Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi is a festival celebrated in India and Nepal. The festival is a celebration of the love and duty between brothers and sisters. It also celebrates any brother-sister relationship between men and women who may or may not be biologically related. The bond between siblings is enduring and unfeigned. In the case of a brother and sister this bond is amplified. This relation is nurtured from infancy to death in the form of a sacred thread that is tied around the wrist of a brother. Raksha Bandhan or 'Rakhi' denotes 'bond of protection'. Prayers pour out of the hearts of brothers and sisters, who pray for the well-being of their siblings. It is a silent reminder of the responsibilities we bear towards our family. This festival is celebrated on a full moon day in the month of 'Shravan'. While largely, it is a Hindu religious festival, many communities in West Bengal and Punjab celebrate this as a secular festival, irrespective of their religion. To mark the occasion various fairs are held in Punjab.
The festival of Raksha Bandhan aids in strengthening the 'bandhan' between siblings. The beauty of this festival is that it celebrates all brother-sister like relationships, it is unrestrained by religion or community and it garners the value of secularism. Cousins, distant relatives, neighbours and childhood friends eagerly anticipate the coming of this festival to express their brotherly-sisterly affection. It breaks down the barriers of religion, caste and creed.
The essence of Raksha Bandhan is rooted in its rituals. The excitement for this festival begins a week in advance. Sisters hunt in markets for beautiful 'Rakhis' or 'ceremonial thread' made of colourful cotton or silk decorated with gold and silver stones, tinsels and beads, they sometimes even make one. On the other hand, brothers buy gifts for their sisters.
Siblings dress up in new clothes on the day of Raksha Bandhan. All the elders in the family gather around the siblings. A 'diya' or lamp is lighted and the sister ties the thread around the wrist of her brother. She then says a prayer of prosperity for her brother followed by an 'aarti' or adoration of her brother. After the 'aarti' the sister puts a 'tilak' made of turmeric and 'kumkum' on her brother's forehead. The brother then pledges to protect his sister under all odds. This marks the end of a pious ceremony. The siblings then offer each other sweets and the brother gives his sister a gift.
Myths & Legends
The Hindu scripture 'Bhavishya Purana' highlights the event when Indrani tied a thread given to her by Lord Vishnu around her husband Lord Indra's (God of the sky) wrist. This was to protect him from the treacherous demon, King Bali during the war between Gods and demons. Lord Vishnu went on to win the war. After the war, King Bali requested Vishnu to reside in his abode. Vishnu accepted Bali's request and stayed in the palace with his wife, Goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi did not approve of the growing friendship between Vishnu and Bali and so she tied a thread around Bali's wrist and made him her brother. Pleased with his sister, Bali asked her what gift she desired. Lakshmi took this opportunity to request Bali to allow her to return home with her husband, Vishnu.
In the Mahabharata too we discover this sacred bond. When Lord Krishna cut his finger, Draupadi tore a piece of cloth from the end of her sari and wrapped it around his finger to stop the bleeding. Krishna was moved by Draupadi's concern and vowed to protect and repay her for every strand of thread in the piece of cloth. Krishna does keep his promise later when the Kauravas insult Draupadi in the midst of the palace during the 'Cheer haran', she devotedly prays to Lord Krishna who grants her unlimited cloth and makes her sari endless.
Another key story is the unlimited love between the God of death, Yama and his sister Yamuna. Goddess Yamuna is pained that her brother has not come to see her. She meets Goddess Ganga who in turn tells Yama that he must meet his sister as she is crestfallen. When Yama visits Yamuna, she is ecstatic and greets him and prepares plenty of food. Yama asks his sister what she desires, to which she replies that she wants to see her brother again soon. Gratified by her reply he grants her the gift of immortality.
Raksha Bandhan Celebration
Raksha Bandhan weaves the entire country together. Today, this festival is no longer confined to Hindus. Priests tie 'Rakhis' to the members of their congregation and women tie 'Rakhis' to the heads of villages and towns. Siblings who live in separate states, countries or continents send 'Rakhis' and gifts to each other well in advance. In many homes, imprints of palms are made on either side of the entrance and 'Rakhis' are stuck on the imprints. Some communities eagerly look forward to this festival as old threads adorned by young Brahmins are replaced by new ones.
Raksha Bandhan in History
History has corroborated that this festival is not prerogative to Hindu culture alone. Alexander the Great's life was saved because of a 'Rakhi'. When Alexander invaded India in 326 BC, his wife Roxana sent a 'Rakhi' to King Porus who vowed to protect her and her husband. On the battlefield when he was about to kill Alexander he saw the sacred thread and refrained from killing Alexander.
Significantly, the story of the dutiful brother Emperor Humayun is clearly one of the greatest bonds of sibling love. Mewar was in great danger as it had been attacked twice by Bahadur Shah. Rani Karnavati, the ruler of Mewar sent a letter along with a 'Rakhi' to Humayun, who was then at a military camp. Upon receiving her letter Humayun left the camp and rode immediately to Mewar to protect her.
Rabindranath Tagore used the symbol of a 'Rakhi' like a weapon against the British during the Partition of Bengal in 1905. The British had divided the province of Bengal under its policy of 'Divide and Rule'. Tagore encouraged men to tie 'Rakhis' on their Hindu and Muslim brethren to oppose the partition.
Raksha Bandhan - Regional Variations
Raksha Bandhan exhibits manifold celebration in India. In Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and parts of Orissa, Raksha Bandhan is celebrated as 'Avani Avittam' which is considered an important day for the Brahmins. In Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Uttar Pradesh, this day is called 'Shravani' or 'Kajari Purnima'.
Maharashtra celebrates Raksha Bandhan as 'Narali Poornima', fishermen throw coconuts into the sea as offering to Lord Varuna and apply vermillion to other fishermen's forehead. In Gujarat Raksha Bandhan is celebrated as 'Pavitropana'. Being great devotees of lord Shiva, the Gujaratis offer prayers to the three eyed God on Raksha Bandhan. In Punjab and Haryana, 'Salono' is also celebrated with Raksha Bandhan, where priests tie amulets on locals to ward off evil.