Festivals of India: Vata Purnima

Also called Vata Savitri, Vata Purnima is a Hindu celebration observed by married women in the Mithila region of Bihar and Jharkhanand, some regions of Uttar Pradesh and the western states of Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. It is a day which celebrates a married woman’s love for her husband. The northern states celebrate Vata Savitri which usually occurs about 15 days before Vata Purnima. This year the Vata Savitri vrat was celebrated on 10 June and the Vata Purnima will be celebrated tomorrow, 24 June.

On this full moon day, called Purnima in India, during the three days of the month of Jyeshtha according to the Hindu calendar, which falls in May–June in the Gregorian calendar, a married woman marks her love for her husband by tying a ceremonial thread around a banyan tree. The celebration is based on the legend of Savitri and Satyavan as narrated in the epic Mahabharata.

According to the legend, the childless king Aswapati and his consort Malavi wished to have a son and they pray to the God Savitr who appears before the king and tells him he will soon have a daughter who is named Savitri in honor of the God. Savitri is so beautiful and pure that no man will ask for her hand in marriage. Her father tells her to find a husband on her own and she sets out on a pilgrimage for this purpose and finds Satyavan, the son of a blind king named Dyumatsena who lives in exile as a forest-dweller. Savitri returns to find her father speaking with Sage Narada who tells her she has made a bad choice: although perfect in every way, Satyavan is destined to die one year from that day. Savitri insists on going ahead and marries Satyavan. Three days before the foreseen death of Satyavan, Savitri takes a vow of fasting and vigil. Her father-in-law tells her she has taken on too harsh a regimen, but she replies that she has taken an oath to perform the regimen and Dyumatsena offers his support. The morning of Satyavan’s predicted death, he is splitting wood and suddenly becomes weak and lays his head in Savitri’s lap and dies. Savitri places his body under the shade of a Banyan tree or Vat. Yama, the God of death, comes to claim Satyavan’s soul and Savitri follows him as he carries the soul away. She offers him praise and Yama, impressed by both the content and style of her words, offers her any boon, except the life of Satyavan. She first asks for eyesight and restoration of the kingdom for her father-in-law, then a hundred children for her father, and then a hundred children for herself and Satyavan. The last wish creates a dilemma for Yama, as it would indirectly grant the life of Satyavan. However, impressed by Savitri’s dedication and purity, he offers her one more chance to choose any boon, but this time omitting “except for the life of Satyavan”. Savitri instantly asks for Satyavan to return to life. Yama grants life to Satyavan and blesses Savitri’s life with eternal happiness. Satyavan awakens as though he has been in a deep sleep and returns to his parents along with his wife. Meanwhile, at their home, Dyumatsena regains his eyesight before Savitri and Satyavan return. Since Satyavan still does not know what happened, Savitri relays the story to her parents-in-law, husband, and the gathered ascetics. As they praise her, Dyumatsena’s ministers arrive with news of the death of his usurper. Joyfully, the king and his entourage return to his kingdom.

Though the tree does not play a significant role of the story, it is worshiped in memory of the love in the legend. The festival is followed by married women only, and is prohibited for children and widows.

On the occasion of the festival, married women keep a fast of three days for their husbands life, just like what Savitri did. During the three days, pictures of a Vat or a banyan tree, Savitri, Satyavan, and Yama, are drawn with a paste of sandal and rice on the floor or a wall in the home. Golden engravings of the couple are placed in a tray of sand, and worshiped with mantras and banyan leaves. Women also listen to the Savitri-Satyavan katha or story and worship the banyan tree outside. A thread is wound around the trunk of the tree, and copper coins are offered. Strict adherence to the fast and tradition is believed to ensure the husband a long and prosperous life.

According to an expert, B. A. Gupte, the Puranas seem to suggest that the mythology behind the festival is symbolic of natural phenomena with the festival the representation of the annual marriage of the earth and nature represented by Satyavan and Savitri. It is like the way the earth dies every year and is rejuvenated by the powers of nature and points out that the Vat or banyan tree was likely chosen due to the mythological aspects connected to the tree known to Indians. Today, the festival is celebrated with women dressing in fine sarees and jewelry, and their day begining with the offering of any five fruits and a coconut. Each woman winds white thread around a banyan tree seven times as a reminder of their husbands and then they fast for the whole day.

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