Karwa Chauth is a fast kept by married women for the long life of their husbands. Know about its legends, customs, rituals and dates.
Karwa Chauth is a festival celebrated in North India by Hindu women in which married women undertake a fast from sunrise to moonrise for the safety and longevity of their husbands. Traditionally celebrated in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, it is also celebrated by several communities in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab. Over the past couple of decades, the festival has been promoted by Bollywood movies as a romantic festival for couples which has greatly added to its popularity. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see Karwa Chauth being celebrated even in the southern states of India and by non-Hindus as well. In its modern avatar, the occasion is also celebrated by unmarried women alongside their married counterparts. Interestingly, the festival originated as an occasion to celebrate sisterhood and friendship among the ladies. Despite the romantic notions attached to it, Karwa Chauth is primarily a women-oriented festival aimed to encourage bonding of community women with each other. While the festival is extremely popular among some women, it has been criticized for its misogyny as it promotes the belief that women are somehow inferior to men and are dependent on them for their existence.
The Story of Karwa
In the ancient times lived a woman named Karwa who was deeply devoted to her husband. Once while bathing in a river, her husband was caught by a crocodile. Karwa immediately rushed to his aid and tied up the crocodile with a cotton yarn. She then invoked Yama, the God of Death, to save her husband and sent the crocodile to hell. On Yama's refusal, Karwa threatened to curse him. The God of Death was afraid of being cursed by a Pati-vrat (devoted) wife and thus obliged Karwa by sending the crocodile to hell. It is believed that this incident gave birth to the festival of Karwa Chauth.
The Legend of Satyavan and Savitri
Like Karwa, Savitri was also a Pati-vrat (devoted) wife. When Yama came to take her husband Satyavan's soul, Savitri begged him to grant him life. On Yama's refusal, the pious lady stopped eating and drinking and followed the God of Death as he carried away her husband's soul. Touched by her devotion, Yama offered to grant her any boon except for the life of her husband. Savitri asked to be blessed with biological children. Being a Pati-vrat wife, Savitri would not have children with any man other than her husband. This condition forced Yama to restore Satyavan to life.
The Story of Queen Veervati
One of the major legends associated with Karwa Chauth is that of Queen Veeravati who was tricked into breaking her Karwa Chauth fast before the moonrise. According to Hindu mythology, Queen Veeravati was the only sister of seven loving brothers. She celebrated her first Karwa Chauth after marriage at her parents' home and began the day long fast after sunrise. She strictly observed the fast, but was beginning to get desperate with hunger as the day wore by. Unable to see their sister in distress, her loving brothers placed a mirror in the branches of a Peepal tree that made it look as if the moon had risen. Veeravati mistook the mirror for the moon and proceeded to break her fast. As soon as she began eating, she received the news that her husband had died. Heartbroken at having been deceived to break her fast which resulted in the death of her husband, she wept all night and finally a Goddess instructed her to repeat the Karwa Chauth fast with complete devotion. Veeravati repeated the fast and Yama, the God of death, was forced to restore her husband to life. There is another variation of this story according to which Veeravati is tricked to believe that the glow from a massive fire is the moon, following which she breaks her fast resulting in her husband's death. Her dead husband is brought back to life once Veeravati sprinkles holy blood donated by Goddess Parvati on him.
The Legend of Mahabharata
A Mahabharata legend has it that Arjun, one of the Five Pandavas, once went to the Nilgiris for penance. The rest of the Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi faced several problems in his absence. In desperation, Draupadi prayed to Lord Krishna for help who told her about how once Goddess Parvati had sought Lord Shiva's guidance under similar circumstances and had been advised to observe the fast of Karwa Chauth. Thus Draupadi too followed the fast with all its rituals and consequently, the Pandavas were able to overcome their problems.
Customs and Rituals
Preparation for the Festival
The Karwa Chauth festival falls on the fourth day after the full moon, in the Hindu lunisolar calendar month of Kartik, nine days before Diwali. The preparations for the festival begin several days in advance. Women start buying items of cosmetics, traditional adornments or jewelry, and puja items including the Karwa lamps, matthi, henna and decorated puja thali (plate). Some women, especially the newly-wed ones, also visit beauty parlors to get ready for the festival.
Beginning the Day
Karwa Chauth is primarily celebrated by North Indian communities. Each state has its own customs and rituals. For example, in Punjab, women get up early in the morning and eat and drink before sunrise. Their pre-dawn meal consists of "sargi" which also includes fenia. The sargi is traditionally prepared and sent to a woman by her mother-in-law. In other states too, having a pre-dawn meal is a common practice though the items eaten might vary.
The women begin fasting at dawn and do not eat or drink anything during the entire day. Traditionally on this day women do not perform any housework and instead spend the day socializing with other women and getting dressed up. Women decorate the palms of each other with henna designs and dress up in fine clothing and jewelry. It is considered auspicious to wear colors like red, maroon, orange and gold on this occasion. In some communities, colorfully painted clay pots filled with bangles, ribbons, home-made candy, cosmetics, and other items are exchanged with each other. It is also customary for married women to receive gifts from their parents.
The puja is a women-only ceremony held in the late afternoon or evening. All the fasting women gather at a common place with their puja thalis. The rituals of the puja vary from region to region, though every version includes the narration of the story of Karwa Chauth by an elderly woman or priestess. In Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, there is also a special ritual in which the fasting women exchange Karwas seven times between themselves. In Uttar Pradesh, some communities also perform prayer of "gaur mata" or the worship of the fertile Mother Earth.
Breaking the Fast
Once the puja is completed, the women wait for the moonrise so that they can break their fast. Once the moon is visible, the fasting woman, with her husband by her side, views the reflection of the moon in a vessel filled with water, through a sieve, or through the cloth of a dupatta. Then she offers water to the lunar deity following which she turns to her husband and views his face indirectly in the same manner. Then the husband offers his wife a sip of water and feeds her with the first morsel of the day. The fast now broken, the woman now eats a complete meal.