Colourful festival to celebrate marriage and sisterhood

Image credit: Munmun Goswami

By Rosie Dawson

On Wednesday morning, Munmun Goswami will rise before dawn. She will eat food prepared for her by her mother-in-law. Then she will not eat or drink anything else until the moon rises the following evening.

Munmun will be taking part in the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth, one of several religious and cultural observances which take place in the run-up to Diwali. Karva Chauth is celebrated on the fourth day — “chauth” means fourth — of the lunar fortnight culminating in Diwali. The festival, originating in northwestern India, it is observed by married women who fast and pray for the well-being and longevity of their husbands. Unmarried women may also observe it, praying for a compatible life partner.

“No one can pinpoint the origin of Karva Chauth,” says Eleanor Nesbitt, professor emeritus of religions and education at Warwick University. “It is said to be mentioned in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata and to have been observed by Draupadi, the wife of the five pandavas who are the main characters in the Mahabharata. According to some Hindus, Shiva also told Parvati the story of Karva Chauth.”

Dr Padma Anagol, reader in history and director of the Centre for Asian Studies at Cardiff University, said: “Anthropologists would situate the practice within the warrior culture and traditions of North West India during the medieval and early modern period.

“Various Hindu kingdoms were at war with one another or with the Moghuls and women could never be sure that their husbands would return home safely. Karva Chauth was a means of celebrating their love for their husbands and ensuring his long life through their prayers.”

Although a Hindu festival, Karva Chauth is so deeply embedded in Punjabi society that some Sikh women also take part even though others see the practice as contrary to Sikh teaching, Professor Nesbitt says.

The foods women will eat before beginning their fast will be high in carbs and sugars to sustain them through the day. Then they dress themselves in their finest, wearing bridal colours of red and yellow.

“We don our best sari and jewellery,” says Munmun, “That must include the toe-rings worn by married women and the sacred mangalasutra necklace given to us by our husbands on our wedding day.” Women do no work on Karva Chauth and spend the day visiting friends.

“This year we won’t be going to the temple because of Covid,” says Sadhya, an NHS worker from Leeds who has celebrated Karva Chauth through her 30 years of marriage. “In a normal year we go there for puja — ceremonial worship. We sit in a big circle around an image of Lord Shiva and we all have silver thalis (plates) with lighted candles and fruit on them. We pass these around the circle seven times while the priest reads us the story of Veeravati .”

There are many variations on the legend of Veeravati. According to one of them, she was the pampered sister of seven brothers who felt sorry for her because she was keeping the Karva Chauth fast. To shorten her privation, they placed a mirror in a peepal tree to trick her into thinking that the moon had risen and she could eat. Veeravati broke her fast and her husband promptly died. The gods were persuaded to restore him to life when Veeravati fasted correctly.

This year temples will be streaming readings and prayers online but, as every year the fast will end with the rising of the moon. On Karva Chauth the moon is believed to be a manifestation of Lord Shiva and his son Lord Ganesha. As a mark of respect women will cover their faces with a sieve and observe the moon through it. They may also look at their husbands through the sieve. “Then my husband will give me water to drink and sweets to break my fast,” says Sadhya.

And what if the moon isn’t visible? “It’s happened before — many a time! Some women will eat if the priest tells them the moon has risen but If I don’t see the moon myself I don’t want to eat. I have just waited and not eaten until the following day.”

The festival has its critics with some Indian feminists seeing it as symbol of women’s oppression. “Karva Chauth is celebrating North Indian patriarchy,” one commentator tweeted. Many more tweets express excitement about the festival or use Twitter to market beauty products.

“As a feminist scholar what’s important for me about this festival is that it’s a women’s festival,” Dr Anagol says. “Although it may be patriarchal in some respects it’s a festival that brings women together in a sisterhood. You can imagine how difficult it must have been for child brides to leave their mothers and join their husband’s family. This is a festival that helped a bride find new sisters, or what’s known as a kangan saheli [bangle friend]. So it’s about finding something special that will last a lifetime.”

For Munmun the festival is a way of celebrating her marriage. “I feel grateful for everything that God has given to be and my husband and I feel happy. I do it out of love for my husband. It strengthens our relationship, and when you sacrifice something by doing something like fasting it makes your relationship stronger. That, I think, is the point of this festival.”