Gauri Festival

Gauri Festival

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: August-September; third day of Bhadrapada
Where Celebrated: Southern India
Symbols and Customs: Cradle, Number Two, Winnowing Fan
Colors: Red, yellow, white, and black. Yellow is the color of wealth, beauty, and good fortune. In this festival, it appears in the color of turmeric powder, bananas, and the sour rice dish that is served. Red, the color of blood and vitality, can be seen in the vermilion powder, betel nuts, and bright red saris worn in some parts of India. White, the color of purity and continuity, can be seen in the rice and milk that are served. Black is symbolic of death, difficulty, and danger. Hindu women are given black bangles to protect them from misfortune. These four colors define the basic forces with which married women must contend.

ORIGINS

The Gauri Festival is a religious celebration in Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the world's oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day to day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Gauri is the Hindu goddess of married women as well as the goddess of daughters. She is a form of Parvati, the wife of Shiva, and is often described as "the golden one" because Brahma gave her a golden complexion when her husband complained that her skin was too dark. Her festival, which is celebrated by women throughout southern India, involves a series of rituals associated with welcoming, worshipping, and sending the goddess back to her home. These rituals are designed to reflect the typical experience of a Hindu woman, who is born into her family, lives in her parents' home until shortly after her marriage, and finally leaves her family to become part of her husband's household.

The celebration begins on the third day of the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada. Women wash their faces, bathe themselves and their children in oil, and decorate their floors with elaborate white line drawings. Then they dress in their best saris and prepare to summon Gauri from her home in the river.

Men are not entirely excluded from the festival. A group of them go to the river with a large wooden CRADLE suspended from a long pole. The ball of sand they put in the cradle represents Gauri, who is taken into the village for everyone to worship. The women bring their trays filled with offerings, each of which has a symbolic meaning or color (see "Colors" above). A comb, for example, symbolizes good grooming, which is closely linked to sexuality and the sexual discipline that women are supposed to exhibit. The feast that follows the principal welcoming ceremony has two required dishes: white yogurt rice (white symbolizing purity, duty, and discipline) and sour yellow rice (wealth, good fortune), which are eaten together, along with various side dishes.

There is a lull of a day or two after the welcoming celebration, during which the goddess's son Ganesha is said to arrive in the village to tell his mother that his father, Shiva, is lonely. Because it is taboo to send the goddess away on the second or fourth day of the month (even numbers being unlucky), the send-off ritual is performed on the third or fifth day. The sand ball representing the goddess is returned to the river, certain farewell rituals are carried out at the river's edge, and various foods and flowers are gathered to send with Gauri on her journey home.

The myth of Gauri symbolizes the transition a bride goes through when she leaves her family to live with her husband. The struggles that Gauri and Shiva go through before assuming their life as a married couple have many parallels in the marriage negotiations that take place between Hindu families and in the struggles a bride must endure in her effort to be accepted by her husband's family. The women of the village who get together to celebrate the Gauri Festival often take advantage of the opportunity to discuss their own problems and the concerns of women in general, such as infertility, poverty, and desertion. They regard Gauri as married in a permanent way that stands as a model of stability. Since the fear of widowhood is intense among Hindu women, the fortunate women whose husbands are still living do everything in their power to honor the goddess who can help them remain in that favorable state.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Cradle

It is significant that Gauri is brought into the village in a cradle, not on a throne or some other conveyance befitting a goddess. The cradle is associated with pregnancy and childbearing, thus underscoring the festival's emphasis on a woman's experience.

Number Two

Hindus generally consider even numbers unlucky because they convey the idea of finality. An even amount of money, for example, suggests finality and "no future"; therefore, Hindus in southern India will often pay 101 rupees for an item that is officially priced at only 100 rupees.

The numbers one and two contradict this cultural rule. Perhaps because two equals one plus one and symbolizes non-solitude, it is considered lucky even though it is even. Similarly, the number one is considered unlucky even though it is odd. In the context of the Gauri Festival, the number two symbolizes the fruitful partnership of the married couple. Women celebrating the festival always bring gifts and offerings that come in pairs, such as palm-leaf earrings. Even WINNOWING FANS are never sold as single items, but only in pairs.

Winnowing Fan

The winnowing fan is used to separate grain from chaff, or useless husks. In India, it is used to produce clean, husked rice, which makes it a logical symbol of separation-the separation of the daughter from her family at marriage-and of purification. Used in the Gauri Festival to hold the gifts that women exchange with each other, the winnowing fans usually contain rice and other grains, salt, a cube of brown sugar, bananas, coconut, betel nuts, and turmeric root-everything that is needed for basic nutrition, with the exception of oil and spices. Such gifts are considered symbolic of nourishment and growth, and the women who exchange them are expressing the idea that each woman's wealth (symbolized by turmeric root, which is yellow) comes from another woman, both in the form of the dowry that is brought into a marriage and in the form of the gifts mothers give to their daughters.

Also known as "wealth-producing fans" or bhagina mara, the winnowing fans used in the festival are prepared in sets of four: a pair of fans is filled with gifts and covered with two more fans (see NUMBER TWO ). A pair of doubled winnowing fans also rests in the CRADLE beside the ball of sand that represents the goddess Gauri.

FURTHER READING

Hanchett, Suzanne. Coloured Rice: Symbolic Structure in Hindu Family Festivals. Delhi: Hindustan Pub. Corp., 1988. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.
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