Halloween vibes on a Diwali day

bhoot chaturdashi halloween

To believe that a country as secular as ours would not partake so much in the celebrations of a much intriguing festival of the Halloween might occur as some sort of a misjudgement. For no one quite celebrates festivals like us Indians, no matter the context and classification of them as in this land of unity in diversity, every occasion in remarkableness warrants fitting observances of them. Why then such ‘apathy’ as the Halloween case has found sad place of not any pride in, even with it emerging today to largely span as a cultural celebration of global appeal despite the religious essence of characterisation? The answer perhaps is one not so much of stirring up interests as it is one in a greater reveal instead- something that would be quite a surprise even for the many of us Indians who have never chanced upon what is the Indian version of Halloween indeed!

But even here there needs to be a clarification, for there isn’t just a lone case of the ghostly that dominates proceedings at least in one part of our incredible country. There prevails in fact at least two such identities in much distinctiveness that can very well pass off as Halloween indeed, only less celebratory and more ritualistic instead. But consider the larger context in not geographically defined regions but across a more global religious framework and such celebrations of spirits are not particularly difficult to come by even far, far outside the predominant pumpkin prevalence of them.

What’s interesting in these different modes and mediums of bringing even the dead into reference in celebrations and observances is also the fact that such days and events of distinct naming as well cuts across even the more complex barriers of religion, outside the considerably accessible expanses of space. For while Halloween might be a Christian consideration in remembering the dead and the departed, similar such sentiments are what form the crux of the Hindu observance in Mahalaya Amavasya and also in somewhat related mannerism the Muslim festival of Shab-e-Barat.

Consider however the regional contexts in similar concern and two specific celebrations occurring separately in two different Indian states standout in their similarity both to each other as well as with the more popular Halloween festivities. Pertaining to the Bengali and the Odia consciousness respectively are these identities of Bhoot Chaturdashi and Badabadua Daka that interestingly though occurs on the same occasion of another much more popular pan India celebration of Diwali. The proceedings that span out across the state of West Bengal might be relatively more known but the character of what unfolds in the neighbouring state of Orissa tends to be esteemed as well in their occurring upon the holy steps of the famous Jagannath temple in Puri. Both these days though reside in their own unique identity and are individually fascinating expressions of rituals and traditions and belief to be witnessed in more reverence than fear.

A night before Kali Puja that which is a parallel observance during the Diwali celebrations, the Bengali people indulge in preparations for their own ‘day of the dead’ that has as its basis quite a number of legends and folk tales to back it up. The underlying belief being that this particular day of what is known nationwide as Naraka Chaturdashi or Kali Chaudas sees the event of this darkness emerge as a time conducive for the souls of the deceased to descend on earth to visit their dear ones. The rituals of Bhoot Chaturdashi are specifically intended to guide one’s 14 forefathers homewards as well as to chase away the evil spirits among them. And it is in this evoking of the 14 connection that sees every Bengali household light up exactly fourteen diyas on this perceptibly spooky night. These diyas are placed all around the house, in every dark nook and dreary corner in immense belief thrust upon the proverbial saying of the light chasing away the evil, as one of the core components of the ritualistic adherence so devotedly furthered on this day.

The diyas might not be exclusive elements in upholding the decor aspect of what so essentially documents the Halloween popularity. But even outside their utmost significance in alluding to certain somethings more essential, these diyas do indeed double up as sights of much prettiness. It however isn’t just the belief though resonating along the same lines of the veil between the worlds of the dead and the alive thinning up on that particular day of their observance in which Bhoot Chaturdashi and Halloween bears striking similarity. Also ruling the realm of both observances, as is characteristic of all events anyway no matter however sombre or frenzied they might be, is also the fore of food that emerges to be a factor in supposed linearity, with options in vegetarian traditionally indulged in across their preparations in much deliciousness.

What emerges as the flavor of the day of Bhoot Chaturdashi in every Bengali home is another residing in the requirements of the fourteen. A dozen and two additional leafy greens come together in this specialised preparation in ritualistic and nutritional and deliciousness distinction, with the ingredients of this Choddo Shak being jayanti, kalakasunde, seluka, hinche, ghetu, sushni, beto, keu, guruchi, salinch, sarson, neem, parval leaves and elephant foot yam. This compulsive taking to the greens though is not just a way in avoid being possessed that one and all manages to live by, whether in pleasure or otherwise. With children specifically, all this fuss over rituals is a way also to protect them from the tantriks believed to kidnap children for sacrificing to Goddess Kali for attaining the powers of dark magic.

Beyond this folk belief rooted in the fore of one’s ancestors as the reason for bhoot chaturdashi to come to be, this day in much curiosity is also associated with other such legends of Maa Kali. The most prominent of them entails out of the Maa Chamunda form of the Goddess believed to ward away evil spirits, accompanied by 14 other ghosts as she follows the trail of the fourteen lamps. In each case of consideration it indeed is the fourteenth or the chaturdashi reference that plays along rather evidently and indeed necessarily.

The power of the fourteens might not be what dominate customs in Odisha’s occasion of the Badabadua Daka but the underlying essence of it being a day devoted to honoring one’s ancestors still holds. Coinciding with the Diwali day is this occasion that sees the 22 holy steps of the Jagannath temple encompass these specific rituals that continue for the whole day. Bunches of jute stems locally called kaunriya kathi are lit and pointed up to the sky inviting one’s departed forefathers to descend upon earth in the dark and depart in light in chants of Bada Badua even as special puja and offerings too are made for the dead. The plea is one for the living to be blessed by their ancestors through this unique ritual in lighting up the path from the sky filled by the evening with thick smoke emanating from the burning of countless such number of sticks.

The preparation for Bada Badua begins a day in advance with people necessarily making rangolis in the form of seven chambered sailboats at the front of their houses. Each of these seven chambers hold within them such significance that translates also in the form of what they hold namely cotton, salt, mustard, asparagus root, turmeric and a wild creeper with the central chamber being specifically reserved for the prasad to be placed. It is over this arrangement that the jute stemmed diya is lit in its cloth wick, following which every member of the family each light their own diya from the main one kept over the prasad and ultimately raise them all together to the sky with a chant by the family’s eldest member in invitation for their ancestors to shower their blessings and attain salvation on the 22 steps of the sacred temple.

Such customs and traditions in how some of us Indians celebrate something much similar to Halloween in spirit might not quite match up to the latter’s more festive assertion in carved and lighted lanterns, spookily dressed up folks, tricking or treating kids, and of course the specific decor and vibe of what permeates the air through the fun observance of it. But in being still alluding to that same essence in realisation of life and death, of revering these only two truths that matter universally to all mortals, any and every such observance in muted or frenzied assertions of them reiterate once again the continuing connect each of us bear with the other. The identities might be various and so might be the dates separately marked upon the calendar but the awareness of the eerie that at once thrills and threatens us all is what makes them essential traditions to still live by.

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