Easter season seems to be full of pagan rituals in this part of the world. I am not sure if some of them came into vogue only in the recent decades but the people here love and participate in them enthusiastically. I admit they are fun and give these people the feeling that they are engaging in traditional activities (the Czech folk consider themselves a traditional lot) but keeping in mind the colonial writings on India I feel like (for fun) engaging in an activity that we Indians (and some Czech people) at the Department of Religious Studies like to do every now and then in Pardubice.
To a non-academic, the very phrase ‘colonial writing’ may sound boring but trust me some of them are really funny and as Indians we would find even the non-funny accounts very entertaining. Even before we were colonised travellers from all over wrote about India. The ones from Europe in particular draw my interest. For example, Ludovico de Varthema, one of the first traveller/writers to describe India wrote many things that were instrumental in forming the basis of the European understanding of India. Among some other things he seemed to have been scandalised by the sexual practices of India (they were extremely preoccupied in criticising everything sexual in India or so you would think considering the number of accounts written on it). In this excerpt he describes what he thinks is yet another (probably common) feature of Indian sexual practices of the place he is in, which is Calicut (Kozhikode) in Kerala. He is talking about wife-swapping.
The Pagan gentlemen and merchants have this custom amongst them. There will sometimes be two merchants who will be great friends, and each will have a wife; and one merchant will say to the other in this wise:“Langal perganal monaton ondo?” that is, “So-and-So, have we been a long time friends?” The other will answer: “Hognam perga manaton ondo;” that is, “Yes, I have for a long time been your friend.” The other says: “Nipatanga ciolli?” that is, “Do you speak the truth that you are my friend?” The other will answer, and say: “Ho;” that is, “Yes.” Says the other one: “Tamarani?” that is, “By God?” The other replies: “Tamarani!” that is, “By God!” One says: “In penna tonda gnan penna cortu;” that is, “Let us exchange wives, give me your wife and I will give you mine.” The other answers: “Ni pantagocciolli?” that is, “Do you speak from your heart?” The other says: “Tamarani!” that is, “Yes, by God!” His compan- ion answers, and says: “Biti Banno;” that is “Come to my house.” And when he has arrived at his house he calls his wife and says to her: “Penna, ingaba idocon dopoi;” that is “Wife, come here, go with this man, for he is your husband.” The wife answers: “E indi?” that is, “Wherefore? Dost thou speak the truth, by God,Tamarani?”The Husband replies: “Ho gran patangociolli;” that is, “I speak the truth.” Says the wife: “Perga manno;” that is, “It pleases me.” “Gnan poi;” that is, “I go.” And so she goes away with his companion to his house. The friend then tells his wife to go with the other, and in this manner they exchange their wives…
This particular excerpt was read out in class in M.A. from the book The Heathen in his Blindness…”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion, which is the only handbook on cultural difference available in the current market and it was my first encounter with a European account of India. When we heard it we weren’t sure whether to laugh (which we did) or to feel really annoyed. The question was not whether the account was true but the nonsensical and (to us the seemingly) callous way in which it was written. While we were surprised, irritated and amused by what we read, we had our first insight into the kind of framework these writers came from in order to be able to write something, which, for no fault of theirs appears to be a factual description but to us seems to be preposterous. We were amused because their understanding of the world was so different from ours. We were enraged because their understanding became the basis for the general understanding of India and it’s culture. Over the next few centuries their attitude towards this beautiful culture remained unchanged and became so prevalent that we began to think of our culture the same way they do. How many people have you met who say “I am ashamed that I am from such a backward culture”?
Anyway, I’ll come back to my fun exercise. What I’m going to do is talk about random things that happen here and describe them through an Indian pair of eyes (because I cannot possibly see it through a Chinese or a Russian pair). Also, because I am an ‘empowered, educated and modern woman’ who ate and drank Feminism during her days of Bachelor studies, has high ‘morals’ and was taught modernism, egalitarianism, functionalism, Orientalism, postmodernism and many other isms that the western world gave us, which is now taught in the Masters degree in Literature (that I did) and all social sciences, and because I am inspired by the powerful moral convictions with which article upon article are being written on the state of elections, psychological analysis of electoral candidates and other events that are currently happening in India, I am going to adopt the same tone and hurl the same kind of accusations at the things I see here. I do this armed with the weapons that two years of doing Literature filled my brain with, namely, all these isms (whether I really understood them or not is out of question) and the training I received to use big words and produce ludicrous ideas.
Certain things may sound exaggerated but whatever I mention will definitely have some factual truth in it. Why am I doing this? Well, honestly, at least a hundred different customs are followed in my own little Changampuzha Nagar in Kochi and neither have they interrupted my life nor have I cared to question the reason behind their existence but reading what the Europeans painstakingly wrote about our customs centuries ago and the way the West continues to look at us I cannot help being frustrated. Probably this is going to be an inconsequential exercise but perhaps it may help to look at things from a different perspective.
This is an account of how an Indian girl sees the world she lives in-
In this country of the Czechs where people only make up half the population of Mumbai and call their land religion-less it is strange that they take no less effort to celebrate Christmas and Easter. While like many westerners they give the excuse that these two days were actually important on the Pagan calendar, which is why they are important even if you take Christianity out of the equation, at which point they will assert that their country got Christianised only by as late as the 8thcentury, I suspect that such is not the case. While one cannot deny the influence of Paganism in their rituals I have strong reasons to believe that every action of theirs and every value they live by are guided by Christian morals. This can also be seen in the way a section of them who call themselves proud Neo-Pagans talk about themselves, nature and their world-view. While they refuse to accept the biblical God, their devotion towards ‘the Invisible Power’, ‘Magic’, ‘Esotericism’ and a range of other things bear identical resemblance to the devotion of a Czech Christian towards the biblical God.
Pardubice, one of the big cities of Czech Republic is where I live. It has 7% more land area than Andheri and the inhabitants constitute less than 6% of the population of Andheri. While a good place to live in, some of the features of this city include scanty traffic and walking paths almost devoid of people. Intriguingly some of its people find life in this city very fast and flee to their cottages in the mountains or other places in the countryside during holidays. Their idea of a comfortable and normal-paced life seems to be deluded and it would be interesting to see how they would survive in Mumbai. The city goes to sleep after 6 pm and looks almost vacant during the weekends.
The workforce here has many peculiar properties. The sales people lack the skill of selling and sometimes due to this you are forced to not buy things that you want. They mean business when they call it a weekend. A weekend is a weekend and you dare not think of even as much as sending them a text message on those two days. As my Indian friend put it, perhaps they don’t even make love on weekends.
It is a pity to see how Europe is now coping with the loss of ‘God’ that it created in the first place by replacing it with anything that gives it a sense of The Divine. Some say “Science is my religion” while some others say “Yoga is my religion”. How or why Science and Yoga would be considered as religions is beyond my understanding. They seem to be attached to nature (mountains, rivers, etc.) or at least the idea of ‘being in the nature’ as they call it. The nature of this attachment seems strange and unlike anything we feel towards even the trees that grow in our backyard in India. A source says that this attachment was one of the reasons Paganism was revived in Europe. Some Neo-Pagans can be found doing rituals in the forests- beating drums, dancing under the influence of some herbal substances and doing things that they call mental exercises.
They have many queer customs here. One of them is celebrated on the occasion of Easter. During this season I was surprised to find wooden sticks with colourful ribbons attached on one end being sold on the streets and shops. On asking, the locals told me that on Easter Monday young men and boys go from door to door beating girls with the sticks. It is their tradition. In order to escape the beatings or sometimes after the beatings have been meted, the girls give them Easter eggs. They explain that the eggs symbolise fertility. If such practices were conducted in India the Feminists would have said that these are regressive practices and must be done away with. They would have said that even today women are deemed important only for their reproducing capabilities and that the people who engage in such activities are young and impressionable therefore it is evident that such attitudes are instilled in them at a very tender age. The presence of such practices in Europe is not only not questioned but also celebrated. One wonders if this is the same continent where women first raised their voice against patriarchy and feminism was born.
Witch hunting was something that regularly featured in the societal purification drive of the Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe in the Middle Ages. While many Europeans today would say that the killing of scores of thousands of men and women suspected of having engaged with witchcraft was a very bad thing to happen they would still celebrate it by making festivals out of it. So on some special days a particular place would be chosen, a structure of wood made which is to be burnt later and there would be plenty of stalls selling witching artefacts and costumes. How absurd is that! On one hand you are condemning witchcraft and on the other you are making business out of witching merchandise? The burning would bring to one’s mind the burning of Ravan’s effigy on Dussehra or Holika on the night before Holi. But the burning of Holika is a good thing compared to the yearly reenactment of the burning of these women which was brutal (as agreed now). This is completely strange.
I can go on and on. The point is Europe has had as many or more bizarre rituals as it may have encountered in India. Some of them might have got integrated into religion, some discontinued and some probably revived but because they thought that the rituals in India surely had something to do with our many deities (as may be the case) and nothing to do with The True God (the very idea of which is almost incomprehensible to us) they saw these rituals as immoral. And therefore western writings are teeming with descriptions of immoral practices of Indians who are heathens and worshippers of Devil. Today, only the words of the descriptions are different but the attitude towards our culture remains the same.
P.S. It is not my intention to ridicule Czech practices or offend my Czech friends. All descriptions were made in the spirit of the exercise.