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We need to look beyond the obvious in the rituals of our festivals, that can reveal hidden feminist meanings that question traditional beliefs. Like the Manabasa Gurubar festival taught me.
The first Thursday of ‘Margasira’ (Nov-Dec), the ninth month as per Hindu- Odiya Calendar. Bou, my mother, sends me a picture of her “Manabasa Gurubar” Puja arrangements on Whatsapp. Though this Laxmi Puja of Odisha has similarities with the “VaraLaxmi Puja” of some of the other states in India, the observance and story behind are different.
Soon after, I see my Facebook feed flooded with updates. Images of Jhoti/Chita, referred to as ‘Alpana’ in some other states (the designs that are drawn on the floor using a white semi-liquid paste which is nothing but powdered rice mixed with water); delicacies like Manda-pitha, kakera, kheeri– the authentic Odiya sweets & desserts prepared for offering to the Goddess; marigold flowers; new sarees and whatnot ! The color burst in the images is pure delight to see.
Festivals like this and others are triggers for bursting nostalgia. They bring back all the sweet memories of home, especially of the times when I was young. I and my sister would reserve our spaces in the house for drawing our Jhoti/Chita. Front yard for me, balcony for her and so on. The designs we drew were of ‘Laxmi-Paada’, the footprint of Goddess Laxmi and lotus, her favorite flower, among others. And this would happen every Thursday of Margasira, making this month one of my favourites out of the twelve.
Living out of India and working for a nine to five demanding consulting job, it’s hard for me to live up to all of our traditions. Also, despite the numerous Indian stores here that make almost all Indian goods available for us, it’s still difficult to find several authentic ingredients and items that are inevitable for the Puja. No, I am not giving excuses. I very well realise that keeping up with our customs and traditions is very important since they build up our diverse cultural heritage – the hallmark of India. But I also think that as responsible women, in addition to being conscious about observing and preserving our cultural legacy, it is also imperative on us to look beyond; to find out and understand its real essence, which is much more than just the decorations, food, clothes or the rituals. We must pause and ask ourselves, what is the message that this festival is giving us? What values are we trying to pass on through it, to our next generations and the society at large?
The essence of Manabasa Gurubar, in my opinion, lies in the reading of the “Mahalaxmi Purana” which was written by ancient poet Balaram Das which dates back to 15th century. How many of you know that this was perhaps the first attempt in India towards speaking of feminism and casteist discrimination?!
We often assume that a Purana is a Sanskrit text that is known across India. That is not true. Mahalaxmi Purana is one such example. It is anything but Brahmanical. More than a directive, instructive or prescriptive text, it is reflective. The traditional storytellers did not look upon deities as historical or supernatural beings. For them the deities were living beings who lived ordinary lives amongst common masses to communicate the sublime.
So, this Purana tells the story that once the Goddess Laxmi visited Shriya, a scavenger ‘low caste’ woman (untouchable!) who cleaned places, for which Balarama, the elder brother of Jagannatha (Considered an ‘avatar’ or incarnation of Lord Vishnu) got angry with Laxmi. He declared that she had been contaminated and ordered his younger brother to not let her in. She was therefore evicted from the temple. The Temple of Puri, which is one of the four most sacred places of pilgrimage (Dham) for the Hindus.
Laxmi left the temple, and avenged the insult by cursing her husband and brother-in-law to go through a prolonged ordeal without food, water and shelter. The brothers traced this catastrophe to their rejection and disrespect of Laxmi. They learned that the concepts of contamination and impurity made no sense to the Goddess of wealth. Food will satisfy without discrimination the hunger of all, be it a sweeper, a king or a God. Eventually, Jagannatha apologised to his wife and begged her to return to the temple.
Every Thursday of the ‘Margasira’ month, the local Odiya channels on the TV would telecast a program exclusively for this festival (which they still continue to do) and two famous local female singers would read the Purana, or rather sing it as a song. I grew up listening to the program and the reading of the book by my Bou. However, it was much later that I understood its real significance.
The Purana touches three very important issues of our society, casteism, cleanliness, and feminism or women empowerment. It also gives a guideline for the women to sincerely perform their duties and responsibilities. It describes the social structure and gender inequality persisting in the society, raises voice against the evil practices of untouchability and stresses importance on female power to resist male hegemony.
Odiya women wake up early in the morning and clean the house to welcome Goddess Laxmi because of the popular belief as disseminated by the Purana, that the Goddess only visits the clean houses. Now certainly, cleanliness doesn’t only mean cleaning one’s own house. It also means that we do not dump the waste in the neighbour’s backyard or litter our streets and public places.
As we pray on this day, let us question ourselves for our inner cleansing, of our souls and our minds, and reject traditional casteist beliefs. Let us recognise that our women have their own choice and will not be tied down by patriarchal beliefs and traditions that aim to keep them enslaved to the authority of men.
I think in terms of the messages that this Purana conveys, it was way ahead of its time.
On occasions of festivals like this, we must take the opportunity to look within ourselves, delve deeper, and realize their real spirit, and only that would actually mean keeping up our great Indian tradition; not mere following of the rituals.
Author’s note: A curious fact to know – “Jai Jagannatha”, an Indian multilingual mythological film directed by Sabyasachi Mohapatra which is released in 15 languages, has its story based on the ancient Oriya scripture ‘Laxmi Purana’.
Image source: Sudeepta Mohapatra Sarangi
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A full time professional based in Toronto, Canada. Takes keen interest in women issues. Bibliophile,
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