One festival, different names
Raksha badhan is observed on the full moon day of Shrawan (July-August). This festival, which is celebrated by all Hindus, is popularly known by various names like ‘Janai Purnima’, ‘Rishitarpane’, ‘Gunpunhi’, ‘Rakhi’ ‘Avani Avittam’, ‘Kwatipunhi’ et cetera.
The word raksha means protection, and bandhan means restriction. On this day, sisters tie an amulet-like thread round the right wrist of their brothers as a token of protection against evil. The thread is known as rakhi and is made of a few colourful cotton or silk threads or that of gold or silver. The brothers give money, clothes and precious things as gifts in return.
One of the chief features of this festival is the renewal of the sacred thread (janai) for the high caste Hindus (Brahmins and Chhetris). The janai, which is a three stringed thread, represents the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Bishnu and Mahesh (Shiva). On this day, they visit the banks of rivers and change the janais after taking a ceremonial bath. The Brahmin priests believe that the custom of changing janai symbolically means the purification of one’s body and mind.
Brahmins, Chhetris and others take the purification bath in any one of the sacred rivers. One of the most frequented places of pilgrimage is Gosai Kunda, Rasuwa. Those who are unable to visit Gosai Kunda, go to Kumbheswor Kunda in Patan. In the courtyard of the temple, there is a very beautiful pond known as Kumbheswor Kunda, which is believed to be the replica of Gosai Kunda.
The festival has another important side. Brahmin priests tie rakhidoro (colourful thread) on the wrists of their patrons and followers and receive dakshina. This thread is tied on the right wrist of males, and left of females and is supposed to protect the wearer from every possible evil.
On the day of Gai Tihar (Laxmi Puja), the threads are taken off and tied to the tail of cow. Brahmin priests recite a mantra or a sacred formula while doing so to charge the thread with the power of protection.
According to Hindu scriptures Sachi, the consort of Indra, tied such a mantra-charged thread on the right wirst of her husband when he was disgraced in battle by Bali, the king of demons. Indra fought again and won a convincing victory over the demons, and recovered his lost capital Amaravati. The sacred amulet helped him to defeat his enemies. The festival was begun to commemorate this victory.
However, Buddhists celebrate this festival because of the belief that Lord Buddha achieved victory over ‘maya’ on this day. Maya means all those barriers and drawbacks that Shakyamuni Gautam faced in achieving nirvana.
In South India, this day is celebrated as Avani Avittam. The holy thread (upanayan) is changed and libation of water is offered to one’s ancestors and rishis. A new thread is worshipped with saffron and turmeric paste before it is worn, while the old one is discarded in a pool or a river. This day is especially significant for a Brahmin boy, who has recently been invested with an upanayan. It reminds him of the glory and significance of religion. Richa (mantra of Vedas) are also read and recited on this day.
In Maharastra (especially Mumbai), coconuts are offered to the sea god Varuna on this day. Exchange of sweets, setting up of fairs, visiting relatives and friends, and gurus, whom we are indebted to are the other highlights of this festival.
The Newar community celebrates this festival as Kwati Punhi. Kwati is a special kind of dish prepared from difficult kind of beans, peas and cereals. Drinking plenty of Kwati on this day is believed to relieve one from all kinds of stomach trouble. The Newars of Kathmandu also worship frogs on this day and feed them food and grains on leaf in the paddy field. This is called Gunpunhi.
Some people called this festival as Rishi Tarapani/Purnima. They believe that in ancient times, the saint and seers came down to river banks on this day and gave sermons on the importance of the study of shastras for the benefit of people.
This festival also symbolises the rich cultural heritage of the Nepali people.