The Hindu Food Fasting and Spiritual Feasting: Karva Chauth

By: Saira Malhotra

This past Saturday was Karva Chauth, the day I was awakened by my mother-in-law at the crack of dawn to eat sweets, Indian stuffed unleavened breads and fresh fruit. To know me is to understand that sleep is the single most important ingredient to get my day started the right way and to know me really well is to know that I am not a breakfast person. Why then, was this day any different? This is the one day in the year when Hindu ladies (particularly from the North) pray for the longevity of their husbands' life by fasting from sunrise to moon rise.

Many cultures have some kind of fasting as part of their rituals. For the Muslims, there's Eid, for the Jews, there's Yom Kippur, for Christians, there's Lent and for Hindus, there's Karva Chauth.

Like most Indian festivals, Karva Chauth is a lively and colorful affair. Ladies wake up at around 4am, eat a breakfast of sweet milk -cooked vermicelli (apparently, designed to make you feel less thirsty), barfis (Indian fudge) made of condensed milk, dried fruits and of course something a bit more substantial 'parathas'. Just before the sun rises, they complete their last bite and take their last sip before renouncing food and drink until moon rise. For the rest of the day until late afternoon, the ladies are off the hook and do not require to do anything but pamper themselves and look pretty in bridal colors of pink, red, gold and orange (in all fairness, I do raise doubts about how pampered one can feel on an empty stomach.) The afternoon is a collective affair where female friends and family members pass around respective trays filled with karvas (candles made of dough), nuts and water in a circular motion 5 times while chanting prayers 'puja'. After the puja, ladies wait in eager anticipation for the moon to illuminate the sky, when they can complete their prayers and open their fast in the presence of their husband.

Some consider this day as yet another way to demonstrate the oppression of women, however, to try and label this tradition without truly understanding its origins would be a deficit. This auspicious day has been celebrated for centuries by women, and originated at a time when men were at war and women would pray for their safe return. It is also yet another festival in Hinduism which demonstrates the intricacies and importance of relationships. The holiday starts of the night before when the mother-in-law gives the daughter-in-law sargi. This consists of sweets, bindis and sindoor (both of which are symbols of a married lady). There is also a real sense of community as women collect in large groups to pray and open their fast, while children watch this circle of candles in astonishment.

A tradition that is symbolic and ancient like karva chauth is still very precious to Hindu ladies all over the world regardless of progressive thinking. The holiday is rooted in tradition and yet it also brings with it an overarching feeling of romance and appreciation (for both the husband and the wife). The abstinence of food for a day is also a great lesson in restraint and will power leaving you feeling with a great sense of achievement. As for me, the buildup is always more challenging than the day itself and somewhere during the day, I am sure my body is thankful to me for giving it the day off.

Photo: arunjrk

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