In a country, where festivals are the essence of life, Karwa Chauth is celebrated just as elaborately as the next. Karwa Chauth is an ancient Indian tradition where women fast for a day for their husbands. It's a festival that is a true expression of India's rich cultural heritage, based on the lunisolar calendar, and one in which women squeeze back into their wedding dresses! With Karwa Chauth approaching on the 4th of November this year, I want to share a little about this beautiful festival, its history, and how Indian women celebrate it. Although recently Karwa Chauth has been branded as "regressive", I see it as a celebration of love, devotion, and most importantly, sisterhood.
What Is Karwa Chauth?
Karwa Chauth is a day where typically, married women, regardless of age, fast from sunrise to moonrise for the safety, longevity and prosperous long life of their husbands. Many unmarried women also observe the fast for their fiancés or future husbands. A number of rituals are carried out through the day in hopes that the bond between husband and wife lasts for seven lifetimes(!). It is celebrated with magnanimity and is a big deal in northern states of India, as well as for Indians living abroad. Karwa means a small earthen pot symbolizing peace and prosperity, and Chauth refers to the 'fourth day' of the Karthik month in the Hindu calendar where several festivals take place, with Karwa Chauth taking place on the forth day of this month.
Karwa Chauth History
In the olden days when an Indian woman was married young, she left her own family and became part of a new one - her husband's, in a joined household living with her in-laws as well. This is still common in India. The arranged marriage would often mean that she married someone from another town or village, far from her own. The young bride would befriend someone else married into the same village that was not related to her in-laws, and would form a sisterhood - a bond so strong, both emotional and psychological, believed to be as secure as blood relationship. As the north of India was perpetually under attack from invaders, many men would leave to fight in the war, with casualties being common. The women would gather together and pray for their husbands safe return and longevity. Praying together heightened this bond between the women and they saw one another as sisters - dharam behn, being an important support system. With time, the wars ended and Karva Chauth has evolved into the celebration of sisterhood, as well as wishing good for one's spouse.
The Hindu Temple in Glasgow, Scotland on Karwa Chauth during the evening prayers.
Karwa Chauth Rituals
The rituals, even now, begin a few days before Karwa Chauth. The bazaars become very busy with shopkeepers creating elaborate displays for their Karwa Chauth wares. Stalls are filled with colorful bangles of every color, and mendhi walis are called home to paint the hands of women with henna. Although it's common for new brides to wear their wedding dress on their first Karwa Chauth, others go on shopping sprees with their sisters and girlfriends for complete new outfits, as well as new karvas, prayer items and jewelry. In modern times, renowned Indian designers launch their spectacular collections of Banarasi lehengas, neo-traditional ensembles, sarees and suits in advance, creating such an excitement filled buzz when it comes to attire.
On Karwa Chauth day, the fast begins before sunrise. Those keeping the fast receive a tray filled with foods to eat before the fast begins, gifts and prayer items. This is called Sargi and typically comes from the mother-in-law. Sargi is an important part of the rituals of Karwa Chauth. The feast that is eaten in the morning varies from region to region, but typically includes stuffed Indian bread, vermicelli noodles and lots of nuts and dried fruits, with a cup of chai. This hearty meal is put together to go without food or water for the rest of the day, until the fast is broken at moonrise.
Women get dressed up, wearing all traditional symbols of a married Indian woman - red powder in her hair parting, specific jewelry signifying marriage, a bindi, the works! In the early evening, around four o clock, they gather together with their prayer tray at the temple or someone's garden for the puja - prayers. The women, who often wear red - a bridal color, sit in a circle and an elderly member from the group will recite the legend of Karwa Chauth. This is known as the katha - the story, and as its recited they pass the prayer trays around the circle. After this, they return home where they can sip on a sweet cup of chai, or something else to drink (no alcohol!). From there, all that is left is the wait until moonrise.
The houses in India often have rooftops and balconies. When it's time for the moon to rise, women scurry outdoors in hope of spotting it, with their prayer tray in hand. Once she sees the moon, she sometimes looks at it through a decorated rice sieve, prays to it, then offers the moon sweets and water. She then looks at her husband while praying for his longevity. She then eats a sweet from the tray and the fast is broken. All that is left is to sit down for a meal with the family.
Karwa Chauth Today
Today, Karwa Chauth is celebrated all over India and not just the northern states, due to its glamorization on TV and Bollywood movies. Many people celebrate their own interpretation of Karwa Chauth. Some people keep the fast for religious reasons, while others are fueled by the romance of the festival. With so many more women working compared to thousands of years ago, they have customized the rituals to suit their urban lifestyle. Some people fast but do not practice praying, and vice versa. Others don't consume any food but still drink water and liquids. Pregnant women or those with health factors do not keep the fast for obvious reasons without a trace of guilt. Some people do not celebrate at all. And millions of others celebrate the traditional way. In today's day Karwa Chauth has become commercialized with grand gifting from mother in-law to daughter in-law, as well as husband to wife - similar to Valentines Day.
Many people have said Karwa Chauth is misogynistic, sexist and regressive. Women are not forced to observe this holiday, unlike the olden days where superstition was so prevalent in India. Today, there are so many men who reciprocate and have broken traditional norms by fasting with their wives, symbolizing equality. Other men will spoil their wives with gifts, take the day off to spend with them or cook with them. I see Karwa Chauth as a day to remind yourself that your partner's health and longevity shouldn't be taken for granted, and find so much beauty in the tradition. The underlying notion of sisterhood is something really special, and something to honor and keep alive. While it is necessary for societies around the world, along with India, to constantly review its practices and traditions so they can evolve, I do not think Karwa Chauth is misogynistic, sexist or regressive.
My First Memories Of Karwa Chauth
My first memory of Karwa Chauth is from my mum, in my early childhood. My mum would dress up in her prettiest sari, often red in color, embellished with sparkles and gold foil. Her day, like everyone else keeping the fast, would begin before dawn, where she would have a nourishing meal before the sun came up around five in the morning. The smell of sweet vermicelli noodles stewing in condensed milk would waft into my room. I would hear the clicking of the gas burner when she would make cauliflower stuffed Indian paratha (bread). My elder sister and I would insist in joining the fast for our future husbands, still being teenagers ourselves. Except, we wouldn't want to wake up early to eat before sunrise and often lost the willpower to endure the day.
My mum spent the day making all sorts of Indian treats. I am not sure how she did this while fasting, but we were certainly always excited. One of the dishes she would make was black lentils - dal makhani. Its tradition to eat black lentils in the Punjabi culture when the fast is broken. In the early evening, my mum would recite prayers and have chai. This was the moment my sister and I often wished we kept the fast as all the fun began then - the eager anticipation of moonrise dressed as a bride.
As Karwa Chauth is based on the lunisolar calendar, it repeatedly falls in autumn. Growing up in Scotland, it was cold, usually wet and cloudy. Us kids made it our quest to spot the moon outside our house and report it back to mum, but the typical Scottish weather made it more challenging! Our neighbors must have thought we were crazy, staring into the sky, walking back and forth like we were looking for aliens, but that was all part of the fun! There were many years we failed to see the moon at all and my mum would eagerly call my aunties to ask if the moon had risen (before Google and iPhones). When in doubt, they'd consult a trusted elderly aunty who would confirm, so the fast could be broken.
We then would have dal makhani and rice, followed by lots of colorful sweets decorated with edible foil.
Illustration from Tasveer Ghar India
How I Celebrate Karwa Chauth Now
I have consistently fasted since getting married three years ago, so this will be my third Karwa Chauth. My in-laws and family live in different countries, so I celebrate Karwa Chauth with my husband, listening to the legend of Karwa Chauth on YouTube - hey modern age! My cousins, also observe Karwa Chauth and so the sisterhood aspect comes virtually from our Whatsapp group chat..
This year, I want to be more intentional with the practice and rituals. I have previously skipped aspects, namely waking up early to have breakfast(!), but plan to honor the festival with purpose and intent.
Above was my first Karwa Chauth as a married woman. We had just moved to our empty new nest so kept celebrations simple.
Are you fasting this year? I would love to hear about how you observe Karwa Chauth! Follow my journey on Instagram!
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