Religious Festivals in India: Where Celebrations take part in Public Domain – By Talia Bornstein

During my first week in Pune, religion became a part of my nightly routine. Every night, I crashed into bed, my body exhausted from jetlag, my mind spinning with stimulation. Every night, I drifted into sleep despite high-pitched songs, and chants, booming through speakers; the sounds of the Ganesh festival became a lullaby. An enormous stage, with moving statues, blocked my window. The pulsating rhythms and incessant beats embody for me the indefatigable presence of religious celebrations in India. Even in the privacy of my bedroom, there was no escaping the public celebration.

The public lights, bright colors and festivity remind me of Christmastime in New York. Yet in New York, the public symbols of Christmas are secularized and commercial, and feel almost separate from Christianity as a religion. As a Jew, I’m never confronted with the religious aspects of Christmas because those rituals take place within homes and churches. In India, it is impossible to avoid the religious aspect of the Ganesh festival. Brightly decorated streets are filled with streams of people praying at Ganesh shrines. While the celebration of Christmas in America is primarily a private celebration, Ganapati is communal and public. Many of my friends celebrate Christmas, but I only experience it when I’m invited into their homes to celebrate with their families. The Ganesh festival is an extreme contrast to my experience of religious celebrations in America. As a Jewish foreigner, I felt more involved and immersed in this Indian celebration than I have with any religious holiday in America, outside of my personal religious practices. My ability to take part in this Hindu festival is telling of the public nature of religious expression in India. These holidays are celebrated as a collective community.

The Dusshera festival gave me another taste of India’s fervent, communal, religious celebrations. My experience of Dussehra felt more intimate than Ganesh, but maintained the same energy and excitement: Streets jammed with people, neon-lit floats dedicated to Gods, piercing music, fireworks. But what was most exciting were groups of young men and women, drenched in sweat, drumming and dancing, with beaming smiles. Standing on the side, holding onto my walker, I viscerally felt the religious and celebratory fervor. Even as a non-Hindu foreigner who does not celebrate this holiday, I felt included in the celebration and excitement that it was occurring.

Interestingly, on final night of Dusshera, I was observing a Jewish Holiday, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is an introspective holiday when Jews atone for misdeeds, a contrasting mood to that of Dusshera. I have always experienced the acts of self-reflection and repentance on Yom Kippur as an individual process. Yet this Yom Kippur in India, I felt more engaged with the Jewish community as a whole and less focused on my individual self.

Services on Yom Kippur in India, like in America, take place in a private synagogue. Unlike America, the synagogue here has no security, and throughout the day the gates remain wide open. During services, windows are open, revealing Jewish prayer to the public. It felt like an invitation between the Jewish Indian community and the Indian community-Yom Kippur prayers in sync with Dusshera’s pounding drums. Another form of religious practice is through names. Many people I have met in India have names relating to Hindu ideology, and so far, every Jewish Indian I have met, has a Hebrew name. Most Jewish Americans have a secular name and a separate Hebrew name used for religious purposes. This practice separates religious names for the private, and secular names for the public. In India, Jews constantly wear and live their Judaism, continuously bringing it into the public sphere.

In India, Jews are a tiny minority. With the small number of Jews in Pune- around 250- I didn’t expect a strong Jewish community to exist. I was wrong. Despite the small numbers, there’s a significant sense of Jewish community. Every Indian Jew I met was proud to be Jewish. I also learned that they also felt fully Indian. After Yom Kippur was over, we moved from a private setting into the public domain. With the gates wide open, and everyone dressed in white, we sat outside, breaking the fast, and then stood and chanted Hebrew prayers to the moon. I felt no fear, no sense of shame, or embarrassment being so outward in a relatively unfamiliar religious expression. The public celebration of religion in India enabled me to experience two important holidays at the same time.

India Fellows Blog 1 – By Talia Bornstein

I am studying abroad in Pune, India, focusing on contemporary Indian issues. I have completed three out of four courses and now in my internship component. I am interning at Deep Griha Society. Deep Griha Society is a family welfare organization that helps low-income families with educational, medical, and childcare opportunities. Deep Griha began as a clinic, but is now grown into a larger program, which specifically targets women, and women empowerment.

I am working in the crèches at Deep Griha. There are four, which range in ages 6 months to 7 years old. My first few days were extremely overwhelming; there are over 25 kids in each crèche, with only two teachers. I have only worked in private preschool settings, so this was drastically different from my past experiences. In addition to providing free day care services, all kids in the crèches are given nutritious meals. Food offered daily includes nutty ladoos (an Indian sweet), milk, eggs, porridge, and fruit. Many of the children fed through this program are also affected by tuberculosis, which adds to the importance of a healthy, nourished diet.

In addition working and teaching English in the crèche, I am writing success stories of children who’s education is sponsored by a program. This program, Aadar Kendrea, sponsors students –often orphans or who come from sing-parent families- and provides them with school materials, uniforms, meals, healthcare, counseling and educational programing. Emotional and mental support is emphasized in this program, with field workers making daily visits to the children’s schools and homes. Deep Griha even has a program called “Girl Child Programme” which tackles the issue of underage marriage; although the organization disagrees with this practice, it acknowledges its prevalence and works towards educating girls on topics such as sex education, hygiene, relationships, nutrition, physical and mental health, self-defense and personality development.

Working in the crèches, I have noticed an abundance of physicality between children (both loving and aggressive), which is extremely uncommon in America. In fact, in the states, it is actually taught to keep hands to oneself. Almost every child is violent in some way to another, when they are mad, or want something. One boy, Arush, is a buddy of mine. He’s older than most of the kids, and he has a very commanding and authoritative presence. Sometimes when kids are being too aggressive with me, and I’m telling them to stop, he’ll intervene. Today I saw him approach a little girl crying. She pointed to another kid, so it looked like she was upset at him for doing something. Arush went up to the boy and hit him. It wasn’t ok that he hit the boy, but it was sweet how he was protective. Sadly, I think that comes from the lack of teachers and attention on the kids. It’s impossible to stay on top of all the children because there are so many. This is an example of a child taking on the role of an adult, which often occurs in low income Indian society. Even though Deep Griha Society helps with this issue in Indian society, it still occurs even if it’s in small doses.

There are many improvements that need to be made in crèches, especially regarding sanitation. Kids don’t wash their hands often, and when they do it is in a bucket filled with dirty water. Bathrooms are also an issue; for three of the crèches, there is only access to two bathrooms, which means up to five children at once will be urinating or defecating at the same time. There have been many incidents in the crèches since most kids don’t wear underwear, due to the cost. I understand the difficulty of maintaining a clean environment. There are not many facilities and there are so many children and so few teachers it’s overwhelming.

Even with limited recourses, Deep Griha Society manages to educate, support, and entertain children. On children’s day, there was an activity fair, open to all children in the community. Tall the objects used in the games were found in the building. One activity used flour to cover coins, and in order to find the coins, you need to blow on the flour. This results in faces covered in white flour, which is very funny to have happen and to watch. The kids, whose ages ranged from 3 to 13, absolutely loved this game. It was amazing watching something as simple and cheap as flour, entertain and excite kids. Songs and nursery rhymes are another inexpensive form of teaching.  Throughout the day, children recite English, Hindi, and Marathi songs, leaving them with smiles on their faces, and new vocabulary words in their minds.

This organization is so important, not only for children, but for adults. There are many vocational seminars and trainings held for adults who do not have higher education qualifications. These trainings include computer skills, and jewelry, clothes, and card making. There are also reading and writing classes offered for the adult community. Many adults have taken these literacy courses and not only become equipped to help their children with studies, but also become empowered. Deep Griha’s work can be summed up in this quote: “Empowerment of the marginalized through capacity building and sustainable rural and urban development programmes.”