Ganesh Chaturthi: Hindus celebrate Ganesha with vibrant colors, figures and treats

Pink elephant statue close-up with bangles and jewels and paint

Lord Ganesha. Photo by Kaushal Jangid, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, AUGUST 22: The sight of thousands of colorful, detailed elephant-type figures and the scent of sweet modak treats signal that Ganesha Chaturthi has arrived in India!

That is—in most years! During the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be fewer processions and smaller crowds. And, there may be colorful treats in store for people who are interested in Indian culture around the world. News reports say many communities that usually produce elaborate in-person Ganesh programs are, instead, focusing on producing virtual celebrations. Here’s a tip: Starting around August 21, Google “Ganesh Chaturthi” in YouTube and in Google News and you are likely to find links to cultural festivals you can stream wherever you are isolated these days.

After all, Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the grandest, most beloved and longest festivals in many regions of India, and the Hindu god Ganesha is honored during this time, known also as Vinayaka Chaturthi. For 10 days—until Anant Chaturdashi—many Jain, Christian and Muslim families across India join Hindus in celebrating the event. Images of Ganesha are temporarily installed in public pandals (shrines) and in homes, until they are taken to a local body of water and immersed.

Did you know? Lord Ganesha is believed to be the giver of fortune and one who can remove all obstacles to success.

Months before Ganesh Chaturthi, artists mold models of the elephant-god. Figures may range in size from less than one inch to almost 100 feet, most of them made of clay, Plaster-of-Paris, papier-mache or organic materials. In many areas of India, artists and industries earn a considerable portion of their yearly income preparing for Ganesh Chaturthi. Some regions host fairs, concerts, skits and dancing during the festival. Where an image of Ganesh is installed, the surrounding area is decorated with floral garlands, lights and more. Priests chant mantras to invoke Ganesha’s presence into the statues.

From a Hindu scholar: A few years ago, the Hindu writer and activist Padma Kuppa wrote a guest column in FeedTheSpirit, sharing her perspective on the holiday. And, Padma includes a delicious, traditional recipe as well. She included in this column additional links to learn more about the holiday and its beloved foods.

GANESH: CLAY & PLASTER, FROM INDIA TO THE UK—AND BEYOND

Though clay models used to be the primary material of Ganesh figures, demand and price led to the use of Plaster-of-Paris, which is not biodegradable. When Plaster-of-Paris Ganesh statues were immersed into water—also covered in chemical paints that contain heavy metals—water pollution began threatening the environment and statues began washing up on sandy beaches. In response, green initiatives have been launched across India. In Goa, the sale of Ganesh figures made of PoP was banned and a return to traditional clay or reusable figures is growing in popularity. In some areas, pools are set up for the safe immersion of statues.

Tens of thousands of Hindus in the UK publicly observe Ganesh Chaturthi, from Paris to London and beyond. In the U.S., temples and associations mark the festival, and the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival (PGF) is the largest Hindu festival in North America. Ganesha is also celebrated across Canada, in Malaysia and Singapore and in Indian populations around the world.

 

Raksha Bandhan: Celebrating Bonds between Brothers and Sisters

Women at marketplace looking at bracelets

Women shop for Raksha Bandhan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 4: Across India and in Hindu communities worldwide, the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters are honored on Raksha Bandhan. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

Two sisters renew bonds with their brother on Raksha Bandhan

Two sisters celebrate the holiday with their brother in a photo this family submitted to the Wikimedia Commons 2019 campaign, called “Wiki Loves Love.” Photo credit: Aasthap-dsc.

On a broader scale, Raksha Bandhan is a time for harmonious existence and a bond between leaders—teachers, political figures, civil authorities—and those they serve.

RAKSHA BANDHAN: COLORS AND RITUALS

Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi; shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

The morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother responds with thanks and a renewal of his sibling commitment, and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family—often with a festive meal.

Some of the most popular Indian treats enjoyed on Raksha Bandhan may be surprisingly sweet to Westerners unaccustomed to Indian cuisine. A prime example is gulab jamun. Think of a donut hole soaked in syrup! India-based NDTV’s Food channel already has published tips for home-made gulab Jamun. Want other culinary options? NDTV’s Food channel also published these 11 suggestions for other delightful holiday dishes. The non-alcoholic Mango Basil Colada sounds especially refreshing!

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find 15 kid- and adult-friendly ideas at the blog Artsy Craftsy Mom, which features simple to complex DIY rakhi instructions.

A National Holiday

Raksha Bandhan is so popular that nearly every year government officials across India announce some kind of new service or public improvement related to the holiday. This year, one widely reported news story is a policy—in some regions—to offer free bus transportation for 24 hours so women can easily reach their brothers.

Each year, there also are efforts to encourage fitness on the holiday. One example, from The Times of Indiasuggests healthier choices for family banquets—and even suggests that a rakhi could be a fitness band.

Many families and organizations enjoy trying to take their festivities to extremes—competing for slots in the record books. For 2019, India-based Prokerala magazine takes a look at some of the records—and attempts at records.

Finally—and only in India—one of the country’s shelters for cows, sacred animals in Hinduism, has sparked headlines across the country for its new line of cow dung rakhis. No kidding! It’s one of a number of fundraisers to help support the shelter.

Hajj 2020: Dramatic Downsizing Is an Opportunity to Learn More about Our Muslim Neighbors

Hajj Kaaba Muslims pilgrims

OVERWHELMING NUMBERS of people make the annual Hajj a real-life experience of the global diversity of Islam. Photo of an earlier Hajj by Hassan Morowa, courtesy of Pexels

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TUESDAY, JULY 28: Millions of Muslims who planned to make the pilgrimage to Mecca this year will be staying home as Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the holy places, has announced a COVID-limited Hajj this year that could involve only about a thousand pilgrims who live in the region. In addition, no one over age 65 will be allowed to participate to avoid infecting the most vulnerable men and women. (Al-Jazeera has more details.)

Among the pillars of Islam, the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims are expected to visit Mecca and fulfill the Hajj rituals that reenact the actions of the Prophet Muhammad in his “farewell pilgrimage,” in 632 AD. Arriving via every mode of transportation available and from countries that circle the globe, this annual Islamic pilgrimage is widely considered the largest annual gathering in the world.

Click this cover to jump back to early 2019 for our story about the launch of “Our Muslim Neighbors,” explaining the importance of meeting the Muslim families who are such important parts of our communities.

In the U.S.—Pew Research estimates there are 3.45 million Muslims, making up 1.1 percent of the American population.

However, most Americans have never actually met our millions of Muslim neighbors.

To help celebrate the Hajj this year—it’s time to change that. It’s time to reach out and talk with our Muslim co-workers and neighbors. If we do reach out, we usually discover new friends with similar values—and the entire community is enriched by our new friendships.

That is why we are urging all of our readers to turn back to this January 2019 cover story in which we suggest a way to take that next step—through the pages of Victor Begg’s new memoir.

You will meet Victor, his wife Shahina and their entire family in this engaging book, titled Our Muslim Neighbors—Achieving the American Dream, an Immigrant’s MemoirThe book includes Victor’s description of his own Hajj experiences, which is a great way for non-Muslims to learn about this centuries-old tradition that is limited to Muslims.

Readers also will recognize their own core American values as they enjoy reading about Victor’s courageous attempts to live out those values, sometimes in the midst of tragedy.

“This is a true blue American story—my story of how I came to this country and built a successful business and a life for my family that contributed to our community in so many ways,” Victor says. “Along the way, I realized that most Americans don’t know any Muslims and that heightened bigotry arises because people don’t know that our families are just like their families. We share so many community and spiritual values—and we would discover that if we simply reached out—if we simply got to know each other.”

That’s also what Bill Tammeus, one of the most respected religion writers in the U.S., concluded after reading Victor’s book. Here’s a sample of what Bill wrote:

This is a highly personal story, but Begg’s experience and thinking can encourage all Americans to get to know their Muslim neighbors—to say nothing of neighbors of all other (and no) religious traditions. When people are religiously illiterate, it can lead to fear, which can lead to hate, which can lead to violence. We’ve been there before. This book is a helpful road map in a better direction.

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THE ORIGINS OF HAJJ: ABRAHAM, HAGAR & ISHMAEL

Islamic tradition tells that in approximately 2000 BCE, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, in the desert of Mecca while he traveled to Canaan. After Abraham left, food and water quickly ran out; Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. Exhausted, Hagar laid Ishmael on the sand and begged God for help. Miraculously, a well sprang up at the baby’s feet, and that well—the Zamzam Well—continues to provide ample water to Hajj pilgrims today. Later, according to Muslim tradition, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba, so that people could perform pilgrimage there. It is believed that the Archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from heaven to be attached to the Kaaba, and today, the Black Stone marks the beginning and ending point of each circle a pilgrim makes as he circulates the Kaaba during Hajj.

Jahiliyyah: During a time known as jahiliyyah in pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba had become surrounded by pagan idols. To cleanse the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca in what is now regarded as the first Hajj. The pagan idols were destroyed, and Muhammad rededicated the Kaaba to God. At this point, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam, and adherents have been making the journey ever since.

Purim: Jewish festival of Esther’s victory includes cookies, masquerade

Two plates of triangular-shaped, jelly-filled pastries

Hamantaschen, or “Haman’s pockets,” are a Purim treat. Photo by xeno4ka, courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET MONDAY, MARCH 9: Eat! Drink! Be merry! The story of Purim is found in the pages of the book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures of the Bible.

Today, with the start of Purim, fruit-filled cookies are served, outrageous costumes are donned, plenty of wine is consumed and comical skits entertain jovial audiences. In the synagogue, readings from the book of Esther evoke hissing, booing and stomping, as Jews “blot out” the name of the villainous Haman. Interestingly, the name of G_d is not mentioned in the book of Esther, and many Jews interpret this as indication that G_d works in ways that are not always apparent. On Purim, disguises and costumes serve as symbolism of G_d “hidden” behind the scenes.

ESTHER, MORDECAI AND AHASUERUS: THE STORY

When the beautiful young Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, she hid her Jewish identity. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, held a key position in the kingdom but was hated by the king’s advisor for refusing to bow down to him. In a rage, the king’s advisor—Haman—plotted to kill Mordecai and all of the Jews.

The turning point was the king’s love of Esther, who was chosen to be his queen. Though Haman had already convinced King Ahasuerus to kill the Jews in Persia, Esther fasted for three days, approached the king and revealed her own Jewish identity, pleading with the king to save the Jewish population. The king later hanged Haman and his 10 sons on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai. The Jewish people in Persia were saved from the plot of Haman.

Popular Jewish author and columnist Debra Darvick, who penned This Jewish Life with real-life stories about men, women and children observing the festivals and milestones that mark the Jewish calendar, describes the way families approach the holiday of Purim this way:

“On the 14th of the month of Adar in the Jewish calendar, hilarity reigns as the holiday of Purim is celebrated. One is commanded to drink enough liquor so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the phrases ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mor- dechai.’ In Hebrew these words become a tongue twister, so it doesn’t take much.”

OBLIGATIONS AND HAMENTASCHEN

The carnivals and masquerades of Purim are accompanied by the four primary obligations of the day: to listen to a public reading of the book of Esther in the evening and the morning; to send food gifts to friends; to give charity to the poor; and to partake in a festive meal.

The signature treat for this holiday is Hamantaschen: Haman’s pockets. FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis tells the story of baking these delicious triangular treats in her family—and provides her own recipe for these cookies.

EXTRA RECIPES: An array of Purim recipes can be found at AllRecipes. For a crunchy take on Haman’s pockets, try these—made of Rice Krispies. Thirsty? Try making your own apricot-infused bourbon for Purim.

National Day of Unplugging: Enjoy ‘Sadie Sees Trouble’ with someone you love

Click this logo to visit the official website for National Day of Unplugging.

SUNDOWN MARCH 6-7—Two national organizations are chiming in on a message shared by ReadTheSpirit and educators nationwide: We should help children to reduce their current levels of screen time! In fact, all of us should consider how much time we spend focused on screens—and devote ourselves to more human contact.

In May, we will remind you about National Screen Free Week.

Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.

But this week, we inviting you to get ready by unplugging for a single day.

Reducing “screen time” is the message of the book Sadie Sees Trouble by Linda Jarkey and Julie Jarkey-Kozlowski. You can read more about this innovative project that invites children to begin reading and creating their own illustrations with substances found in most kitchens. The sisters who created this remarkable book are both veteran educators. Linda says, “It’s an attractive option: Give a child a tablet or a smart phone and many children will sit quietly while you’re free to do other things around the home. But, very quickly that technology can replace interaction with your children.”

“We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our devices,” say the folks behind the National Day of Unplugging campaign. Visit their website to learn more about this annual effort.

The other effort, national Screen-Free Week has its own website where you can register local events and network with other folks planning to take part in this effort. This week is sponsored by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhoodwhich describes its mission as “supporting parents’ efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing.”

Kwanzaa: Celebrate African-American values with ‘first fruits’

African-Americans dance in a circle around room, drumming, informal, with colorful hanging papers around room

A Kwanzaa celebration at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo by Reginald James, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 26: Learn the seven principles and gather in the name of unity—for the seven-day commemoration of Kwanzaa.

Each year, Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga publishes an annual message. Now in his late 70s, these messages are heart-felt appeals to rediscovering and reclaiming African values that can contribute to the wellbeing of the whole world.

In his 2017 message, he stressed the universal themes of care for each other and our planet. Karenga wrote, in part:

An African American and pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa is—in both conception and practice—a world-encompassing celebration. It is world-encompassing in that it is practiced by millions of Africans throughout the global African community. And it is world-encompassing in its roots in ancient African agricultural celebrations and their concern with the earth and their conception of humans interrelated with the world and their responsibility to it.

In his 2018 message, he wrote:

We chose the Nguzo Saba (the 7 Principles) to serve as an overarching framework for the way we lived our lives, did our work and waged the struggle for liberation and other good in the world. These principles focus first on family, community and culture, but they also have an expanded meaning and message for the work we do and the struggle we wage in society and the world. Thus, we must constantly think deeply about them, discuss them, share them and make them a vital and greatly valued part of our daily lives.

The first principle of Umoja (Unity) calls for a cultivated sense of relatedness and mutual respect, of togetherness in the work and struggle for a shared and inclusive good in our families, communities, society and the world, and for a sense of oneness and responsibility for each other’s good and the well-being of the world.

His 2019 message will appear just before Kwanzaa begins in the festival’s official website.

ORIGINS OF THE FESTIVAL

To mark the half-century anniversary of the holiday, in 2016, Smithsonian Magazine described Kwanzaa as “one of the most lasting innovations of United States black nationalism of the 1960s.” The Chicago Defender described the arrival of this festival in Chicago half a century ago.

Green background, Kwanzaa candleabra in front with statues, dark unity cup and bowl of fruit

Elements of Kwanzaa. Photo by Joseph LaValley, courtesy of Flickr

Created by Karenga in the mid-1960s as the first completely African-American holiday, Kwanzaa celebrations honor African heritage and culture. Though originally associated with the black nationalist movement, as Karenga today points out that Kwanzaa emphasizes connecting Africans of the Diaspora with their native roots and highlighting the universal themes in those ancient cultures that can build a healthier global community.

Specifically, Kwanzaa’s “seven principles” call to mind what Karenga refers to as a “communitarian African philosophy.”

Did you know? “Kwanzaa” is from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits of the harvest.”

KWANZAA’S SEVEN PRINCIPLES

Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a principle, resulting in a total of seven Kwanzaa principles. The principles, though they may vary slightly in spellings, consist of: Umoja (unity); Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kumbaa (creativity); and Imani (faith).

Kwanzaa urges participants to maintain unity in family and race, to define themselves, to build community and profit together, and to always do what is possible at the moment. (Wikipedia has details.) Symbols and decorations aid in the unity of Kwanzaa observances, such as a decorative mat (mkeka), corn, a seven-candle holder (kinara) and a communal or unity cup. Often, an African feast—known as Karamu—is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, and gifts (zawadi) are exchanged on the seventh day.

KWANZAA CUSTOMS

Did you know? The proper greeting for Kwanzaa is “Joyous Kwanzaa.”

Plate of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cooked collard and other fried foods in dimly lit room

Soul food is common at the Kwanzaa table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Household celebrations for Kwanzaa often include children, as do public Kwanzaa ceremonies.

Teachers and parents: You’ll find a couple of kid-oriented resources from Scholastic.com. First, there’s a lesson plan on discussing Kwanzaa’s principles and, then, there’s a second plan that also features a mancala game.

Community gatherings may include music, drumming, dancing, libations and the reading of the principles. Artistic performances, storytelling and ritual candle-lighting are also common.

In its nearly half-a-century of observance, Kwanzaa has spread in popularity throughout the United States and into Canada.

Hungry for a taste of Kwanzaa? Find recipes for traditional dishes, from sweet potatoes and collard greens to black-eyed peas, at Food Network and GenuisKitchen.com.

 

Raksha Bandhan: Celebrating Bonds between Brothers and Sisters, even during a pandemic

Women at marketplace looking at bracelets

Women shop for Raksha Bandhan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 3: Across India and in Hindu communities worldwide, the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters are honored on Raksha Bandhan. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

Two sisters renew bonds with their brother on Raksha Bandhan

Two sisters celebrate the holiday with their brother in a photo this family submitted to the Wikimedia Commons 2019 campaign, called “Wiki Loves Love.” Photo credit: Aasthap-dsc.

On a broader scale, Raksha Bandhan is a time for harmonious existence and a bond between leaders—teachers, political figures, civil authorities—and those they serve.

AND, IN COVID?

While Raksha Bandhan is one of the sweetest and most colorful holidays across India and in Indian communities around the world—the pandemic is wreaking havoc on cherished traditions.

The Indian sweets industry just announced that sales will be only half what they were in 2019!

Most years, this is a day when many women use mass transit to visit their families—so much so that some municipalities wave fares on public modes of transportation for the holiday. However, this year, that kind of widespread travel is not encouraged.

Indian online retailers are working overtime, this year, to offer no-touch solutions to honoring loved ones. Everything from simple e-greeting-cards to touchless delivery of holiday-appropriate gifts (including wrist-bands, jewelry and sweets) is available with a few taps of smartphones in India, this year.

RAKSHA BANDHAN: COLORS AND RITUALS

Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian usually shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi; shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

In a normal year, on the morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother responds with thanks and a renewal of his sibling commitment, and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family—often with a festive meal.

Some of the most popular Indian treats enjoyed on Raksha Bandhan may be surprisingly sweet to Westerners unaccustomed to Indian cuisine. A prime example is gulab jamun. Think of a donut hole soaked in syrup! India-based NDTV’s Food channel already has published tips for home-made gulab Jamun. Want other culinary options? NDTV’s Food channel also published these 11 suggestions for other delightful holiday dishes. The non-alcoholic Mango Basil Colada sounds especially refreshing!

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find 15 kid- and adult-friendly ideas at the blog Artsy Craftsy Mom, which features simple to complex DIY rakhi instructions.

A National Holiday

Raksha Bandhan is so popular that nearly every year government officials across India announce some kind of new service or public improvement related to the holiday.

Each year, there also are efforts to encourage fitness on the holiday. One example, from The Times of Indiasuggests healthier choices for family banquets—and even suggests that a rakhi could be a fitness band.

Many families and organizations enjoy trying to take their festivities to extremes—competing for slots in the record books. In 2019, India-based Prokerala magazine took a look at some of the records—and attempts at records.

Finally—and only in India—one of the country’s shelters for cows, sacred animals in Hinduism, has sparked headlines across the country for its new line of cow dung rakhis. No kidding! It’s one of a number of fundraisers to help support the shelter.