Celebrating a bond that ties

It may not have the grandeur of Diwali or the effervescence of Holi, but none can deny Rakshabandhan’s magic at creating connections that last.

One thread from Roxanna – the wife of Alexander – and Porus vowed to not kill the great Greek King. The same thread from Bundi’s Rani Karnavati to Emperor Humayun, not only melted the Mughal great’s heart but also made him win back her kingdom and instate her son as the ruler of Chittor. It was that thread that Maharani Jindan of erstwhile Punjab had sent to the King of Nepal who gave the feisty queen asylum when she escaped from prison in 1848 after losing to the British, against all odds. When it comes to the glory of Rakshabandhan, history and mythology is replete with stories where a simple thread or talisman proved to be a greater catalyst than any diplomacy or revolt.

One of the unique things about Rakshabandhan is that there’s no one kind of sweet that is trademark of the festival.

A fine instance of this happened in 1911, when six years after Lord Curzon’s decision to divide the Hindu majority regions of West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha from Muslim-dominated areas of Assam and Sylhet was eventually withdrawn thanks to a movement that saw every Hindu tie the sacred thread on a Muslim. Described as the most effective, non-violent defiance against The Crown, the plan was designed and supported by Rabindra Nath Tagore, who considered the rakhi, an invincible bond of unity.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time in history that Rakshabandhan would prove its might in bringing people together for a cause. The first War of Independence would become the biggest example of how the rakhi would bring help from unlikely quarters, and how tawaifs (the unsung heroes of our freedom fight) bound by the thread would go beyond to help. Whether it was to send nourishment masqueraded as a Rakshabandhan offering in a sweet box or ensuring safe passage to those when needed. In fact, legends such as Hossaini would bring the thread to unite an army of men and women to fight against the goras. At a time when loyalties could be bought and sold, it was the power of the thread that would keep the revolutionaries going and supporting each other.

Fascinatingly, it was how Rakshabandhan, which according to Atharva Veda and its various Samhita translates into the ritual of tying thread, originated as well. Far from the brother-sister bond it is today, Rakshabandhan back in the time was a tradition of the warrior community mostly and would be an insignia between two soldiers who considered themselves bond by duty. In fact, Rakshabandhan to India was much like the Knight’s oath in the West. Outside the kshatriyas, rakhi was more of a sacred thread, a talisman made with silk cloth with a saffron smeared thread. In this silk swatch was a mix of white and black mustard seeds and unbroken raw rice kernels that according to Vedas would protect one against evil – intention and otherwise.

Gujiya rakshabandhan
The gujiya is one sweet that is made in several different versions across India and is a fitting accompaniment to Rakshabandhan.

The ritual was performed mostly by either the elders or womenfolk of the family who would also use it to remind them of their families.

For a large part of its history, Rakshabandhan remained in the periphery of being this unbroken bro-code. Leaders of warring communities such as the Rajputs took this essence of Rakshabandhan to heart and even laid down its rules. Such was the power of the sacred thread that by the 12th century, Rakshabandhan had evolved from a ritual to a tradition that could be followed by anyone. It was a given that if a Rakhi arrived at your door you had to accept it and fulfil the promise. Returning it would be seen as a sign of “weakness”. This practice led to the rise of the Dharm-bhai (brothers not by blood but by thread) and soon became the best way to bind together two great dynasties and enemies too. The story of Rani Karnavati and Emperor Humayun is a classic case in point. Before the Rakhi, Chittor was under threat from the Mughals, but after, it became a protected ally. Another is when the villagers would tie rakhi to the Sikh Khalsa who in turn would protect their family and land, albeit with a small share of the produce. It is here that the term Rakhri was coined which eventually became Rakhi.

As years passed, while Rakhi continued to evolve in different forms and formats, its essence remained the same, especially for the commoners who would still tie the holy thread with a prayer of protecting their beloved against all evils. The deal would be sealed with something sweet such as a bowl of kheer or ladoo and a favourite meal. It was a kind of custom that continued even when Rakshabandhan became a Mughal Court event, where any woman come and tie the tread to the emperor – and would bring something sweet as a motif to her wishes and would often get a gift as a promise that would be kept. Incidentally, the tradition that began with Shah Alam reached its zenith during the reign of the last Mughal emperor who, despite his penury, would celebrate the day with gusto at the Red Fort, even as the British came to arrest him and deport him to Kalapani.  

Sevaiyaan anjeer kheer rakshabandhan
Kheer is yet another popular choice of sweet for Rakshabandhan, given its versatility.

But it wasn’t at the royal court that Rakshabandhan had a prime place, it was one of the traditions that came to fore during the lead up to the first War of Independence when Rakhi became the ultimate symbol of unity and brotherhood. And soon, a ruse to provide aid to comrades in hiding and behind bars. A box of sweets accompanying a simple rakhi proved to be the most innocuous way to communicate. And often could surpass even a hawk-like scrutiny with success.

This partly explains why Rakshabandhan doesn’t have a dedicated sweet. The other reason is the nature of the festival itself, which is more personal than others. And hence, has had the flexibility of adapting to different culture. For instance, in Gujarat, says Chef Nimish Bhatia (Chefpreneur Nimmisserie Bespoke), “It is celebrated with kheer and doli ki roti – a fermented bread that is stuffed with sweetened channa dal; in northern India, it is celebrated with gujiya and ladu; in Punjab, it is with gur ka halva and pinni; and in the rest of India, with either kheer and motichur ke ladoo and in many trading communities with doodh pak and poori.”

The reason for such variety was two-fold, says Chef Bhatia. “One was nourishment and the other was the easy availability and affordability. Rakshabandhan by the 18th century was a tradition that would often have the sister come to her paternal place. The occasion would demand a celebration that had food made at home (such as kheer) and a sweet that she would carry with her and would often be a sweet that could travel such as ladoo, gujiya, even khaja.”

Concurs Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), who finds the lack of a single, associative sweet with the festival, a kind of a blessing in disguise. “When it comes to festival, Rakshabandhan seems to be a little bit of a misnomer. While it is marked as an annual festival in our calendar with stories of Krishna and Draupadi told to give it a narrative, there is no tradition that is both as personal and democratic as Rakhi. Think about it, even as the modern diktat dictates that it is a tradition where the sister ties the thread to the brother, the festival itself allows one to create newer bonds, make promises and honour them – and most importantly, create this invaluable sense of belongingness.”

“Much like the ladoo or kheer,” continues Chef Dewan, “which, though classic, are hugely versatile when it comes to newer pairing – or bonding.”

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