Pitra Visarjana Amavasya

Pitra Paksa Festival (Pitra Visarjana Amavasya)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: September-October; Asvina
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Kalasa, Rice, Vegetables
Related Holidays: All Souls' Day, Día de los Muertos, Obon Festival

ORIGINS

The Pitra Paksa Festival is part of Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the 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.

Hindus believe that the dead still need to be fed and clothed. They will become angry if they are not fed, and they need the clothing that is offered to them each year so they can gain admission to the resting place of dead souls, known as Swaraga, and avoid going to hell, or Naraka. If they aren't provided with what they need, accident, illness, or misfortune might befall their descendants. The two-week Pitra Paksa ("ancestors' fortnight") Festival observed in southern India is therefore one of the most important family rituals of the Hindu year, a time when people devote themselves to tending the needs of their deceased relatives.

Preparations for the festival include whitewashing houses, buying new clothes, and bathing. On the first day of the festival, one or two senior members of each family fast by avoiding all nonliquid foods, while the others eat only snacks. The floor of the area where the ancestor worship will take place-usually near the kitchen or front door-is cleaned carefully with cow dung, and rangolli designs are drawn on the floor with flour. A low wooden platform is placed on top of the design. A plantain leaf is laid on top of the platform (or directly on top of the rangolli design), some RICE is poured on the leaf, and the KALASA vessel is filled with water and set on top of the rice. Two butter-burning lamps are placed on either side.

The high point of the festival is the offering of a special meal to the deceased ancestors. It includes two meat dishes, no less than three VEGETABLE dishes, several kinds of snacks, and three or more (always an odd number) banana leaves filled with food. Three of these meals are prepared; one is placed on the roof, to be eaten by crows and sparrows, while the other two are consumed by humans. Sometimes Brahmins (members of the highest Hindu caste) are invited to partake of these special foods in the belief that they will ensure that the offerings reach the souls of departed family members. Occasionally one meal is fed to a cow in the belief that animals (as well as birds) are somehow connected to the ancestral spirits. During the entire two-week period, no male member of the family shaves, and no one is allowed to wear new clothes or cut his or her hair or nails. The eldest son usually performs the required religious ceremonies each day, which include offering water to the departed ancestors. On the last day of the two-week festival, known as Amavasya, or new moon, offerings are made to all ancestors whose day of death is unknown.

Brahmins and non-Brahmins honor the dead in quite different ways. Brahmins observe the lunar anniversaries of both parents' deaths, rather than attributing any particular importance to the Pitra Paksa fortnight. For non-Brahmins, however, the Pitra Paksa Festival is very similar to ALL SOULS' DAY for Christians, DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS for Mexicans, and the OBON FESTIVAL for Japanese Buddhists. It honors the ancestral spirits as a group, rather than individual family members who have died more recently. Pitra Paksa Festival

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Kalasa

The vessel known as the kalasa is either a new clay pot, which guarantees its purity, or one that has been cleaned thoroughly before being filled. There is no fixed rule determining who fills the kalasa with water; it may be the family member who is fasting, the head of the household, or the unmarried daughter. The water is drawn from a nearby river, irrigation channel, or well. A very specific procedure must be followed while filling the vessel, which includes chanting the name of the eldest female ancestor and placing some betel leaves and a coconut in the open top of the filled vessel.

Once the kalasa has been set in the place of worship, it is decorated with vermilion, a garland of yellow chrysanthemums (a symbol of life and prosperity), or necklaces. Sometimes it is wrapped in a sari as well. Most household shrines separate the male and female offerings that are set before the vessel. Male offerings, which might include a pance (waist-cloth), liquor, tobacco, and a towel, are placed on the right. Female offerings, including palm-leaf earrings and other items of jewelry, combs, and saris, are placed on the left.

The kalasa symbolizes the deceased ancestors to whom food, water, and clothing are being offered. Once the kalasa has been installed, decorated, clothed, and "fed," the family continues its worship throughout the two-week festival by burning incense and camphor.

Rice

Rice plays an important part in this and other Hindu festivals. Raw rice is considered "hot," while cooked rice is "cool." Cooked rice is associated with funeral and mourning rituals, as well as with the spirits of the departed. Hindus of all castes put a small amount of raw rice in the corpse's mouth before it is cremated or buried. By the end of the ten-day period that is believed to mark the transition to a peaceful death, the deceased Hindu's soul is considered to be as "cool," or as peaceful, as rice that has been cooked.

During the Pitra Paksa Festival, cooked rice is served in several different forms. Khir, or rice boiled in milk, is sometimes offered to Brahmins in the belief that whatever is given to them will also reach the souls of the departed. Some Hindus serve yogurt rice shaped into balls called "kalasa balls." Rice flour is also an important ingredient in several of the snacks and desserts eaten during the festival. Plain boiled rice is the main festival offering, symbolic of the ancestors' state of peaceful repose after having passed through all the stages of life. Cooked white rice is also a metaphor for their having given life to their descendants, and for the integrity of the family as a whole.

Vegetables

Certain vegetables are a required element in the meal that is offered to the deceased ancestors, while others are taboo. This is because, as all Hindus know, the ancestors have their own preferences which must be catered to. Gourds and squashes feature prominently on the list of required vegetables because they are filled with seeds and grow on tendril-bearing vines, both of which symbolize the fertility and continuity of the family. Eggplant and potato are usually required as well, probably because they embody the principle of whiteness and purity. White is also the color of milk and of rice, and is therefore associated with nourishment and family ties. But other gourds, particularly those whose seeds are white when immature and then turn black when they're ready for planting, are strictly taboo.

Not every Hindu family has the same list of required vegetables for the ancestral feast. Some families might choose okra, for example, because it is filled with white seeds. But its skin is quite rough, and it lacks the pulpy white flesh that some other vegetables have. So while one family might be attracted to okra because of the white seeds, another family might reject it because of its rough skin and lack of white flesh. The list of vegetables offered to the ancestors at the festival is based on the characteristics of the vegetables themselves as well as on the habits and customs of each individual family.

Brahmins prepare a mixture called saubhagya sunti or "fortune-bestowing ginger," which they claim possesses the qualities of a thousand vegetables and can be used in the ancestors' meal to replace all other vegetables.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. 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. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Pitra Paksa Festival

Pitra Visarjana Amavasya

September-October; waning half of Hindu month of Asvina
During this two-week festival in India, no male family member is allowed to shave, nor is it permissible to cut hair, pare nails, or wear new clothes. It is a time for honoring ancestors by making special offerings of food and water, especially khir, or rice boiled in milk. Brahmans (priests, members of the highest Hindu caste) are often invited to partake of these special foods in the belief that they will ensure that the offerings reach the souls of departed family members. It is usually the eldest son or senior member of the family who performs the rituals associated with this festival.
SOURCES:
BkFest-1937, p. 160
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 587
RelHolCal-2004, p. 177
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