Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sibling Sacraments

Like clockwork every year for the past couple decades, two of my husband’s cousins mail him elegant, gold-embroidered raakhis, collections of threads woven together in different patterns and designs to form slim, colorful wristbands. Along with each, come their messages of love and blessings for his continued success, happiness, and well being.

The age-old tradition of sistersfor female cousins are considered sisterstying the raakhi around their brother’s wrist is known as Raksha Bandhan, literally meaning “bond of protection.” In return, brothersincluding cousin-brothers and often good friendsare supposed to shower their sisters with gifts and promise to protect them. This filial custom is observed by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India, and to a lesser extent, in Nepal and parts of Pakistan.

The raakhis themselves are like little pieces of jewelry, from ornate to simple, colorful and plain, made from simple cotton threads to elaborate ones, sometimes with mirrored, sequined, or bejeweled pendants. They can be handmade or purchased in nearly any Indian shop the world over at a certain time of year. The festival itself takes place on the full moon day of the Hindu calendar month of Shravan, which falls sometime around the last part of August.

There are various interesting accounts of this tradition:

  • When the Hindu god Krishna lived on earth as a man, he became injured in a legendary battle recorded in the epic story of the Mahabharata. Draupadi, the wife of his friends (side note, she was married to five men, the Pandava brothers), tore off a piece of her sari and wrapped it as a bandage around his wrist to staunch the bleeding. Legend has it that Krishna was so touched by her concern and affection that he became devoted to her as a brother to his sister and spent years trying to pay back the debt. Historians have confirmed that this battle took place in 3,067 B.C., so if this bit about Krishna and Draupadi is true, the Rakhsa Bandhan custom is truly ancient.
  • When Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 B.C., his wife Roxana (Roshanak) sent a raakhi to one of Alexander’s nemeses, King Porus, asking him not to harm her husband in battle. Supposedly, when Porus was about to deliver the final blow to Alexander on the battlefield, he saw the raakhi on his wrist (his own wrist) and ultimately restrained himself from killing Alexander. (You have to wonder how that decision went over with his troops.)
  • In the 15th century, as the Portuguese were expanding their empire in India, the various medieval kingdoms of the Rajputs, Mughals, and Sultans fought numerous regional skirmishes to protect their territories and gain others. At one point, the widowed queen of the Rajput kingdom of Chittor sent a raakhi to the Mughal Emperor Humayun when she realized she could not fend off an invasion by the Sultan of Gujarat. The emperor was so touched by her gesture, he abandoned a military campaign to come to her rescue.
  • During India’s independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, people of either gender tied raakhis to each other in a show of unity.

Other legends documenting the raakhi through history abound, and the custom has taken on countless regional names and variations depending on where it’s practiced.

There’s another similar tradition called bhai dooj or bhaubiz. It occurs during Diwali, the festival of lights, which takes place around late October or early November. On that particular day (either the second or fifth day of Diwali, depending on region), brothers are supposed to visit their sisters, who perform small prayer ceremonies so that their brothers lead long, healthy lives. Women who do not have brothers are supposed to worship the moon god instead.

They may not know it, but my husband’s sisters have been carrying on a 5,000-year-old custom passed down from gods and royalty. Not a bad legacy.


  1. Fascinating post, Supriya,

    You told me a great deal about "raakhis" that I didn't know.
    The first time I saw one, and didn't know what it was, I took it for a "fita do Senhor do Bomfim".
    Funny how this business of tying ribbons around wrists crosses oceans and cultures.
    Back in February, in our blog, MURDER IS EVERYWHERE, I posted about those "fitas".
    Any readers who are curious about them are invited to check in here:

  2. I find it interesting how the tradition of and belief in amulets exists in every culture. You know what else I found interesting? As I was growing up in Russia, my cousins kind of counted as brothers and sisters. In Russian, we don't say "cousin," but rather "second sister" or "second brother."