The second in my documentation of festivals and holidays experienced on this extended stay in India is a very sweet and symbolic ritual: Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi.
Raksha Bandhan means bond of protection and that is what the custom is all about. The sacred thread around a man’s wrist is symbolic of the sworn protection of a girl by her Rakhi brother. In return he can count on her blessings and good wishes for him. The tradition is in fact rooted in the royal history of Rajput queens who sent Rakhis to neighbouring kings as tokens of peaceful brotherhood. Over the years it has evolved into a much more familiar and sweet custom.
Rakhi tying is no longer limited to blood relatives; of this I have personal experience. In India joint families give cousins the same value as brothers from the same parents; my example takes the power of the sacred bond one step further.
My Dad grew up with an older sister, who tragically died of meningitis when she was 17 years old. I’ve often been told I look just like her, a simultaneously flattering and saddening fact because I will never have more than stories of her. But her death also proved the power of Raksha Bandhan outside the immediate family.
The first time the holiday rolled around after her death, my Dad was understandably upset that he no longer had a sister. That was until her best friend stepped in with a promise to be his Rakhi sister from that day on. The bond formed by friendship and loyalty was solidified by the Rakhi custom and has tied our two families together for over fifty years. Today her two granddaughters call me and my sister Bhua, as we have called her for as long as I can remember. If that’s not proof of the strength of Raksha Bandhan, I don’t know what is.
I personally don’t have any Rakhi stories as touching as that one, because this is in fact the first time I was physically present on the actual Raksha Bandhan date. If anything it was a bonding experience because I tied four or five Rakhis on my cousin on behalf of all his absent sisters. For me it was a learning experience in the art of knot tying, a life-long weakness I might add. It was also a test of my Hindi recital skills as our family has a short prayer that goes with the tying of the knot. Over the years I’ve lost count of how much my sister and I fumbled and struggled over those lines with many hilarious results.
In spite of growing up so far apart, I like to think that tying these Rakhis has bonded me with my brothers across the miles. My sister’s kindergarten classmates certainly seemed to think so years ago. I may get in trouble with him for bringing this up but the funniest memory I have of Arjun is when he visited my family in Switzerland at the age of 16. Determined to drag him out of the house, my Mum took him to pick my sister up from kindergarten. The car was soon surrounded by a group of fascinated six year olds and they asked my sister quite seriously; “Is that your father?” And so Arjun Diwan became a teenage Dad and I never let him live it down. Memories like these are what make a family, Rakhi is just a symbolic representation of the bond between brothers and sisters, nowadays even between close friends.
My Dadi was telling me a story the other day about how her brother was so devoted that every year on Rakhi he would insist on spending the day with his two sisters, no in-laws allowed. The tradition clearly strengthens the basic bond between siblings but nowadays there is a lot more to it than that. In our times, the news channels are flooded with horrific treatment of women every other day, such as rape and acid dousing homicides. Under the circumstances I think it is really great to have a custom which is all about men vowing to protect a woman like a sister. The most common line in the protests against the ghastly treatment of women in this country is that they are probably someone’s wife, mother or sister. Personally I think that no one deserves such treatment because we are all human beings and should act more like it.
But at the end of the day I am very thankful for the love of all my brothers, no matter how far apart we live: family is forever. To end on a sappy note, this piece is dedicated to my Rakhi brothers Kanak and Arjun, all my amazing cousins and last but definitely not least my Dad and Manju Bhua, who have shown for over fifty years what the spirit of Rakhi is all about.