• During Kurwa Chauth, Hindu women will forgo food as an annual sacrifice to demonstrate their undying devotion to their husband (or would-be husband). (AAP)Source: AAP
Millions of women will soon forgo food to show devotion to their husbands during the Hindu festival of Kurwa Chauth.
By
Sushi Das

6 Oct 2016 - 12:03 PM  UPDATED 6 Oct 2016 - 1:31 PM

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” wrote George Barnard Shaw. But for Indian women of a certain disposition, there is no greater expression of love than the rejection of food in the interests of a husband’s wellbeing.

Western women might willingly forgo food for the sake of their figures, but millions of Hindu women in India and the vast Indian diaspora, will soon forgo food as part of a centuries-old tradition of annual sacrifice to demonstrate their undying devotion to their husband (or would-be-husband).

It’s called Kurwa Chauth and this is how it works: on the fourth day after a full moon in the Hindu lunisolar calendar, which this year falls on 19 October, women will not let a morsel of food or a drop of drink pass their lips from the moment the sun rises until they see the moon that evening. They do this to demonstrate endless devotion to their husband and to pray that he lives a long life.

If the very idea of this is making you feel queasy, I can guarantee you’ll be feeling quite unwell by the time you hear the rest of it. As the day wears on and the hunger intensifies, the woman prepares the evening feast for her family, putting aside a small piece of confectionery for later.

For many women this is an uplifting and joyous ritual driven by love, selflessness and devotion. For others, including me, it’s an act of profound abasement.

She will then adorn herself with makeup, jewellery and fine clothes and wait for the moon to rise, for she and her family cannot eat until the moon actually appears. Once it is visible, she will take a large sieve, hold it up and then view the moon through it. It’s inauspicious to view such a powerful symbol directly. She will then turn to face her husband and then look at him through the sieve.

The ritual varies from place to place, but following this, she might bend down to touch her husband’s feet as a mark of respect and he will then gently place in her mouth that piece of confectionery she had put aside. And with this intimate gesture, he will, at last, break her sacrificial fast so that all can eat.

For many women this is an uplifting and joyous ritual driven by love, selflessness and devotion. For others, including me, it’s an act of profound abasement.

India has a population of more than 1.2 billion, 80 per cent of them Hindus. While the ballooning middle class is educated and progressive, the Hindu ideal of wifely devotion, service and sacrifice persists, from villages to Bollywood, from the diaspora in London to Sydney.

Myths and legends set out the ideal wife serving her husband like a god. Sita, the heroine of the epic Ramayana, represents the perfect woman: chaste, pure and gentle with a faithfulness that cannot be destroyed even by a husband’s indiscretions.

There will undoubtedly be women who would argue that the symbolism of such a ritual keeps the embers of a marriage glowing. 

Art expert Philip Rawson describes the ideal wife, as depicted in Indian art and poetry, in his book Erotic Art of the East:  “Her whole aim in life should be to efface herself completely, and minister with total dedication to her husband. She should look upon him as a god, treating his lightest whims as divine commands; she must eat only what he leaves uneaten and bear him as many sons as possible…”

Feeling unwell yet?

Such myths and legends inform culture, even as they evoke enslavement. They form the bedrock upon which the modern idea of romantic love (usually within an arranged, semi-arranged or assisted marriage) is allowed to flourish.

There will undoubtedly be women who would argue that the symbolism of such a ritual keeps the embers of a marriage glowing. Perhaps, but if they must stoop so low to keep the embers lit may I suggest they rake out the ashes while they’re down there.  After they’ve cleaned the house, made the kids’ lunches and done the laundry, of course.

Many might feel decidedly uncomfortable with their wives performing this ritual. And if indeed they do feel unease with her sacrifice then it is incumbent on him to tell her to stop it. 

And how does the master of the house fit into all of this? Quite comfortably, it would seem. During the ritual he has the mildly onerous task of standing like a lamppost, until it is time for him to feed a sweet morsel into his starving wife’s mouth.  And then when it’s all over, he feasts.

Any husband who expects his wife to perform this ritual every year needs a short, sharp shock, and I can think of many ways of delivering it. But I do not believe that most Hindu men expect their wives to fast for them.

Many might feel decidedly uncomfortable with their wives performing this ritual. And if indeed they do feel unease with her sacrifice then it is incumbent on him to tell her to stop it. Not that we should have to rely on men to drag these women into the 21st century.

Western feminism, often spurned by Asian women as the wrong type of feminism for their needs, has much to teach Eastern women. Western men may not yet know how to treat women as their true equal, but feminism has poked and prodded them further down the path to equality than many Indian men for whom life without patriarchy is simply not imaginable.

Many years ago, asked “Who wears the pants in your house?” Denis Thatcher, husband of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, replied: “I do, and I also wash and iron them.” Men do that when women stand up.

 
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter.

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