I am not sure entirely, or really even partially, at what point I fell in love with India. I am still not sure I can put a finger on exactly why I did either. It is a place where I do feel more at home than anywhere else, which is strange as I have no direct, ancestral or family history with the place. I did once reluctantly meet with an astrologer, against my better judgement, not that I don’t believe in all that ‘nonsense’. I have had various experiences which prove it to be far from nonsensical, not least the prediction of my 3 year illness; I just no longer see the need to have to know the future. However, I was persuaded to accompany a friend to see a chap in Jaipur who was meant to be a healer/astrologer etc. I had no intentions of ‘seeing’ him, I was just taking her there; he however, had other plans. He came over and chatted casually to me and told me a bunch of stuff no one, but no one, knew about me. This was 3 years ago. I was persuaded in, no fee charged, just the pleasure of seeing me smile, (his words not mine), and one thing he did tell me, amongst other things which are starting to happen now, is that all my previous lives were in India. Who knows? I guess could be.
Anyway, I do know that one of the reasons I did decide to move here was the (sadly now drastically changed) lack of consumerism and pretentiousness that goes along with it all. I couldn’t bear all that nonsense in the west, plus here, there was still a rich tapestry of culture and tradition, which intrigued and enveloped me and which is a fundamental part of normal every day life. All the stuff we have lost in the west (not that we had it in abundance like in India, and Morris dancing is no great loss to society anyway) but we are reduced to tradition being the vastly over-hyped and commercialised celebration of Christmas, consumerism at its worst, or the regularity of hitting the pub every Friday night.
However, India is changing, and quickly. I barely recognise Delhi from even just five years ago. In some ways it is for the better, I truly believe that there has never been a more exciting time to be here, but one consequence of modernisation, which sadly seems to model itself on westernisation is the loss of traditions and cultural values. I now work in a reasonably sized company in Delhi. In some instances, traditions are upheld but in others, not so much. In the room in which I work, 5 out of 6 colleagues had love marriages rather than arranged ones, a definite sign of the changing times.
Regardless, I am not to be daunted, and I am always on the look-out for possible cultural rituals. One colleague, female, was once fasting on a Monday, the day when single women traditionally fast in order to get a husband. I asked her if this was the reason and something she did weekly. Apparently not, it was just that she had some hospital tests in the evening. One Tuesday, I noticed that one colleague was eating vegetarian food, the day when even non practising Hindus will stay off the meat and booze. When asked if this was why, I was again thwarted. Nothing to do with religion or a day of the week, he just didn’t like eating animals. Fair enough, but not the cultural explanation I was hoping for.
So it came to pass that, last week, I had to prepare a webinar on Culture and Traditions in India. I had a field day, researching all the possibilities and kept shouting out various questions to my colleagues whenever I needed more of an explanation:
So people wear yellow on a Thursday, why is that?
Why do brides wear red?
Why do widows wear white?
Why does a bridegroom have to go to his wedding on a white horse?
Where does the tradition of the sindhoor come from ? (The red powder in the centre hair parting of a bride.)
What is the reason behind decorating a brides hands with mehindi? (Henna tattoos.)
The list went on and, in the most part, I was met with blank stares; no one was really sure where the traditions had started, we had a few discussions, but for actual facts, I had to resort to the ultimate expert on India – Google.
The day before the webinar, I felt a moment of mild panic. I can usually talk at length on most things Indian, with no prior warning, and often do, but this was different, I didn’t have the facts and I was out of my comfort zone. I cornered my trusted colleague, the one who usually helps in a crisis and we started hashing out the points. I asked several, nay numerous ‘why’ questions but each time he just shrugged his shoulders and responded with an ‘I don’t know, I don’t follow this crap,’ and we reverted to other colleagues or Google once more. An hour later and I was more than a little frustrated and starting to panic. I needed to know the history, what if I got asked a questions? I can’t remember at what point we turned to the subject of marriage again. Maybe it was the astrology/horoscope angle, most Hindus, even those having love, rather than arranged, marriages will consult with a priest and have horoscopes drawn up in the hope that they will match and to determine the most auspicious day for the ceremony.
‘So,’ I asked him, ‘if yours was a love marriage, did you have your horoscopes done?’
The man who doesn’t follow any traditions had done so.
‘We had to,’ he said, ‘because I am a Manglik.’ I was intrigued, in 18 years I had never heard of such a thing. I asked him what that meant.
Basically, and I will try to keep this simple, according to Google:
If planet Mars (“Mangal” or “Kuja“) is situated in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th or 12th house of a person’s Rashi (Indian astrological moon sign) when he/she is born; then that person is a “Manglik” (also called “Mangalik“).
Fair enough, but what does this then mean? Well, it is believed that one partner being a Manglik can lead to disharmony and tension between the husband and wife. Some people also believe that marriage between a Manglik and a non-Manglik can lead to the untimely death of one of the partners, which is obviously not ideal.
So, my next questions was, ‘Is there something that can be done to counteract this?’
He laughed, ‘Of course there is, this is India.’ and went on to explain that, apparently, it is only considered bad luck to be a Manglik for their first wedding. Subsequent weddings, or should I say spouses, are not affected.
I was confused, ‘But surely, no one will marry you in place of the wife you want to marry, so how does that work?’
‘Easy,’ he said, ‘I married a tree.’
‘What?’ It is safe to say I exclaimed, ‘You married a tree? Well that brings a whole new meaning to “tree hugging!”
The others of my non-devout, love-marriage colleagues were listening in and started contributing to the conversation.
‘Oh, yes, that’s quite normal, actually I married a pot.’
‘Me too, I also married a pot, it’s quite common.’
I was flabbergasted.
‘So, let me get this right, you don’t follow any other of the cultures and traditions I have been asking you about, even simple ones, like wearing auspicious colours, a sindhoor or eating veg on a Tuesday, but you, married a tree and you both married pots?’
‘Yes,’ they all replied.
I was tempted to leave it there, let’s face it, I didn’t really want to get into the finer points of their wedding nights, but I had one more question to ask.
‘So,’ I proceeded cautiously, I was treading on tricky ground, or at least, unexplored territory as far as I was concerned, ‘You married a tree to ensure that nothing would go wrong with your marriage and in particular so that your wife wouldn’t come to an untimely death?’
‘Correct,’ he said, ‘Though it was more to appease the family than my own belief.’
I pressed on, ‘So, I know your wife is all well and the marriage seems happy, but can I ask what happened to the tree? Is that still alive?’
This non-believer looked at me with a wry smirk on his face, ‘No,’ He said, It’s not.’
And that, I decided, was about as much culture as I could handle for one day!