WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 21: Do you have Hindu friends, neighbors or co-workers? Ask them about this holiday and you may find someone showing you a colorful new band around a man’s wrist—placed there by his sister. It’s a tradition known as Raksha Bandhan—or “the bond, or tie, of protection” in English—and it is popular in Indian immigrant communities as well as in the Indian homeland.
This affectionate custom calls on women to tie a rakhi, or woven bracelet, onto the wrist of a brother or sometimes a male cousin. The sister recites sacred lines that declare her wishes for a long life for her brother, while the brother promises to protect his sister under unconditional circumstances; she places tilak on his forehead. As the sister has baked or bought a variety of sweets, she and her brother then feed each other, and the brother presents her with money or another form of gift. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike partake in this popular festival, although the legends behind it are many.
SACRED STORIES SHOW ANCIENT ROOTS
An ancient Vedic festival, evidence is found in early manuscripts of the celebration of Raksha Bandhan. Several stories exist pertaining to this holiday, with among the most popular:
- Yama and Yamuna: Lord Yama, the Lord of Death, had a sister himself, whose name was Yamuna. When Yamuna presented a gift of rakhi to Yama, he was granted immortality. Lord Yama was so impressed by the serenity of the occasion that he declared any brother who receives a rakhi from his sister will also be granted immortality.
- Rani Karnawati and Emperor Humayun: During the Medeival period, Rani Karnawati was the widowed queen of the king of Chittor. When threat loomed of an attack, Rani felt helpless. In defense, she sent a rakhi to Emperor Humayun; Humayun was so touched that he sent his troops to defend Chittor, rather than attack it.
- Alexander the Great and King Puru: Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BCE, and upon this event, Alexander’s wife sent a sacred thread to Porus, asking him not to hurt her husband in battle. Porus had full admiration for the rakhi, and when the opportunity came for him to personally kill Alexander, he saw the rakhi on his wrist and resisted.
Aside from siblings and cousins, priests may tie rakhis around the wrists of congregation members; dear friends may tie rakhis for each other; rakhis are tied around the wrists of soldiers. Design can be complex, intricate and of expensive materials with adornments like stones and beads, or simple and conservative. Nonetheless, a rakhi of any kind carries with it a sacred duty, and the recipient regards his obligation to the giver as an honor. It is said that the protection offered by a rakhi lasts for one year.
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore reinterpreted Raksha Bandhan, declaring that it should be a festival not just for brothers and sisters but for the brotherhood bonds among all of mankind. Tagore argued that all members of society have the obligation to protect one another, and thereby a harmonious society would emerge. Tagore regarded Raksha Bandhan as the most appropriate day to spread his message.
IN THE NEWS:
BAZAARS & GLUTEN-FREE SWEETS
Merchants and event planners have welcomed the influx of Raksha Bandhan customers for weeks. Shoppers have been snapping up the most attractive rakhis, gifts and sweets. For the high-end shopper, fashion shows like the recent Vimonisha Exhibitions have promised a chic selection of jewelry, clothing and gifts, particularly at its Raksha Bandhand Designer Exhibition and Sale.
Bakeries are noting an explosion in the demand for gluten-free and sugar-free cakes and treats this year, as more brothers and sisters opt for healthier options on Raksha Bandhan. (The Times of India reports.) Prices vary depending on design and size, and bakers indicate that no difference can be detected between the low-sugar, gluten-free cakes and their high-calorie, sugary counterparts.