The Thread that Binds

Through history the Sawan Purnima festival of Raksha Bandhan has meant different things through history. A walk through one of the most symbolic Indian festivals and its many treats.

By Madhulika Dash

Raksha Bandhan. A day that celebrates the loving bond between a brother and sister – and we just don’t mean siblings, but those that have found the connect elsewhere too. That is what makes Raksha Bandhan, often referred to as Rakhee across India today, so endearing. That thread we call rakhee has this incredible power to bring not just strangers together, and in the most loving way, but led to some of history’s most amazing events: whether it was Emperor Humayun marched to Chittoor to help Rani Karnavati to defeat Bahadur Shah after she sent him a rakhee, asking him to come and help, or in 1905 when Rabindranath Tagore set up a mass Raksha Bandhan event at Shanti Niketan opposing Viceroy Lord Curzon decision to partition. It was October 16, when Kolkata (then Calcutta) witnessed one of the most impactful events in modern history. Many believe that single celebration transformed Raksha Bandhan, which till then was a North Indian ritual, into an Indian annual tradition.

The Making of Raksha Bandhan – from past to now

But these were not the two incident that made Raksha Bandhan the celebration it is today. By all accounts of history, Raksha Bandhan, one of the many celebrations that happens as monsoon season comes to end, has been an ancient tradition, albeit observed with a difference. Back in the day, says Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “in erstwhile Rajasthan, the ritual that foster brotherhood and was often between two warriors who considered themselves brothers in arms. Years later, it transformed into a tradition where the thread took on the form of a talisman that would protect the soldiers from all ills and evil.”

Somewhere around the medieval era where alliances forged great kingdoms, Raksha Bandhan or the sacred thread became a symbol of brother-sister affection where the former promised to always protect and honour the other. In fact, continues Chef Jodha, “the concept of Raksha Bandhan, which began as a talisman that priest would tie around the wrist of warriors and soldiers marching for a war, by medieval times became part of a promise that many invaders who set their court here including the Mughals honored too. So much so that by 1857, Raksha Bandhan was a court ritual for many kingdoms including the Mughals. Bhahdur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, in fact, would celebrate the day by throwing open the doors for the denizens to come and tie the thread to him.

Fascinatingly, the tradition of Raksha Bandhan in its earliest iteration can be found across India, the difference was, says chronicler Manju Dash, “while in palaces it was still the priest that tied the sacred thread as a talisman that would protect; among commoners it was performed by the homemakers who would also fast on this day for the long life of their sons and husband away.”

A Symbol of Faith and Belonging

Folklore has it that during the Paika Revolution in Odisha in 1817, men who joined the bidroh were under the aegis of Bakshi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar, military chief of the then King of Khurda, were send off after the womenfolk of the village tied the thread around their wrist wishing them victory. Years later, during the Great Mutiny, the sacred thread forged an unlikely alliance between the revolutionaries and the tawaifs, who became their staunch supporter, benefactor, and protectors.

Interestingly, the core of Raksha Bandhan wasn’t just limited to brother and sister, says Chef Jodha, “it was and continues to be the chord that binds people to one another in every associative manner possible. One of the many reason that the Marwari community’s interpretation of Raksha Bandhan is the Lumba Rakhi, where the sister ties the thread not only to her brother but also her sister-in-law (bhabhi) thereby bringing her into the family fold.”

But Lumba Rakhi is one amongst the many versions of the way Sawan (monsoon) Purnima observed across India, which according to panchang meant the beginning of the fishing, sowing and war season. In fact, adds Chef Jodha, “wars back in the day were suspended during monsoon much like the other occupation. And Raksha Bandhan that many kingdoms observed as a beginning of a fresh chapter marked the beginning of all activities. In Brahmin community this meant the change of the janeau or sacred thread as well. The ritual of tying the sacred thread was a small part of the Purnima festival.”

The Many Shades of the Festival

So while Raksha Bandhan took precedence for the Delhi Sultanate, Rajputs kingdoms and Haryana where it is called Salono, for the rest of the country, Raksha Bandhan became Jhulna Purnima in UP and parts of West Bengal where it is a month long celebration of Radha Krishna; Odisha celebrates it with Gamha Purnima, a Paika festival which celebrates the birth of Lord Baladev, and the beginning of the sowing season; for the coastal areas Sawan Purnima means the start of fishing and one of the oldest celebration is the Koli community ritual Nirali Purnima where the day is celebrated with season’s freshest coconut. In Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, Raksha Bandhan is celebrated as Kajari Navami, where the women folk finally pay tribute to the moon and the sea by offering a leaf filled with barley and wheat. It is believed that the offering would bring in a good season of harvest.

Like all Hindu festival that are based on panchāngam, the eats of Raksha Bandhan also depends on the time of the year Sawan Purnima falls, but over the years there are a few dishes that have become part of the celebration.

From Sattu to Kheer Puri to Monda Pitha

Sattu ke ladoo for instance is a big part of the Kajari Festival in Bundelkhand, post which there is a vegetarian spread of the season’s freshest ingredient. In Nepal, where Raksha Bandhan is celebrated as Gunlaa or Kwati Purnima by the Newaris and Janai Purnima by the Hindu Brahmins there, the main dish is called Kwati. Made with seven legumes including fava bean, soybean, mung bean, gram, field pea, garden pea, black-eyed peas, it is a power bowl that builds the body of another new season of work. So popular is this sprouted dish that over the years it has become a staple especially during the last few days of monsoon season. A bowl of hot kwati is believed to help bolster the strength of the body and was often given to soldiers, farmers, shepherds, and traders who would step out to work post the rainy season. Today one would find Kwati made with the addition of momos and goat meat as well.

Another agro-festival is the Odisha’s Gamha Purnima. A festival which is a dual celebration not only of a new agriculture season but also of Lord Baldev who is said to be born on this day to a cow named Rohini. This Paika festival while today has the holy trinity in Jagannath Puri dressing in all finery, in Nayagarh even today it involves a day where cattle are worshipped along with the traditional Paika Akhada, where this farmer-warrior clan would showcase their might. The celebratory dish on this occasion is a variety of pitha, often sweetened with coconut or served alongside. The Monda Pitha, believed to be a version of the famous modak, is part of the celebratory treat which also has payesh.

Coconut is also a big part of the Nirali Purnima in Maharashtra. The day marks the time when fisherman go back to fishing post the monsoon, and the festival is in celebration of that. The season’s first batch of coconut are a big part of the festival both as an offering and the celebratory meal with Naralachi vadi, Narali Laadu and Nirali Bhaat as the main highlight. The bhaat which has this sweet and slight savoury hint is in fact one of Koli’s community version of the meetha bhaat prepared elsewhere in the country.

In Rajasthan, however, adds Chef Jodha, “the festival of Raksha Bandhan is all about a simple yet delicious meal of Kheer Puri made by the sister for her brother. The beauty of this simple dish, where the kheer is garnished with loads of dry fruits may not sound exceptionally celebratory but back in the day, this meal was not only economical but functional too, especially for those who would travel distances for the ritual during the season change. The kheer which is made with full cream and garners much of its sweetness from the fragrant rice and the nuts and dry fruits worked like a salve for the exhausted palate, and the mind given the calming qualities of kheer and the nuts. Whereas the puri that is made from coarsely ground wheat could satiate without going overboard. In short, making it a meal that not only pleased the palate but the senses too – much like Raksha Bandhan, a festival that fostered a sense of belongingness.”