Two weeks ago today on August 7th, was the festival of Raksha Bandhan. Originating with the Hindu faith in India (though long observed by Sikhs too), it centres on a ceremony wherein a sister will tie a Rakhi (a simple cloth bracelet) on the wrist of her brother as a symbol of her love and protection. In return, her brother promises to protect his sister.
I already knew of the festival though hadn’t quite linked this with the large amount of men in the London area of South Asian heritage, wearing a Rakhi.
I happened to have a day out with a special friend whose family originates from India several generations earlier. When she arrived ready for me to drive us for a day out, she surprised me by presenting me with a Rakhi which she tied around my wrist whilst explaining its significance and how I have to wear it for a year.
Normally, a Rakhi is given only to a brother or possibly a male cousin but in very rare circumstances, it can be given to someone outside the family who the giver sees as a brother and I am one such lucky recipient.
As it happens I had unwittingly fulfilled my part of the bargain by giving my ‘sister’ a present and so it seems it was all meant to be.
In the last few weeks I have had several people asking me about it. White folk who had no idea about it at all and hadn’t even noticed anyone wearing them but who when I told them about it all thought it was the most wonderful idea ever. Whilst quite a few people from Asian backgrounds have been looking at it and no doubt noticing that I don’t exactly look like I have any obvious Indian lineage (well none at all according to my recent DNA test). I’ve been assured several times what a big deal this is and how I must be a very special person.
So though it is 2 weeks late, I thought I would write a little post on the festival of Raksha Bandhan.
Raksha Bandhan is observed on the last day of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Shraavana, which typically falls in the month of August. On this day, sisters of all ages tie a talisman, or amulet, called the rakhi, around the wrists of their brothers, ritually renewing their bonds as siblings and traditionally investing the brothers with a share of the responsibility of their potential care.
The expression “Raksha Bandhan,” which in the Sanskrit language literally means, “the bond of protection, obligation, or care,” is now principally applied to this ritual.
When the bracelet is tied to someone’s wrist, the giver usually recites a prayer for happiness and wealth which may go along the lines of the one below:
May the lord of all beings protect you,
May the one who creates, preserves and dissolves life protect thee,
May Govinda guard thy head; Kesava, thy neck; Vishnu, thy belly;
the eternal Narayana, thy face, thine arms, thy mind, and faculties of sense;
May all negativity and fears, spirits malignant and unfriendly, flee thee;
May Rishikesa keep you safe in the sky; and Mahidhara, upon earth.
This prayer, or mantra, is usually chanted in Sanskrit or Punjabi and after the rakhi has been tied the giver will place a sweet in their mouth while the receiver will usually offer a monetary gift.
According to Bhavishya Purana, in the war between Gods and demons, Indra – the deity of sky, rains and thunderbolts – was disgraced by the powerful demon King Bali. Indra’s wife Sachi consulted Vishnu, who gave her a bracelet made of cotton thread, calling it holy. Sachi tied the holy thread around Indra wrist, blessed with her prayers for his well being and success. Indra successfully defeated the Bali and recovered Amaravati. This story inspired the protective power of holy thread. The story also suggests that the Raksha Bandhan thread in ancient India were amulets, used by women as prayers and to guard men going to war, and that these threads were not limited to sister-brother like relationships.
By the 18th century, Sikhs were also observing the Raksha Bandhan festival and ike the Hindu tradition, the festival has involved the tying of the rakhi and giving of gifts. Sikh Khalsa armies introduced the term Rakhi (Raksha Bandhan) as a promise of protection to farmers from Muslim armies such as those of the Mughals and Afghans, in exchange for sharing a small cut of their produce.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the founder and ruler of the Sikh Empire, and he observed Raksha Bandhan festival. His wife Maharani Jindan sent a Rakhi to the ruler of Nepal, who accepted her as sister and gave her refuge in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal in 1849 after the collapse of the Sikh Empire and annexation of its territories by the British. And now nearly 170 years later, my Sikh sister has now performed the ceremony with me. Which is extra nice as she has long been like a sister to me