The train was packed to the full and I didn't have a confirmed berth as I was 58th on the waiting list. It was not unusual. The day after was Diwali, the festival of lights. Diwali is celebrated all over India but in the Mithilanchal region of India, in Bihar Diwali marks the beginning of a series of fun and festivities. The train was packed because all the Biharis serving in different places in India were going to enjoy festive days in their villages. For me, it was a new experience because though I had been to Mithilanchal even before but never in this rush time.
I was my friend's guest for over a week in a village in Sitamarhi, the birth-place of Sita. Quite close to and rather homely with Nepal, this district town is on the north-western tip of Mithilanchal, often referred to as the cultural capital of the state of Bihar. Over 4 crore people of this region are though not very rich and they have to hunt livelihood mostly in other parts of India, but their traditional ties are very strong, they are contented and loving by nature, are God-fearing and soft-spoken. Maithili is the main language but Bajjika and Bhojpuri are also spoken. The qualitative picture of the region is well-depicted by a Maithili poet:
"Pag-pag pokhar machh makhan
Saras bol muski mukh paan
Vidya vaibhav shanti pratik
Saras kshetra Mithilanchal theek."
(On every step you will find ponds of water. People are fond of fish and makhana, produce of a water plant used in making tasty milky dish. They speak sweetly and like to chew 'paan' (betel leaf). Thus, Mithilanchal that abounds in learning and is the symbol of peace is an enjoyable region.)
I agree with the poet because though festivals are celebrated in every part of the world and more lusciously in India, but people of Mithila celebrate from their hearts. Sitamarhi is an important place of this region and apart from this district town where Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, was born there is another important place in vicinity, i.e. Janakpur, where Lord Rama married Sita.
Diwali begins in the villages of this area with great festivity. Modernization has changed the way Diwali is celebrated in towns and cities where electric lights have devoured the traditional beauty of the earthen pots and excessive use of crackers and pollution-making fireworks has taken the place of customary norms conducive to socialization. In towns, Diwali is a show of prosperity and Laxmi is the fondest goddess of the people. However, in the villages of Mithila, I hardly found anyone caring for Laxmi. Rather Hanuman, the god associated with strength and wisdom, ruled the scene. Many days before Diwali actually takes place, the villagers involve themselves in making 'Hanumanji ka Jhanda', i.e. the flag of Hanuman. And this is not just a simple flag of a bamboo with a red cloth on the tip. It rather resembles a blending of a mobile temple and flag. Bamboo sticks and light wood or canes are carefully made into frame-like pieces, colorful papers are pasted and shining metals and glass studded on them to give the frames a beautiful, dazzling look, the image of Hanuman reposed in the lower main frame and then all the frames joined together in a vertical order so that it becomes a 'tower' as high as 25 meter. Thus, Hanumanji ka Jhanda is ready. On Diwali night, these 'jhandas' or flags are taken out in a procession.
Such processions are taken out from all the villages of a cluster and they meet at a junction place, normally any famous temple of lord Hanuman in the cluster, where all the 'jhandas' are brought together a place. Drums beat, folk dancers - all men and women - go on their swing, reverberating slogans of "Jai Ho" (may lord Hanuman be victorious) together with the sounds of dholaks and trumpets turn the whole atmosphere as if all were in a battle-field. Youths brandish their swords, participate in 'kushti' (dual fight), display their strength and skills in several ways, all join together and greet one another collectively with "Jai ho, jai ho" and then go back to their respective villages while 'Hanumanji ka Jhanda' will now rest at that sacred spot till next year.
The spirit of unity and collectivity, of bravery and gallantry is remarkable and one will be really fascinated that high and low, rich and poor, men and women all dance and sing together with utmost hilarity. When I came back from this joyous function and saw the whole village glimmering in the starry light of 'deeyas' (earthen pots with ghee or oil burnt in Diwali nights) I could feel the difference between the town and the village, between those who craved for Laxmi and those who loved Hanuman.
Two days after Diwali, Bhaidooj is celebrated. This is the festival symbolizing a sister's love for her brother and is also known as Bhratri Dwitiya and Govardhan Pooja. Rakshabandhan is all over known as festival of fraternal love but Bhaidooj is observed only in some parts of North India and particularly in this North-Western Mithilanchal region. The association of 'Hanumanji ka Jhanda' with Diwali is also a typical feature only of this area and cannot be observed in any other part of India. While on Rakshabandhan, sisters tie a silky 'rakhi' on the wrist of their brothers and it is expected of brothers that they will safeguard their sisters, Bhaidooj is a festival when sisters pray for the strength and long life of their brothers. Instead of a silky 'rakhi', beads of raw cotton are tied on the brother's wrist. Sisters ask their brothers to eat, apart from sweets, three symbolic things: coconut, nut and a corn named 'vajri'. These are hard-shelled edibles and especially 'vajri' is very hard to chew.
The implied meaning is that the sisters wish their brothers to be as strong as nut and like a 'vajra' (fatal mythological weapon of Indra, the god of rains). Unless brothers are strong how can they safeguard their sisters? So, Bhaidooj is, in fact, other part of the coin and a supplement to Rakshabandhan. On this same day, Govardhan Pooja is also celebrated. This is an important festival for the farmers perhaps associated with the joy of reaping sugarcane, wheat and other important crops of winter. However, a mythological link goes to the days of Lord Krishna when He saved His friendly 'Gops' (milkmen) from the wrath of Indra, the god of rains, and picked up the mountain of Govardhan like an overshadowing umbrella under which all the cows and milkmen assembled and rescued from the torrents of rain. This mythological story itself has a grave meaning inside and similar stories, in different forms, are found in the scriptures of all the great religions.
For example, the story of Noah is well-known to Christians. The overall essence is that those who seek shelter in the provisions of God are saved. Thus, Govardhan Pooja is also a symbolic submission to the will of God and, in practical terms, the farmers express their happiness over the harvest they have reaped - be it sound or poor, they are content that God granted them what was their share. Cows and oxen, the closest friends of the farmers of Indian village, receive special attention on this day. Their horns are painted, colors applied to their bodies and generally they are given a break of rest on this day as homage to their tireless labor.
Another significant celebration underlining the sisters' love for their brothers is "Shama-Chakeva". Starting some days after Diwali, Shama-Chakeva is rather a traditional game which lasts for over a fortnight. For a girl or women living in towns, this game perhaps will seem like a babies' game with dolls but I found it meaningful. In a village set-up, there are joint families still surviving in most rural areas. And then there are neighboring families. Girls and women relieved from their daily toils and routine work, gather in the evening and sit in a circle, light a lamp and sing songs remembering their brothers. They play with the images of Shama and Chakeva. Chakeva is the brother and the sister's name in the game is Khirlich. Shama is Chakeva's elder brother's wife. A villain is also present named 'Chugla' who backbites and tries to raise barrier between the pious love of the brother and the sister but the reality is revealed and 'Chugla' gains nothing. As a punishment to 'Chugla', his long moustache is burnt with the burning lamp bit by bit. On the fifteenth day, his moustache would completely vanish leaving a burning mark and with this the traditional game of Shama-Chakeva is over.
The songs sung during this game reveal many truths and realities and underline the sisters' selfless love for the brothers. In the songs, they reveal their grief of separation as the brother is earning his livelihood in a remote part and does not come often to meet his sister, as the sister is tortured by the step-mother and even exploited by the brother's wife and only her brother can understand her plight, as the sister is married and now going far, far away from her brother and inviting him to come and meet her frequently. Their are solemn, deep emotions in the songs of 'Shama-Chakeva' whose in-depth implications can be understood only by those who are familiar with the Indian village set-up, situation of families, their problems and conflicts and, amidst all these, the holy bond of friendship and understanding between a brother and a sister.
On the sixth and seventh days of Diwali, there is a mega festival celebrated and this is not celebrated only in Mithilanchal but in the whole of Bihar with great honor and sense of sanctity and even in some parts of the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. This festival is known as "Chhath" (i.e. the sixth day festival). Chhath is an old festival and, I feel, festival is a wrong word for it and undermines its sanctity. It is the worship of Sun god. The worship of Sun is believed to be introduced in India by a sect of Brahmins known as 'Mags' or Shakdweepis. Migrated from the ancient island of Shaka at the invitation of Lord Krishna, the 'Mags' were the scholars of Ayurveda and believed in the material and spiritual power of the Sun as the source of all healing. Chhath is celebrated in two parts: on the sixth day, homage is paid to the evening sun. A proverb goes very well that everyone worships the rising Sun, that is, everyone bows down before one who is gaining influence. Chhath is the only festival or adoration in which the setting Sun is worshipped first. On the next day morning, homage is paid to the rising Sun. Winter starts in India around this time and rivers and ponds are clean and scenic. From every aspect, this is a very favorable season and quite conducive to cheerfulness. Men and women take the 'vrata' (vow) of Chhath, for three days they refrain from anything supposed to be contrary to piety, they fast and eat only some fruits and on the day of worship they stand for hours in deep water facing the Sun and praying and offering water to the Sun in adoration. As the water is cold in this season, it is very difficult to stand for so many hours but Chhath demands sacrifice and one has to face these hardships radiantly and cheerfully. As for children, it is always a fun for them to watch their mothers baking sweet cakes and other palatable things and washing the fruits but they have to take heart as they cannot even touch anything until the offer is made to Sun god. What are they? Even the parrots are afraid and they cannot partake from the fruits before Chhath lest the Sun god will be angry. In a beautiful song of Chhath, the vower sings:
"Uje kelba phar le ghaud me o pe suga mandraye
Uje khabari janaibo Suruj se suga delo juthiaye
Uje marbau re sugba dhanush se sugga gire murjhaye".
(See the bananas fructified on the tree in a big bunch, a parrot is hovering over to partake of it. Refrain, O Parrot! or I will inform about this to the Sun God. He will shoot you with His bow and arrow and you will fall down senseless). Such a deep sense of sanctity surrounds this highly significant worship.
And I was back on the eighth day. The train was packed again but my return reservation was confirmed. The bogies were over-crowded but all were happy. Next year again .. their hopes were their companions.
1968 born Vandna Pandey is a housewife since 1988 and has a flair for writing, mostly in Hindi, in her free time. Most of her write-ups are on Indian cuisine, festivals, places, cinema and people. An Arts under-graduate Vandna lives in Gwalior and loves gardening, cooking, watching cinema, listening to music and surfing on the internet. She has also written a number of poems in Hindi and few in English - all unpublished as yet. Her favorite quote: "This world is not such in which the Soul loves only Soul and Beauty craves only for Beauty. Sometimes the Soul wants to meet Beauty and Beauty yearns to soar to the realm of the Soul."