Once in a year, during the onset of the Hindu New Year, people from all spheres and walks of life unite to celebrate the divine wedlock of Goddess Parvati with Lord Shiva in Rajasthan’s most important local festival. The celestial communion of Gan (Shiva) with Gauri (Parvati), Gangaur entails a series of communal prayers, fast observances, domestic rituals and festive processions that bring Rajasthan to its celebratory best; and culminates in the bidaai ceremony or departure of Gauri from her parents’ home in order to proceed towards a marital journey with her beloved husband. Apart from being of paramount ceremonial importance for married women as well as those seeking to get married, this auspicious period also marks the Hindu herald for spring and agricultural harvest.
In this edition’s Festive Recap section, Rajputana Collective highlights the celebrations of Gangaur as they occur in the two erstwhile Rajput fiefdoms of Mandawa and Rohet, which are situated in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati and Pali regions respectively. Lesser known to the commoner in comparison to the magnanimous jubilance of Jaipur and Udaipur, the houses of Mandawa and Rohet offer uniquely charming insights of their own, as told by the distinct family members themselves.
Holika Dahan: The End and The Beginning
A detailed insight into the meaning and significance of Gangaur is incomplete if it does not begin with an understanding of Holika Dahan. On the last day of the Hindu calendar, during the renowned festival of Holi, the consecrated burning of Holika takes place in order to symbolise the mythological incineration of Holika to kill her evil brother, Hiranyakashipu and save Vishnu’s devotee, Prahlad. In popular Hindu belief, this ritualistic cremation burns all evil that accumulated in the previous year, leaving behind nothing but purified earthy remains that are worthy of veneration. In the state of Rajasthan, these ashes are used to make clay idols of Ganesha, his consorts- Riddhi and Siddhi, as well as the sixteen goddesses or devis, namely Gauri, Padma, Shashi, Megha, Savitri, Vijaya, Yama, Jaya, Jyoti, Deveshi, Sudha, Madhavi, Loka, Pushti, Tushti and the clan goddess of the Rathores- Nagnechya Mataji. Over the next couple of days, these clay idols, along with the twin effigies of Gana and Gauri form the fulcrum of all ceremonial activities invoked by the festival of Gangaur.
In most parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and West Bengal, the mass-observation of Gangaur festival takes place during the first of the two Navaratris in the Hindu calendar, which is scheduled for observance from the very next day after Holika Dahan, also understood as the first day of Chaitra or the spring month. Apart from the collection of ashes, the first ritual of Gangaur implies the sowing of wheat and barley seeds in earthen pots, which are watered every day until they germinate. In a designated area of their houses, bedecked married women smear vermillion and kohl on a wall, while making eight circled masses each of cowdung and sacred ashes of Holika. Subsequently, they dip fresh grass in an earthen pot containing water, betel nuts, whole turmeric and a cowrie shell and brush the immersed glass blades over their bangles and rakhdi (head accessory) seven times. While doing so they sing songs dedicated to goddess Parvati and pray for their husband’s longevity.
At a primary level of observance, Gangaur is the ritualistic enaction of Gauri’s conjugal bonding with Gana or Isar as Shiva is popularly known. Due to this very reason, the festival bears great predominance in the domestic realms of its partakers. For married women, Gangaur is a time when they express gratitude for their husbands and pray for their well-being. Consequently. for unmarried women, it is a religiously-ordained time for them to pray for an ideal life-partner. Regardless of their marital status, both married and unmarried women are the chief entrants of Gangaur, who begin this annual celebration of matrimonial bliss and the hope thereof on the third day of Chaitra maah, also known as Teej.
Initial Ritualistic Observances
On on the day of Teej, women celebrating Gangaur collect water, flowers and fruits as offerings for the numerous clay idols enlisted above. Following this, the effigies of Gauri and Isar are bathed with turmeric infusions and adorn them with ceremonial attire in order to replicate their demeanour with that of a bride and groom. After being garlanded with fragrant flowers, the effigies have sacred threads tied to their wrists and vermillion anointed on their foreheads. Thereafter, a beautiful arti is conducted for Gauri and Isar, which, for the next five days is repeated on a daily basis. Amongst the various offerings made to them, the iconic Rajasthani sweetmeat- Ghewar is a primarily associated with the festival of Gangaur.
In the erstwhile Rajput fiefdom of Rohet, ritualistic observances around Gangaur have been persevered ever since the 16th century. Moreover, the family of Rohet is actively involved in the rituals and plays a pioneering role in preserving their local heritage. Rohet’s contemporary scion, Avijit Singh describes the proceedings of Gangaur as they take place in his home- “every evening, Gauri and Isar are brought out into the zenana courtyard of the fort where women from the village may come and pay their respects and offer their own prayers to the effigies. All the women of the family and village dress in their finest dresses and jewellery. Young girls and unmarried women pray to Gauri for a suitable husband and ask her for what they wish for by whispering it in her ear. The effigies are offered rice, ghee and sugar in the form of bhog (offerings). Songs are sung and the traditional ghoomar dance is performed by the women, young and old, before the gods in celebration of the celestial wedding.”
With minor differences, the Gangaur celebrations as observed in Shekhawati’s Mandawa convey similar mythological aesthetics. Thakurani Manjul Kumari of Mandawa provides a detailed ritualistic account of the festival’s progression in her home, she enlightens us with two closely associated legends that several people, even participants of the festival might be unaware of.
The Two Legends of Gangaur
The Ghudla Legend
During the evening of Sinjara or the seventh day, unmarried girls go around house to house, singing songs, while carrying ghudlas or earthen pots with numerous holes and a lamp placed within these pots. They venture out with their ghudlas in similar fashion for the next three evenings, whereupon they are given cash, sweets, jaggery, ghee, oil as offerings. On the tenth day of the festival, the unmarried girls break open their ghudlas and savour their collections. The debris of these pots are thrown into neighbouring wells or water tanks.
As explained by Manjul Kumari, the story behind the Ghudla pots is far from being a randomised one. She elaborates, “around 1548 AD, Ghudla Khan the army commander of the then administrator of Ajmer Hakim Malik Yusuf abducted some young girls from the village of Kosana in the district of Marwar while they were performing the Gangaur puja. Hearing of the abduction, Rao Sathal, the then ruler of Jodhpur followed Ghudla Khan with his army and attacked him. In the battle which followed Ghudla Khan’s head was pierced with a dozen arrows and he was then beheaded. Rao Sathal freed the abducted girls and presented them back to their families with the head of Ghudla Khan.The girls then rejoiced by taking Ghudla Khan’s head from door to door to announce his defeat. The earthen pot with holes in it is the symbolise Ghudla Khan’s battered head.” Through defining and powerful significances such the ghudla legend, Gangaur powerfully portrays the vanquishment of evil by a valour-led vendetta. It also establishes a firm example of communal protection of vulnerable members in times that were bereft with socio-ethnic conflict. These conflicts were not limited to the external world alone, in fact, they occurred within families as well, as is the case in the second legend.
II. The Legend of the Mandawa Brothers
One of the distinguishing characteristics about the Gangaur in Mandawa is the fact that parallel celebrations of the festival take place in the respective abodes of the kingdom’s two founders- Padam Singhji and Gyan Singhji. As accounted by Manjul Kumari, “there have always been two sets of Isar Gangaurs which are taken out every year through the main gate. Care is taken to see that both set of idols are taken out at the same time with neither one of them being slightly ahead of the other. In earlier days, this was reason enough for swords to be drawn and a skirmish to take place!” Similar historical accounts and legends notwithstanding, the present times lay testimony to the conscientious relegation of conflicts into the backdrop as the magnanimity of the celebrations unfold year after year, irrespective of socio-ethnic boundaries between the participants and the onlookers.
The Culmination of Gangaur
In the advent of the eighth day also known as Ashtami, the ritualistic sequences in Rohet as well as Mandawa follow their respective orders. The houses’ families worship the smaller clay idols while the larger ones are taken out to be dressed for the occasion in clothes and jewellery that date back to nearly over a century.
In Rohet, the puja is accompanied by a great fanfare of dancers, musicians, horsemen and fireworks as women carry out the twin effigies on their head into the village in a fervent procession. The Gangaur mela or fair is organised in the respective villages, where Gauri and Isar are placed for the attendees to visit. Amusement rides, sweetmeats, local delicacies and the likes are organised in order to animate the fair.
On the other hand in Mandawa, prior to the sunset, the village’s women begin to gather in the zenana chowk or courtyard in order to pay their respects to Gauri’s statue, which are yet to be taken on a procession. The women of the family first make offerings before leading her outside. Gauri’s effigy faces inwards in order to show reluctance to leave her parents’ home. Sprouts of whole mung dal are then dribbled seven times from the effigy’s dress to the pallu (loose end of cloth) of the ladies of the house. This dribbled gram is later kept in the house’s storehouse in order to signify abundance and plenty as her blessing over the household.
The outer courtyard hosts swarms of men who carry out the same rituals with Isar’s effigy. Soon after, both the idols are taken through the main gate in a procession towards the well that lies outside the fort. Gauri and Isar are matrimonially taken around the well seven times (pheras) before being brought back into the fort’s courtyard. Following this, the exchange of idols takes please whereby Thakur Padam Singhji’s idols are led through Thakur Gyan Singhji’s courtyard and vice-versa, as they are entertained and worshipped by the respective families. Songs are sung by the local dholis or music troops as the villagers enjoy a similar mela where they later commune with the celestial couple.
During the closing moments of Gangaur, Avijit describes a final puja that is offered to Gauri and Isar as they proceed for the marriage ceremony on the heads of two women. As the pheras are enacted, Avijit illustrates the sight of Gauri storming away from her own wedding as Isar consoles her and brings her back. Following this spirited act, the couple is carried back to the fort where the bidai ceremony takes place. Gauri departs her parents with her beloved husband Isar, as the women bid her a teary farewell. The clay idols are permanently immersed into the neighbouring well or tank while the newly-wed effigies are set-aside to rest until next year, when this entire spectacle would be relived with full pomp and vibrance.
The Varied Significances of Gangaur
The festive significance of Gangaur bears its relevance in several blatant and subtle ways.
In a nutshell, through the mass-worship of the divine femininity of Goddess Parvati, the festival engenders a sentimental and nostalgic participation of all devotees in her marital sanctification that has accumulated iconic pre-eminence across Hindu mythology.
At another level, this very mass-worship of Parvati’s divine femininity translates into a celebration of an aspect of womanhood itself, albeit within the confines of a deep reverence towards marital bliss and longevity. While liberal arguments would rightly contend against the prolonged fasting that Gangaur implies amongst women is done so with one-sided motives that are staunchly patriarchal, a utilitarian view would offer the temporary escape that it offers to these women, who are otherwise caught in mundane routines and chores.
Amongst tribal belts of the country, Gangaur serves as an opportunity for men and women to interact freely and even perform elopements with one another without meeting the usual displeasure and ostracism. Seen through a communitarian lens, the festival provides a fluid yet powerful confluence of people from diverse backgrounds in order to celebrate the onset of a supernatural domestication that lays renewed hopes for the heartfelt perseverance of marital bonds amongst mortals. As a result of the migration of Rajasthan’s Marwari community, the festival has been dispersed into other parts of the country and the world. Areas such as West Bengal and Nepal report a widespread observance of Gagaur within the thriving Marwari communities there.
In all, Gangaur imparts varied meanings, essences and experiences to all those who observe it and year after year, beckoning fresh starts, nuptial possibilities and unificatory opportunities in a full and undying circle of life.