Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bring on the moon

As far back as my memory goes my mother has celebrated karva chauth at her cousin’s home in Delhi, with her cousin sister in-law (my maiji) leading the ceremonies and being the guide to all the traditions and stories surrounding it.

As a child the ceremonies of karva chauth held no great appeal except that it was the one day that all the cousins got together and spent all evening looking for the moon while their mothers piously prayed for their marriages to be long and happy. Sometimes, on especially cloudy evenings, the fathers would bundle us all into the great big ambassador cars and drive us to India gate where the clear maidan would be the most likely place to spot the moon. A treat of ice cream from the thelawala was our prize. In a good year we even got a balloon each.

Childhood turned into young-girl-hood and I began to take a greater interest in the lore and mechanics of the festival. I remember sitting in the room listening to my maiji reciting the paath and leading all the young women (cousins, nieces, friends – newlyweds joining in each year) through the ceremony. This is what I remember.

Originally, in ancient times, the celebration of karva chauth was started as a day on which women got a rest from cooking and cleaning. A day of well deserved rest. With time the day got a religious bend to it and it became a day that married women fasted to ensure the long and prosperous life of their husbands. It is celebrated all over north India, predominantly in Uttar Pradesh (where my mum is from), Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. All these states have their own version of the tale of karva chauth and the prayers said in each state are all variations of one another. This is the story (the paath) as told in Uttar Pradesh – my interpretation and definitely an abridged version. It also sounds much nicer in Hindi.

“A woman’s husband takes ill and dies because she has not prayed for his health or prosperity and greedily not fasted or prayed. She repents and takes her husbands body under a tree and sits and does tapasya [prayer through penance]. One by one 6 witches come and to each one she asks to exchange karva's (terracotta/ clay pot with a spout and little lid) with her to complete her penance and bring her husband back to life. Each of the 6 witches denies and goes away. However, the 7th witch is impressed with the woman’s penance and patience and exchanges karva's with her, bringing her husband back to life and ensuring success and hapiness for many years to come. “

Traditionally women wake before dawn to eat and drink something. Then they keep a vrath (fast) all day, taking nothing either to eat or drink from sunrise onwards. This fast is called 'nirjal' or 'without water'. This is far harder than it sounds as being hungry is one thing but being thirsty is quite another. In the evening, after sunset, a pooja is done. A figurine of atta [kneaded flour/ dough] called 'gaur' is made and prayed to. The gaur is meant to be the embodiment of all the female incarnations of god. Women will dress in pink or red; wedding finery is usually aired this day with heavy sarees and jewelry being donned. Prayers are usually given with sisters-in-law, mothers etc, just after sunset. Each woman has her own karva [and one karva is kept for the gaur]. Each karva is filled with water and over the top lid 7 poori's, a pua and some money are kept. The paath is recited. Then once the moon is sighted, each woman takes her karva to where she can see the moon. She must look at the moon, pray for the longevity, good health and prosperity of her husband and pour some of the water from the karva - this is to be repeated 7 times by each woman. Then all the women come back to the pooja and passing the karva to another woman, one says 'pua passun?' [should i eat this pua?] and the woman replies 'passon' ['eat'] - the pua is broken into 7 bits and each time the woman eats one bit. Two women must do this for each other 7 times - usually you just touch karva's with the other woman, not actually exchange them.

I still remember my first karva chauth as if it were yesterday. I had none of the paraphanalia; no karva, no gaur, no pooris or puaas. But with a long email from my mum I quickly adapted. Got the poori’s from a restaurant, a glass and small lid to be my karva and a small bar of chocolate to be my puaas. I made a small gaur with atta and did the pooja quietly at home, dressed in what little Indian finery I had had carried from India to London. It was an especially cloudy night and whilst I stayed home, V went off walk around the Sainsbury parking lot to check on the whereabouts of the moon. Funnily enough he was not the only one there as there were other desi guys (his classmates) also duly dispatched!

Now I have got better and better at it. More organized, getting my karva from India, making the poori’s and puaas at home. It has been said that the modern women needs to move on with the times and one unbelieving friend laughs every time she hears I keep a fast for karva chauth. I disagree as I believe that a balance between the modern and traditional is possible to achieve. It is a festival that in some way comforts me. I like to think of it as an Indian anniversary, a celebration for married women to rejoice in their married-ness.

Tomorrow is my fifth karva chauth. May the moon rise from behind the clouds before I faint.

maidan: open space/ park, such as the famous Kolkata maidan
thelawala: Man with cart selling stuff – in this case ice cream
maiji: Maternal aunt (mother’s brothers {or cousin} wife)
vrath: fast
pooja: prayer/ worship
karva: small terracotta/ clay pot with a spout and little lid
poori: A light unleavened bread that is deep fried in oil. Simply scrumptious!
puaas: A baby Indian pancake steeped in sugar water. Sweet, sweet sweet.


  1. Hmmm.. I always heard about Karva chauth but never knew what it meant, until this post.

    And as you say, it's one of those Indian things. :)

  2. Anonymous6:38 AM

    i agree with you...we must keep up our "indianness" but we can change some of the procedures to suit mordern times...switching chocolates for puas is an excellent way to go!!!40in2006

  3. Anonymous9:26 AM

    am curious.

    does your husband also fast for your good health and prosperity?

    - NS

  4. we do something called teej- this is a 24 hours nirjala!! tough butmy ego does not let me give up!! & it gives a forced break from eating the junk
    nice post. well written

  5. I've seen this often in Hindi movies but now I know the essence. Thank you for sharing the info. And may the moon rise soon on the day of your fast!

  6. John: It is one of those Indian things! And I mainly like Indian things...

    40in2006: We gotta adapt so chocolate it is...

    NS: yes, actually, he usually does not keep it nirjal, but will not eat the whole day. However, even if he did not keep it I still would. It's not abut being selfish, its about being selfless. And a day of fasting is a small price to pay.

    I2Write: yes, think of it as a detox and it's all ok!!

    Jane: Looking at the cloudy sky this morning it is highly unlikely that the moon will rise early .... maybe V shall be roaming in the courtyard looking for it!

  7. Hope you get company this time, that makes it more fun I suppose.

  8. surprisingly the moon was out on time last night - I was thinking I would be spending most of the night driving my mum out hunting it down :)

    lovely post

  9. Anonymous12:46 AM

    Lovely post. Wishing you many many years of happy karva chauth. Hope the moon comes out soon there. Its looking absolutely gorgeous tonight in this part of the world!


  10. Though I do not observer Karva Chauth, I totally respect the willingness and grit of women who do. I have quite a few friends who observe this fast and they all adapt in their own ways. May you and your husband have decades of togetherness...

  11. Did you have company for this? Do you actually go in to work while carrying out a nirjal fast?
    My knowledge of Karva chauth was limited to what's shown in Hindi movies and what some friend of a friend's family used to follow. I love finding out about details of customs as well as the stories behind them, so really, thanks a lot for this post.

  12. My grandmother tells a completely different story as to why it is done. I have kept the 'vrat' twice for my fiance because my grandmother says once you know who the groom will be you can start keeping it. :-) Each time he also didn't eat or drink anything which I think was the sweetest thing to do.

    This year however on the morning of Karvachauth I got home after a really long night shift and knowing that I had to go back to work in just a few hours for another night shift I decided against the idea. Coz if I pass out who will take care of the patients?!!

  13. lovely post...very enlightening..didn't know there was so much to this tradition :)

  14. Interesting post - enjoyed reading it. Was nice to know the little details...cute how other desi guys also were dispatched to locate the moon! :)

  15. Hi...I was looking up the meaning of karva chauth and came upon your post. You have an excellent definition, so I'm borrowing your paragraph on it and posting it in my own blog, with due credit of course.

    Take care.

  16. I always though karva chauth was an exceptionally romantic and beautiful festival. I once tried to keep a fast for Rohit but being a christian, I lacked any sort of knowledge of puja and prayers and so lacked a lot of the beauty.

  17. Oh no, Beks! I think, the beauty was in your willingness to do it. The rites don't matter if they don't come straight from the heart. In your case, the lack of rites didn't matter because the feeling came straight from your heart!

  18. Wow! I can go without food...but I won't last more than an hour without water!

  19. Hey I had seen Karva Chauth in movies but never knew the info and details like you explained it! It must be awesome....and to be honest, very romantic too, esp if your guy reciprocates! :)

    I was a bit too late this year (since maharashtrians don't have it, I had no way of getting any reminders from home!)...but I want to keep it next year. Hope I dont miss it next year!

    I totally agree with you about a being able to and wanting to achieve a balance between the modern and traditional life...I hope you have a long and wonderful life with your husband and many more such Karva Chauths to come! :)