Friday 21 October 2016

Karwachauth: tradition, superstition or kitty party?

picture courtesy: Google images.
Superstition runs deep in my veins. I can't help it. Call it conditioning, or just plain sanskar (values) passed on by my grandmother and mother.

Beji, my grandmother, was superstitious about everything: from not using soap to bathe on Thursdays to not eating onions on Tuesdays to not drinking water just before she stepped out to go anywhere. The list goes on and on. My mother, however, was slightly more liberal and chose to let only a few superstitions creep into her daily life.

I hated them all. Even now, you will find me relishing eggs on Tuesdays. There's a rebel clock inside me that makes me crave eggs on the one day you are not supposed to eat them if you are a Khatri (Punjabi). And before you enlist all the cholesterol driven health benefits of abstaining from eggs, let me put your protest to bed-- I don't even like eggs that much.

At 45, I'm a concoction of my grandmother's compulsive kitchen cleaning, some of her superstitions, almost all of my mother's housekeeping standards and a lot of family traditions that look suspiciously like superstition to me.

Take Karwachauth for example. This is a very North Indian price one has to pay to remain suhagan (married). It's a killer fast observed by married women for the long life and prosperity of their husbands. It falls on the fourth day after Full Moon around this time of the year.
(in the Hindu lunisolar calendar month of Kartik, according to wikipedia)

Karwachauth  Rules in 4 simple steps :
1. Wake up before sunrise, get dressed and eat a beautiful feast prepared by you or your minions, as the case may be.
2. DO NOT consume any food or water till you've spotted the moon.
3. Sit with other fasters and do the pooja (prayers) before sunset and generally rejoice as a group, patiently waiting for the moon.
4. Spot the moon, feel grateful that your husband is there to bless you with love and financial stability and break your fast.
the end

The Reality of Karwachauth in my household (especially when I was working and living in London)
1. Set the alarm for 10 minutes before sunrise. Get out of bed half asleep. Wash face. Brush teeth. Put the kettle on. Drink gallons of water. Watch the lightening sky while sipping second cup of tea. Eat a banana and munch on some nuts. Set the alarm for usual wake up time and hit the bed.
2. No food-- no problem. No water --- will manage. No tea -- DO NOT mess with me! You've been warned!
3. Working and married and fasting? Turn on one of the million whatsap videos of the pooja while driving back home because the sun's gonna set before you reach that front door. Somehow reach the sofa in your living room and plop.
4. Keep sending husband, son, daughter (in turns) out to check the status of the moon while getting more and more irritated with that pesky headache because you haven't had your fix of tea ALL day.
When the moon does show up, after the sieve ritual, take that first sip of water! Go aah! Put the kettle on. Sip the tea. Watch the headache dissolve and become human again.

Why do I do it? Why do I put myself through it?
Three reasons:
1. I'm just too scared not to. This belies logic, I know. But it's my truth. Yes, I can see it's entangled in the web of superstition woven by my ancestors, but I'm too chicken to break free, just yet. You see, the popular belief is that messing up this fast can have a direct impact on the husband's health and well being
2. To check my will power and by default to hopefully lose 200 - 500 grams in one day!
3. I get to dress up.

The first time I Karwachauthed, I wasn't yet married to him, just newly engaged. I think that was the only time I truly believed in it. It was my coming of age ritual. I'd seen all my married aunts, my grandmother and my mother observe it. So when I took my first steps towards marital life, this fast marked being accepted into the 'married women's' club. It felt special.

Then followed a decade or so of fasting on an auto pilot. Busy with job and young children, I never pondered on why I fasted. I just did.

The story of the fast is like any other legend that has become so deep rooted in the everyday life of a community or the people that it has morphed into superstition disguised as tradition. I know it sounds silly but I don't want my husband to get a tummy ache just because I couldn't go without food for one day. There, I've said it. The only reason I fast is because I'm a superstitious coward.

These days even husbands fast to show their solidarity or I guess it's just easier this way; they don't have to worry about fixing their own dinner.

Jokes aside, why do we (liberal, educated, progressive) women continue to practise these rituals?

I've been  feeling  all churned up since the Full Moon. Why should I do this? No one's forcing me to. I almost feel like a fraud feminist. How can I talk about gender equality if I continue to shackle myself in these rituals? A ritual that reeks of women's dependence on their husbands to provide for them. Hence, fasting for the husband to ensure he lives a long and prosperous life seems crucial for the woman to enjoy financial security and stability. It sounds like a good business practice for an era when women didn't go out to earn their livelihood. So why continue with an archaic practice?

Then two things happened and I found the answer to my whys:

First, I went for a mehendi (henna) party where the host had put in a huge amount of effort to recreate India in Doha. The food, the henna, the chatter, the laughter-- her house resonated with wonderful sounds of womanhood -- bindaas (carefree) and beautiful. It was a 'women only' affair: single, married, divorced, widowed, henna lovers, henna haters, big eaters, small eaters, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Turkish, Syrian, Indian and British-- yes, it was party time. Why not? I thought. Why not?

The second moment of awareness came during the pooja (prayers): sitting in a circle with twelve other women dressed in red, pink, purple, gold, maroon and coral -- beautiful hues worn in traditional outfits from different parts of India, some friends and some strangers, some newly-wed, some married for more than thirty years, some shy, some bold, some early and some late to the venue, but all sitting around in a circle in a veranda under the late afternoon sky, listening to an ancient story played on an I-phone. The words of the song that accompany the katha (tale) tell you that on the day of Karwachauth you don't cook, clean, sew or do any chores whatsoever.

Scenes of my aunts and grandmother and mother flash before my eyes. Before Mother's day invaded India, this was the day when they were treated like royalty. No chores and no cooking. The focus of the day was getting ready for the pooja.

That's pretty much what I did. I didn't have to go to work, so I rested, made and applied my yohgurt and turmeric face mask, chose which saree and jewellery I'd wear, got dressed, took a few selfies and climbed into a friend's car to reach the pooja venue. Why not?

And once the pooja was over, and the prayers had been sung enlisting the virtues of  goddesses, our collective voices ringing out into a blushing sky, we went around hugging and congratulating each other. Why not? I thought. How beautiful and unassuming is this celebration of the female form?

Some of the fasters had a cup of tea after the pooja while others posed for more pictures, exchanged compliments and fashion/shopping tips, shared stories about how the rituals are done in their part of India-- all slightly different and all immensely interesting.

I'm aware of all the 'eat the patriarchy' stuff that's hot at the moment. By all means, STOP the forced fasting. No one should be made to feel guilty or harassed to do anything, least of all go hungry and thirsty. And if this practice is another stick to beat women with, then I'm totally against it.

You know why I do it, right? Because I'm a coward and I've established that fact early on.

But the reason I enjoy this day is because being away from my country of birth, I get to feel a part of it when I sit in a circle and pass my thali (plate) to the mother/daughter/wife sitting next to me. At times like these, I think of my mother who always made an effort to dress up no matter how ill she was. She's no more but the gota in her red dupatta sparkles with me when I sit in a circle and listen to the katha while my Beji's pink pure chiffon one says, 'Jyonde raho puttar, sada suhagan raho.' live a long and happily married life.

In this world of war and hatred, is it such a bad thing to keep some of these traditions alive? Why Not? I say. Why the hell not? 


  1. Loved the honesty girl! As always beautifully expressed the doubts, fears,memories et all.

  2. Interesting! I think you feel the essence of it perhaps more so because you do not live in India...And your celebration sounds so pure and sweet.....I haven't witnessed one myself but got a live commentary from a south indian friend of mine, describing his neighborhood in Gurgaon.. Special Mehndhi for Rs 25,000 - Watching TV and movies, Diamonds for gifts, Husbands worrying about expensive gifts and dreading seeing their wives bad moods

    1. AH! the curse of commerce and the material offerings which take away the real reason why we celebrate customs, traditions, festivals. I shudder and sigh when I see the glitz eclipsing the simple joys of expressing love. I'm happy to be far, far away from that world and I'm sure so is my husband's pocket;) xx

    2. Me too:) I feel glad to be away from it the material offerings.... especially the ostentatious weddings.. I was thrilled to see a simple wedding at a meditation camp we had gone to during summer solstice and even more thrilled when my sons found that wedding cool !!!

  3. Very well written and very honest, as always. Most of Indian traditions have a simple logic behind it....but it's normally given a religious garb to make it easy to accept. Unfortunately, with time the logic is lost, just the ritual remains.

    1. I'd love to spend more time researching the histories (social, cultural and religious) of these rituals. Maybe, one day. Thanks for your comments Ruchita.

  4. Heartfull read Arti !!! I agree.. "why not".. yes, age old logic behind the ritual has lost but ritual remains because there is a meaning to this ritual. In today's world its about celebrating your love for your husband and celebrating being a women so why not..


    1. You and I like our celebrations Prasanna:) Right? Thanks for the visit and the hugs. Have a wonderful Diwali with your family. xx

  5. Wowzzz! Lovely self debate of should I or shouldn't I fast. An awesome picture of the traditional India under one roof for Puja. Really enjoyed. Keep up the good work dear. God bless! You too were looking gorgeous as your blog.

    1. Thank you Manu:) I love this picture too. It captures the simple way we used to celebrate special days. Somehow, a lot of money is spent these days for a lot of tamasha-- the essence of rituals seems to be getting lost somewhere. Luckily, here in Doha--being far away from the glitz of Delhi, we enjoyed it the old fashioned way:)

  6. Enjoyed this true and honest.So true Arti, I have fondest memories of mummy keeping Karva Chauth and her dressing up in her heavy sari. Also us waking up with her and eating mooli parathas!

    1. I'd forgotten the pranthas Seema...thanks for reminding me...were those mooli or gobhi? Let's talk and figure this one out.
      Love to see you here in my blogosphere:) Keep up with the visits. xx

  7. Rituals are all about connection. This one connects you to your roots, your homeland. In your words, not just in this post but in much of your blog, I can sense how deep and important those roots are to you. Thank you for allowing me to glimpse a life half a world away.

  8. oh, this made me smile Arti. Especially the line:
    *There's a rebel clock inside me that makes me crave eggs on the one day you are not supposed to eat them if you are a Khatri (Punjabi)*
    I was raised by Catholic parents & it was common practice to never eat fish on Fridays. I didn't even LIKE fish, but on Fridays, i got a craving for fish sticks. hahahaha! I always love visiting you here because I learn things about you and about India. Your traditions and rituals. Your values. The importance of "belonging" and of carrying on such traditions, even if only in telling the stories. So much to learn from the past, isn't there? Thank you for enlightening me Arti. :) xx

    1. Hey Pauline. It's always a joy to find your comments on my blog. What can I say? I'm a needy one:)
      Enjoy your fish sticks while I go boil eggs for breakfast;) Hugs and lots of love to you. xx

  9. Nice read Arti, I am not superstitious but when it comes to traditions, I believe they have been created for a reason with wisdom and thoughtfulness. I follow them and do not like to question however I don't force my daughter into it.

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting Balvinder. I agree: traditions are important.

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  11. This was a wonderful read. Being from South India, the only exposure I had o Karwa Chauth was through Hindi serials. I often used to think it was always the wives who fasted. Who will fast for their health and happiness? And was a fast really required. "I guess it's just easier this way; they don't have to worry about fixing their own dinner." This was really funny. But you have a point, sometimes you fear for the worst and you do everything in your power to ensure that things don't go wrong, even fasting for an entire day!

    1. Hi Shweta. I'm reading your comment today (24th July 2023). I have no idea how I missed it. Thank you for visiting my blog. Yes, fear of the unknown mixed with conditioning can make us practise archaic traditions even if we consider ourselves modern and liberated. The idea is to keep questioning why we do what we do instead of blindly following the old ways.

  12. Your contemplation about the role of traditions in a world filled with war and hatred is thought-provoking. Your candid account of observing Karwachauth, despite questioning its relevance in today's progressive world, reveals the emotional connection you have with tradition and community. It's evident that you find comfort and a sense of belonging in celebrating these rituals with other women, creating a bond that transcends cultural and geographical boundaries. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences so openly and authentically.

    1. Thank you for reading the post so closely Felicia. It was a joy to read your comment. I'm grateful for readers who connect with my writing like you did. Have a wonderful day. :)


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