Dipavali is a five-day festival - Dhanteras, Choti Dipavali, Dipavali, Govardhan Puja and Bhai Duj. The seventh and eighth avatars are commemorated for epochal milestones during their time amidst us, and while we townsfolk may be well-up on the first three and the fifth, the fourth event, Govardhan Puja, also known as Annakut, is not that familiar to most.
This year I had the good fortune to go with friends for a Govardhan Puja at their farm in the southern region of NCR, beyond Chattarpur. It was a real farm with beautiful cows and the most endearing calves. The green fields grew wheat, mustard, cattle fodder and vegetables, and several kinds of fruit trees such as mango, guava, pomegranate, lemon and the big pomelo called chakotra in the north and bamblimas in the south.
In an open space near the cowshed a village woman had made the figure of a man on the ground, using cowdung. A long bamboo cowherd's pole, a large wooden butter-churn and a stick with a red cloth were placed with it. After the cows were milked in the evening, an oil lamp was lit, a tilak put on each person's forehead - cowherds, field hands, village children, family, friends. And to the words of an ancient chant, the men circled the figure of Govardhan, scattering keel (puffed rice) and batasha (sugar lumps) from the Dipavali puja the previous evening. This millennia-old rite symbolised man's gratitude to nature (instigated by Shri Krishna when he persuaded the Yadavas to stop their fear-based Vedic sacrifices to Indra and offer thanks instead to Govardhan hill as a symbol of bountiful Nature). After the ritual, gifts and money were distributed to the farmhands and villagers.
Also read: Things I didn’t miss this Diwali
The lady of the house, a bright, modern young woman, a graduate who has held a job and can often be found in western clothes in her Delhi home, had brought fresh home-made prasad - delicious fried sweets made of jaggery called gulguley - which took me back to childhood and the traditional adhirsam of South Indian rituals.
On the way home, I was curious about why it was the lady of the house who had presided over Dipavali Puja, while the Goverdhan Puja was done only by men. The blunt answer jolted me out of my urban complacency, evolved in my case over generations in the tightly governed Madras Presidency. "This has been a lawless region since Aurangzeb's time. The locals kidnapped any woman they could carry away as brides for themselves, so women were kept at home," said the man of the house.
"And during the Revolt of 1857, some villagers in this region took Englishmen captive and made them do the work of buffaloes. When the British recouped, they assembled entire villages and killed every male above ten and below seventy. Fathers-in-law were compelled to marry their widowed daughters-in-law to keep families going. You city women don't realise how far we've come after Independence, though we have further to go."
If this ancient region once had the guts to give up Indra for Govardhan, it can assuredly give up other old ways for better new ones.