October 26, 2000,
Divali at Darbar
From darkness to
devotion for Lakshmi
the South, it’s Divali sans divas
To write about Divali in South India is to invite intense fire from saffron troops. For, Ram stands delinked from the festivities. Nor, for that matter, does Lakshmi figure in anything that goes on that day. What kind of a Divali is it then?
In much of North, Divali marks the day when Ram returned to Ayodhya after his hard-fought victory over Ravana. And in Gujarat and Rajasthan, in particular, it is new year day when the first auspicious deal is struck, the first credit entry is made in accounts books and the goddess of wealth is formally ensconced in the cash box area. In Nagpur, I have seen gold coins being used for the worship of Lakshmi and silver coins were the most commonly offered substitutes for flower.
The South has to be different for two reasons. One, Ayodhya is in the North and Ram returned there from the South. Obviously, the people in the South are loathe to "celebrate" the departure of ram! This explains why Ram’s name is missing from the list of principal reasons for the festival of lamps.
The second reason is more prosaic. The South never had a pronounced and well defined trading tradition or a community famed for that profession. Of course, there are the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, but they have been shopkeepers and not big time traders. The Chettiars’ was a no-risk business; and it promised no windfall either. Hence the need to worship god or goddess and ensure that luck was on one’s side was not so pressing.
Also, Divali is not native to the South. The practice and the practitioners prove in a stark form that the idea is an import from the North, and over the years has acquired a hue startlingly different from the Ganga and Narmada basins.
The start with, Divali does not commemorate anything that Ram did, but commemorates something that Krishna did. The folk belief in the North is that Krishna was a brilliant strategist but a reluctant fighter. True, he destroyed Kalia (the snake) and Kamsa (his uncle) but that was before he ascended the throne in Dwarka.
In the belief pattern of the Tamils, however, Krishna defeated and killed a ferocious foe (of humanity) called Naraksura when night merged into day on Divali — a day prior to new moon day (amavasya). It is the well-deserved death of Narakasura that the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu — a mere 2 per cent of the population — celebrate with sweets and fireworks.
But before that they go through an oil bath as a mark of respect to the slain asura. It may appear like playing on both sides of the net, but actually, it is neutrality and fairplay most delicately balanced.
That is how the Brahmins observe the day. They also take a second bath in a river, firm in the belief that on Divali day, a ceremonial bath in any river is equivalent to a holy dip in the Ganga. You see, the Ganga water may never reach the South, but the true believer can always bring the water for a few blissful minutes, Bhagirath-like!
The use of the word Brahmins is deliberate. For, the vast majority of those who are not Brahmins in all the four southern states have no notion of the Krishna part in the day; nor do they go in for an early morning ritual bath. Even in the matter of sweets and the elaborate lunch, there are very sharp differences and as a Brahmin this writer is unabashedly, partisan to the goodies available in plenty in a Brahmin’s house!
Divali was a non-festival for non-Brahmins until the early forties. This was because Divali is still a non-festival in temples in the South. Two factors contributed to carrying the message of Divali to all homes, even if in a truncated or distorted form.
One, the early decades of this century saw a particularly vigorous phase of sanskritisation. It is how the academics describe the way Brahmin belief and practice supplanted those of others. Names changes; new rituals found adherents; horoscopes came to command wider acceptance; bridegroom price and marriage at the bride’s home became the norm, replacing the earlier practice of bride price and wedding at the boy’s place; the last thing was the elevation of Divali as a statewide festival.
Until the forties, Divali was important for non-religious reasons. Three of the widely circulated and respected Tamil weeklies — Ananda Vikatan, Kalki and Kalaimagal — brought out sumptuous special numbers called Divali Malar. Each one carried gorgeous colour pictures of temples, gods and goddesses, apart from short stories fit for the entire family and such stuff. To possess a Malar was to assert your cultural and literary status.
Then, it was on Divali that blockbusters were released. No youngster thought his life worth living unless he elbowed his way to the matinee — the premiere show of one of the new films. People used to travel by bus for an hour or so to reach the towns where they could have their tryst with a new release.
For the boys and girls who got married in a year, the first or thalai Divali held special attraction. There is no thalai Pongal, even though that is of the South the festival. Often the entire village would treat the thalai Divali boy as an honoured guest and, perhaps, that was what made the day special!
The legends and the concepts of Divali are as different as those of the Navaratri festival. In the South, the nine days are festival days only in temples where the goddess is done up in nine varying poses of penance that Parvati undertook to win over Shiva.
The all-important day is the ninth, devoted to Saraswati, the goddess of learning. On that day, it is also Ayudha puja, or the worship of implements, or the South’s version of Vishwakarma Day. Not only is Durga missing from the scheme of things; even Ram’s triumph over Ravana is not there. Ravana does not burn in the vast stretch of southern India.
Come to think of it, each region splashes a local flavour to each festival often delightfully different from other areas. So is the case with core religious beliefs. India is a cultural mosaic, a put-together of differing and divergent legacies and legends. Hinduism is a confederation of beliefs. To say this is to provoke the new-found Hindutva forces. But not to say it is to delude oneself into disbelief.
Look at it this way. Divali in the South is a festival without divas, or lamps. Firecrackers at the crack of dawn is the only source of light. But it is more than enough to dispel the darkness of the new moon day (amavasya). What about the other darkness that has come to envelop our society? The light from a hundred Divalis may not suffice; for, it is a man-made.
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