Last week I sent a small coloured thread, a rakhi, in the post to my brother in India which I hope he will receive today and wear it on his wrist as most Indian men will; a token of the quiet but sacred bond between a brother and sister.
Raksha bandhan is celebrated widely across India in the bright fortnight of the month of Shraavan. Sisters tie a rakhi on their brother’s wrist and pray for his wellbeing. In turn the brother pledges to protect her and look after her till the end of his days. It’s a simple act based on love and trust and celebrates a very special relationship. It is this simplicity that makes this festival so special. And it’s a joy to see women flock to the markets to select the best rakhis for their brothers and then the men sporting these colourful bands of various sizes and designs for days afterwards.
This tradition of tying a thread as a talisman to protect the wearer, dates back to ancient times and goes beyond the brother-sister relationship.
The Puranas refer to a battle between devas and asuras. The King of devas, Indra was losing. So his wife Sachi took a thread, charged it with sacred verses for protection and tied it on Indra’s wrist. Through the strength of this thread Indra conquered his enemies.
In Rajasthan when the men went to battle, the women tied a thread around their wrist after applying a tilak or vermilion powder on their foreheads. They believed this would protect their men and bring them victory.
Over time raksha bandhan turned into a scared festival for brothers and sisters.
In one famous instance, the queen of Mewar Mharani Krmavati was under threat from the Muslim governor, Bahadur Shah who had laid siege to her kingdom. Desperate for help she sent a rakhi to the Mughal king Humayun. Touched by the trust placed in him Humayun came to her rescue and freed her from Bahadur Shah and his men.
In Maharashtra, this is also the day when the fisher folk celebrate Narali Purnima. With the sea raging and the rivers swollen from the Monsoon rains, the fishermen go out to sea with offerings of coconuts to propitiate the sea god Varuna, to seek his protection and blessing for the year to come. It is believed that this brings the Monsoons to the their end making it safe for the fishermen to resume work again.
On a personal note as I have only daughters, we have our own tradition at home. They tie each other rakhis and I tell them this means they vow to be stand by each other all their lives. They think it’s cool. They call them Indian friendship bands. That will do just fine I think.