On the second day after Diwali, several communities in India celebrate Bhai Dooj. It is called Bhai Teeka, Bhau Beej or Bhai Phota in different states. The usual way of celebrating the bond between brothers and sisters is by applying a teeka on the forehead of the brother. But the festival is celebrated in a rather unique way in Bihar.
In Bihar, Bhai Dooj is also called Godhan Puja. Early in the morning, women celebrate this festival in a community gathering. Women of one area gather in the courtyard or open space of one house and make a large rectangle of cowdung. All the women sit around this structure. In the centre are made two idols of Yama, the God of Death and his sister Yami (also known as the river Yamuna). Several other idols of snakes and scorpions are also made. This is followed by a reading of the legends behind this festival and the singing of folk songs.
This festival is also called Yama Dwitiya. As the legend goes, Yama takes away any person who is too good and has never been cursed by others. So the tradition is for sisters to curse their brothers on this day, in the hope that Yama will not venture close to their brothers and they will enjoy long lives. As a child I always found this tradition too traumatic and would burst into tears when I would be told to say “I wish my brother dies”. This would happen year after year, even if I had fought with them minutes earlier. To top it, my mother would come up with graphic curses, imagining each one of her five brothers working in different places succumbing to some disaster! For example she would wish that one of her brothers who was a sailor should drown in the sea. I would be aghast at her words. The curses are followed by another tradition where the women express regret for their words by piercing their tongues with a rengnikaanta. These are probably antiseptic thorns of a prickly fruit which is a crawler. Who knows if these wishes for long lives actually work! But it is a fact that my uncle had a miraculous escape in the Bay of Bengal when his ship sank. Maybe my mother’s annual curses came in handy to save him from Yamraj!
Other legends surround this festival. One goes that King Prithu invites his married daughter to her brother’s wedding. On her way to the wedding she overhears a potter saying that the Prince would die during the baraat (wedding procession) as his sister has never cursed him. Anxiously she reaches the wedding and begins cursing her brother much to the shock of the guests. She then insists on joining the procession and leads the baraat. All along the route she kills poisonous snakes and scorpions and hides them within the folds of her saree. When the baraat reaches its destination, Yamraj makes an appearance. But seeing the love between the siblings decides to go back empty handed. The sister then shows everyone how she had protected her brother from so many poisonous creatures.
There are other rituals that are included in Godhan Pooja. Women make garlands of cotton that day. The longer the garlands the longer the brothers live. At the end of the ceremony the women together crush all the structures they have created with a moosal (a long wooden pestle). This is accompanied with a quaint question-answer session, where the women are asked, who they are crushing, and they answer in chorus: “My brother’s enemies”. The brothers are asked to swallow five seeds of bajri, which are hard seeds of keraao, in the belief that it will make them strong.
Strange traditions, aren’t they? But that is India. You will have a festival celebrating each kind of bond.