked rice-bread are distributed to the household, the neighbors, relatives, and friends. Muslims wait specially for this delectable gift.

There is this unique rhythm to Shivratri. So much of rich tradition is packed in the festival that seeking a meaning to all the nuances and rituals would not only rob it of its mystic charm but also throw one off the beautiful track, which the devotees take blindfolded to reach their goal of righteousness. Shivratri is not a mere event; it is a series of social and religious festivals following each other in tandem. It is a season of goodwill and of reunion. It is goodbye to the freezing winter and welcome to a rejuvenating, refreshing spring, with ‘Veerikyun’ and ‘Tekibatni’ peeping in their full yellow and saffron glory from under the melting snow, the red-tongued willow buds unfolding to fledgling green, the first of narcissus hidden behind a bush, the early blossoming pansy eyeing you with a blush and the song of birds in their passage back home. Shivratri wakes you up from the sloth and slumber of winter and fills you with a new zeal and vigour, stirring new hopes and setting new goals. It is not just the marriage of Shiva to Parvati but a process of renewal and rebirth, a reaffirmation of the strength of faith, a reassertion of the continuing cycle of life, a reiteration of the essence of religious tradition, a season of sharing and caring, of living and loving and homecoming.

(This write-up was possible by inputs from my revered mother, Smt. Dhanvati, who helped me recall the rhymes we used to sing during this season in our childhood. I dedicate it to her abiding presence, her love and guidance. Of course a lot has changed since our forced exile but the spirit of Shivratri will never die down.)

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