Ahoi-Ashthami: A festival
The arrival and presence of children in the lives of families is celebrated the world over. Among (some) Hindu communities, particularly in northern India, the festival of Ahoi is yet another marker of the importance of the next generation, particularly for women, who keep a fast on behalf of the grateful family. Some argue that it gave women an important position in the family as symbolic protectors of offspring.
Never having learnt much about the details of religious fasting during my growing years, I only heard about Hoi, or Ahoi much later in life. We were brought up in a family that followed Aryasamaj, a Hindu reform movement that promoted the values and practices of the Vedas and also dismissed several aspects of orthodox Hinduism. As a rather practical lot, we focused mainly on the latter and remained somewhat disdainful of ceremonies and rituals, and lost out on a lot in the bargain, I realised later. Only a few practices were retained, and ceremonies and festivals were kept to a bare minimum, a token acknowledgement of the fact that we were, very much a Hindu family. We learnt nothing about the Vedas, or Aryasamaj, except for its deep commitment to education and we were proud of that. The Vedas remained outside of our frame, and all efforts (and resources) were invested in acquiring ‘good quality’ convent-school education focused on science and language learning that remained the prime focus of our upbringing. Whatever little was remaining of our Hindu identity was quickly cleaned up in the final years of hostel life at the convent and I had more Christian hymns in my memory than mantras, with the exception of the Gayatri mantra that stayed very close to my heart. We were expected to study hard, do well, and join the work-force as soon as possible, and do well there as well.
Ahoi: First encounters and recent perspectives
It is not odd, therefore, that when I first heard about Hoi, the meanings I understood from my limited perspective pushed me to consider the festival as sort of imbalanced, to say the least. As sons and daughters, we were treated and taught in very similar ways, and it irked me that some families observed the fast only for the health and welfare of their sons, and that only women were supposed to keep the fast. As is usual at that age, I bought into the liberal ideology of equality and secularism, believing that women were being controlled by patriarchy. I was unable to see any other meaning in religious practice. Although still remaining at a distance from ritual fasting and feasting, I have changed my opinions since and maintain an open curiosity about religious practice. Moving to Mumbai has also brought me much closer to the social and personal significance of religious festivities, although I admit that I remain uncertain and awkward about how to conduct myself around celebrations, the annual fervor around Ganesh Chaturthi, Dahi-handi and Dandia dances is hard to resist. Ganesha’s affectionate welcome in the community where we live, nearby celebrations of Krishna’s obsession with butter by competing groups of young boys and music that keeps us awake till late in the night are now a source of enjoyment. I enjoy watching, and no longer feel the urge to judge. Scholarly writing and conversations with friends have helped me to expand my perspective over the years as well. The stories and symbols are, after all, shared cultural symbols which provide periodic opportunities to revisit culture through allegorical references. Changes of season, remembering ancestors, renewing domestic rhythms, cleaning the system before a change of season, blessing the family, protecting the offspring and maintaining health and happiness of family life! Activities that are significant in all cultural communities and families the world over.
So, last week, when Reshu sent me a text message about her family and Ahoi celebrations, I was enchanted to read her affectionate enthusiasm that she shared with me as she celebrated her daughter’s presence in their lives along with other women of the family. They (the women in her family) all keep the strict, no-water-no-food fast for a day. Stories are exchanged and a specific story is told and retold every year. It’s a tale about a merchant’s family from a long time ago.
The mother porcupine’s curse
Many, many years ago, there lived a wealthy merchant and his wife who had seven sons. One day, in the month of Kartik and a few days before Diwali, the merchant’s wife (Sethani) went to the fields bring soil and clay to repair and decorate her home with. Unbeknownst to her, the spade she was using to dig out the soil hurt and killed the babies of a porcupine. Once she realized what had happened, she was devastated by the accident. Sethani walked back home in sadness, abandoning all thoughts of repair and celebration. When the mother porcupine returned home to find her brood lying dead in the earth, she was in deep despair and cursed the person who was responsible for the tragedy. “They too shall suffer a similar fate as me, and they will know what it feels like to lose all their children”. In the coming year, the curse had reached the Seth and Sethani, and they lost all seven children.
Unable to bear the grief, the couple resolves to take their own lives on route to the final journey of bidding their sons to the flames. They walked and walked until they fell down with fatigue, truly repentant and remorseful, both about the death of the animals and the loss of their children. Taking pity on them, a divine voice informed them that repentance was genuinely heart-felt, and although they had lost their children, their fertility would be intact when they returned home. They should return home, maintain kindness towards all life forms and gave specific instructions for the annual worship of goddess Ahoi (perhaps the owner of the divine voice?). Once they did all this, they would find the boon of bearing children again, and their home would ring with the sounds of children playing yet again.
The prayer and penance of the Seth and Sethani is revived in every re-telling of the story on the eight day of the moon in the month of Kartik, when Ahoi is worshiped and mothers collectively resolve to protect all life forms and gain fertility, and the protection of their own children. Thus, every year, a week or so before the festival of Diwali, Ahoi is celebrated for the protection of children, after abstaining from drinking even a drop of water or a morsel of food along with prayers (perhaps reliving the couple’s journey of sorrow to committing the ashes of their seven sons to the flowing river). At sundown, under the stars (star-rise is always noted in the announcements), women collectively break their fast.
Blessings of Ahoi (Translated from Hindi)
“Let everyone’s lap be full and warm,
….their courtyards complete with children around.
Mothers and fathers watching over their young ones,
….babies blooming in grandmothers’ gardens.
Protect them from evil glances, O’ mother Ahoi,
…..please keep all children safe and sound.
Everyone’s offspring should be happy and healthy,
….this, our request, to you we bring.”
The marketplace on Ahoi
Streets in India are periodically dotted with seasonal sales, responding the the local demands of the neighbouring communities.Men, women and children,in fact, entire families will bring their wares to be sold, often using the side of the street as a site for producing or finishing items. Diwali-time, streets are filled with marigold flowers ranging between yellow and deep orange, alternated with green stems or lace-edged ashoka leaves for decoration. For those who prefer more long-lasting options, a few beaded plastic options are also available. Magically, these stalls vanish the day after a festival, returning the street to pedestrians or occasional fruit-sellers. Such is the case with the bead-makers on Ahio.
Ahoi is also marked in several families, by the symbol of necklace worn especially on the day. But each year, the beads on the necklace are repaired and restrung, if need be, and one bead on either side is also added to mark the passing of yet another year of the child’s life. It is a collective recognition of the intersection time with the completion of another year of a child’s life-cycle.