India: Tie the knot with a sibling on Raksha Bandhan

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2: “Tying the knot” takes on a different meaning in Indian culture today, as Hindus, Sikhs and some Muslims celebrate Raksha Bandhan. Literally meaning “binding protection,” Raksha Bandhan calls all sisters to present their brothers with rakhi, bracelets of sacred thread, in exchange for his continuing vow of protection. By tying this bracelet on her brother’s wrist, a sister is promised a shield in times of need; the sister is promising to pray for her brother with intentions of well being. (Wikipedia has details.)

But wait! “Sacred thread”? This year, the Times of India reports that famous cartoon characters are featured on many rakhi: Spiderman, Harry Potter, Tom and Jerry, Hanuman and more are flourishing in rakhi shops. One of the hottest new styles is a tiny teddy bear loaded with music and internal lighting effects.

In one news story, the Times of India quoted a merchant marveling over the explosion of designs: Not long ago, rakhi were fairly simple, but now “we have rakhi made of gold and silver, artificial diamonds, pearls, stone work, chandan (sandalwood), Rudraksh (evergreen seeds usually used for Hindu prayer beads), lockets and tiny statues of gods. Apart from these, the markets this year have rakhi of various cartoon characters from Ben10, Spiderman, Ninja Hattori—to many others. You name the cartoon character and they are here on your wrist.”

That’s a long, long way from beautiful wrist bands of colorful thread or simply woven fabric strips!

What’s the actual tradition?

So, let’s return to the traditional expressions of this festival: Sisters awaken on Raksha Bandhan having prepared a spread of sweets in advance. Following a sacred bath and prayers, a sister presents her brother with the rakhi; she wishes blessings upon him. (Learn more at Festivals of India.) In return, a brother gives his vow and presents his sister with an envelope of money or other gift. Following the exchanges, siblings feed each other sweets and celebrate their brother-sister bond. Since its origins, Raksha Bandhan has evolved into a general holiday of harmony and brotherhood, welcoming male and female cousins, friends and even members of the same congregation or temple to exchange rakhi and vows today.

Rakhi can easily be made with thread and beads (get instructions here), but for most Indians, the tantalizing array of multicolored, glimmering rakhi for sale are too good to pass up.


For more than 32,000 prisoners in the prisons of Madhya Pradesh, this Raksha Bandhan means hope: Visitors have been allowed in past years on this holiday, but the department of prisons has decreed that prisoners are able to receive rakhis by mail in 2012. For prisoners serving a sentence far away from family, this new rule offers renewed potential for strengthening family bonds. (The Times of India reported here, too.) What’s more, the postal department has issued specific rakhi envelopes this year. Since Raksha Bandhan often falls during the wet, humid monsoon season, representatives say that the new options are tamper proof and waterproof.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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