My friend Dr Kalinath Jha, a feminist sociologist has asked of us in facebook whether Karwa Chauth is a festival that abrogates a woman’s dignity by asking her to pray for her husband’s long life especially in view of the fact that the husband never really prays for his wife’s longevity. I, as Dr Jha’s fellow sociologist, am tempted to elaborate the sociology of the festival.
Karwa, typically means an earthen pot and chauth means the fourth day and these two combined with the practice of biting neem leaves after throwing water connects the ceremony of karwa chauth to a death ritual. The moon is seen only through a cloth or a sieve or in water, hinting that one is watching an eclipse, again signifying a dead moon. The ritual assumes that the woman in question has lost her husband, views his dead face, because even the husband is seen through the sieve or in his reflection on water. It is typically a ritual of mourning; the bride’s clothes imply that as she readies to celebrate a wedding life with her husband she loses him. It is a ritual that emphasizes her widowhood while in her wedding clothes.
The death motif is further strengthened by the custom that the woman and her children obtaon new clothes from her natal family and her fasting food is offerred to her by her mother-in-law, the sargi. These are typical of rituals followed in ceremonies pertaining to death and widowhood.
Karwa chauth is celebrated in Punjab and Western UP and marks the beginning of the sowing season of the winter crop. A woman just widowed before the sowing season becomes barren both in her womb as well as her fields, for owning no property rights and no right to hold the plough, she can neither participate in the productive nor the reproductive economy. Therefore, it is in her interest to negotiate with Yama, the Lord of Death to return her husband to her safe and sound.
The motif of a married woman, dressed in her wedding attire just widowed and pleading with the lord of Death to resurrect her dead husband is common throughout the northern Indian River plains.
The myth of Behula and Lokhinder, the story of Savitri Satyavan are instances of such motifs. These myths are common especially in areas where women not only have no property rights but have no rights of existence as individuals without husbands. The south is better due to the system of cross cousin marriages where her rank as an aunt has some meaning in the family set up; in case of the exogamous northern India, a woman much else ceases to be when she has no husband. The prevalence of Karwa Chauth in Punjab and western UP hints that the costs of widowhood are not only very hard to bear but the fear of death looms larger here than elsewhere where life has been more certain. The geography of karwa chauth has been areas of heavy warfare, of conquests and genocides and it is perhaps in this perspective that this kind of essentially death ritual may be reckoned with.
Karwa Chauth finds a new meaning with Karan Johar’s cinema and emerges as an occasion for women to display their husband’s wealth and splendor. It is often a means of asserting social powers of the family, of conveying its affluence. Karan Johar also reinvented the ritual as one where young nubile pine for husbands. Films determine the constitution of public space; this makes cinema an apt vehicle to launch new deities such as Santoshi Ma and highly revised and remodeled versions of traditions such as the karwa chauth. While the original meaning is lost, in its new kind of existence, I find it to be a reiteration of women’s need to draw power from husbands both existing and anticipated. While the tradition reaffirmed a woman’s purity of heart in persuading Yama to let go of her husband, in the modern times, it reassures the woman’s belief that her only way to social power and prosperity lies solely in her ability to land up with a nice man via matrimony.