One of my happiest memories are of Samralu, the festival of giving thanks, celebrated in every village of Seemandhra in July. I had the chance to experience it thanks to Sandy, my best friend, whose family invited me to their village for the festival.
It was late July, 2011 and the heat of Kolkata, combined with the traffic jams, was making life difficult at R.G. Kar Medical college, where we were posted for post-graduate training. The phone call by Sandy’s dad inviting us for Samralu was just the break we needed, and we set off after a few days. Sandy had visited her village several times yet would be witnessing this festival for the first time, so we were both really excited. We boarded the Falaknuma Express from Howrah station at 6.45 a.m., and Sandy’s elder sister with family joined us at Bhubaneswar. Around 5.30 p.m., we reached our destination Palasa, where Uncle (Sandy’s dad) and some other villagers had come to greet us, excited that someone from other part of India had come to their village to witness the festival.
A local tempo (a bigger version of the auto rickshaw) took us over a rough, red-soiled road to Chen-wanka, about half an hour away, a small town of around 40 families. We stopped at a tall Hanuman idol, and we were told (Sandy interpreting for me, making it easy for us to converse) that this was the mukhya dwar (main entrance) to the village, protected by the deity.
The three day festival was to start the next day. There were decorative lights everywhere. That evening, we went to the main temple at the heart of the village, where the whole village seemed to have gathered. Sandy’s dad introduced me to the main members of the village panchayat, including theMukhia – the headman, who was delegating festival responsibilities to the villagers. Every panchayat member was wearing around the neck an Assamese fulam gamcha, a hand-woven towel. Immediately my heart was overwhelmed with an unknown emotion. I asked the Mukhia whether he had ever visited Assam. He had not.
“How do you know about this tradition of gamcha?” I asked.
“I know it’s from Assam & that it’s given as a sign of respect and honour. So adopted this custom in the 1940s, and get these from Assam for these festivals!” he replied.
On the way to Sandy’s home I asked Uncle what the festival was about. He answered, “During this festival the girls from each home are invited to their father’s home along with family. They are given new dresses and fed with their favourite food.”
“Why?” I asked. “You see,” he answered, “Usually married daughters did not get enough rest at their in-laws’ place, they could not spend much time with their parents and siblings. Although nowadays it might not be so, this is just a tradition which we villagers have tried to keep alive. It’s a get together of family members every year.”
“Why is it called a festival of thanks-giving for the village?” I asked.
Uncle answered, “We believe our village is like our daughter who does so much for her family. We build homes over her, plough her to sow the grains and reap the fruits. She always is on our side and bears with us. At times of need we sell her but still she remains silent and sacrifices herself. Just like a girl is uprooted from her family, gets married into an unknown family, and bears all the responsibilities for the next generation. So we started this festival where we pay homage to the Devi of our village.”
Interesting! I asked about the rituals of the festival. “Every village has their own Devi who protects them. She is summoned asAmmoru. Amma means mother. Every girl is called Amma. You’ll see when it starts tonight,” I was told.http://www.womensweb.in/2015/12/samralu-the-experience-of-a-festival-for-daughters-in-a-seemandhra-village/
I waited with barely suppressed excitement. Around midnight a blowing of horns and beating of drums filled the air, startling me. We rushed outside where a great gathering was passing by holding large baskets of flowers and gas lanterns. At the front was the main pandit (priest) of the village dressed in red dhoti, accompanied by a red-saree-draped lady representing the deity. The gathering reached the temple of the Devi. “Inside the temple, only after a flower from the idol falls on the lap of the lady dressed in red, is it considered that the Devi has accepted the invitation of entering the village for three days,” Sandy told me.
“Does this really happen?” I asked. “What if the flower doesn’t fall?”
“Then there won’t be any Samralu celebration,” answered Sandy’s father, above the din of the beating drums.
At this point, the flower must have fallen, for a large crowd of women pushed past me and ran towards the red-clad lady who was holding a large basket above her head, walking towards the main temple. They spread their saree pallus in front of her to walk on – she was now the deity, and must not put her feet on land. Some of them dancing – the celebrations had started.
On reaching the temple, she was welcomed by some other ladies, who washed her feet with water and touched them. She went within the temple and placed the flower over a podium. Thus, the deity came within the village to celebrate Samralu along with the villagers, everyone of who were there to welcome their daughter home.
We were up early at 4 a.m. the next day. Most of the family were already up and dressed in their finest. As we finished a quick breakfast, we heard the rolling of drums outside. A gathering stood in-front of Sandy’s house, headed by another lady dressed in red, holding a pot on her left side of the waist and a bunch of neem leaves in her right hand. Aunty (Sandy’s mother) rushed outside drenched the lady with a bucket of water although she was already wet. Next, she placed some of last night’s cooked rice in her pot. The lady mixed the rice with the ingredients within the pot, ate some of it and placed the left-overs on the plate brought by aunty. She brushed everybody with the bunch of the neem leaves she was holding, as a sign of blessing, and everyone touched her feet.
I was curious at this exchange and asked Uncle why Aunty put left-over rice in her pot. Surely, we should offer fresh food asprasad for a deity? Uncle smiled. “She the Devi, who is supposed to be a part of the family, even if a guest. If breakfast is finished, a family member will happily have yesterday’s left-overs. So she is happy with what we give her, and something has to be given, as we cannot have a guest leave without eating something.” I nodded.
After that, we went visiting some of Sandy’s relatives, whom we too, invited over to her place for lunch the next day. A special invitation came for both of us from every home of the village for lunch or dinner. I felt as if I were the daughter of the village whom they wanted to show their love for her.
At sunset, we visited the main temple where the ladies of the village got together to perform the next ritual. There a large boat had been decorated beautifully. All the ladies were offering bangles, kumkum, whole grains within it. Aunty explained, “In the evening this boat will be sailed to our deity’s home. It’s a representation of showing gratitude to her for the protection she gives us. The Mukhia will offer clothes to her tomorrow.”
In the evening, there was a song and dance programme put up by the local performers. Epics were sung, along with a Radha-Krishna dance, a fisherman dance, and a warrior dance – this was very interesting, where skilled dancers showed off moves for self-protection. The dancers were all boys, some of them disguised as girls.
The next day, too, started before the break of dawn. The men of the village set out to the nearby forest to cut five big trees, among them banyan and neem, to make a huge chariot to be used for the final ceremony on the third day of the festival. Each tree was worshipped and apologized to, before it was cut down.
Sandy and I were given haldi paste to apply to our bodies. We were told that this was a natural sunscreen and antiseptic, and also a sign of good health and prosperity. I remembered something told by my grandmother in my childhood, “Every festive ritual has got a scientific reason behind it which has been transformed into some-sort of misconceptions by some orthodox people who want to show their power over the others.” Soon, guests began to arrive and were greeted by Sandy’s family. By now I, too, had become a part of their family, and every guest interacted with me, too. I was overwhelmed by their simplicity, and the affection they showed towards me, and I could easily speak to them thanks to my interpreter.
For lunch, garelu was served with chicken at the very beginning of the feast, followed by rice, dal, vegetable and fish curry, ending with sweets. Every one sat on floor to eat irrespective of who they were, and ate with pleasure. Gifts of clothes with haldi, kumkum, and bangles were distributed to the daughters. After that, Sandy and I visited every home to which we had been invited. We refused any food offered there, but were pressed upon to eat with a lot of love and affection. By the time we returned to Sandy’s home our tummies were so full!
Evening skipped in quite fast, and again the local performers came to give their performances. But, today I noticed a new thing. The boys who were disguised as girls were wooing some girls of the village, interacting in a 1950s fashion. I was quite surprised by this and asked one of Sandy’s elder brothers about this. “In ancient times the girls weren’t allowed to get out much except for drawing water from well, or farm related work. So there wasn’t much chance of boys and girls meeting,” he answered. “During this festival every year the boys disguised as girls come to the village for this programmes, looking for girls on the first day. The next day they would have an interaction among themselves. If they liked each other, then their families would interact and get them engaged. Nowadays although there are no such restrictions, this ritual is maintained to remember that.” So this was a way to get married in the old days!
When we returned home, there was a large group of villagers waiting to meet us. Here I came to know Sandy was the first post-graduate student from their village and the villagers were really proud of her achievement. It was wonderful to see their pride in her!
By the time we could go to bed, it was almost 3 in the morning. After a scant two hours of sleep we had to get up and get ready. Sandy’s mother and elder sisters had already prepared food and yummy sweets. I was surprised by their stamina, as my body was already protesting with tiredness. The family then went to their paddy field, surrounded by large cashew-nut trees, where there were rituals thanking their ancestors.
Soon, guests started to arrive, but today they consisted of the elders of the village. While serving food to them I found that interestingly, there was no special arrangements for the widows. They all ate together, and were even given the same gifts accept the kumkum.
I was curious about the practice, which seemed to be very different from what I had generally seen. I asked Uncle, “In orthodox Hindu family the widows are meant to lead a life of severe perseverance which sometimes seems like hell. They are disallowed to eat non-veg foods. But are those rules not applicable here?”
Uncle smiled and answered, “Widows, or not widows, they are all Amma, right? In our village if a man whose wife dies can re-marry and enjoy life then why can’t the widows? Here many poor people struggle to survive a single day and are happy to eat whatever they get. Such rules will just make life worse for them. This day is dedicated to thanking our ancestors. So let’s thank all of them.”
I was really impressed by this. “If these villagers have such upgraded thinking then how come even today in educated society such rituals persist,” I thought.
After lunch we spoke to the elderly ladies, Sandy acting as the interpreter. They blessed both of us, and kissed us several times as if they had known me for such a long time. I was so touched by their simplicity. It never really felt that I was a guest, feeling completely at home among these strangers.
In the evening it was the time for the Devi to return. The huge chariot came amidst the beating of the drums & bellowing of couches. It was mounted by the Mukhia, accompanied by 5 kids below 10 years. They were dressed in traditional silk dhotis & head turbans. The chariot stopped in front of every home. The family members washed the feet of the Mukhia and made offerings of new sarees/dresses which were hung on the chariot. The belief was that through Mukhia the gifts would reach the deity. It was with mixed emotions that the deity was led back to her temple, sadness for the end of the festivities. The ladies were crying, pleading to the goddess to safeguard their village and come back soon next year. There was a hush in the air as the deity was kept back in her temple. Soon, it was all over, and everyone went home.
Back at Sandy’s home we had dinner went early to bed. The next day, we were to take the train back to Kolkata. Almost the whole village came to see us off, many ladies with tears in their eyes. The daughters were going back. As our tempo left, leaving behind the gathering I felt a drop escape my eyes. I shall miss them all too. “Love you and thank you all for giving such an incredible experience in my life.”