Hindus Adjust an Ancient Ritual in a Modern World

A woman has her hand decorated with henna on 74th Street in Jackson Heights, in preparation for Karva Chauth.

A woman has her hand decorated with henna on 74th Street in Jackson Heights, in preparation for Karva Chauth.

BY CAROLINE ROTHSTEIN

It was just before noon on Tuesday when Bhanu Shetty, a henna tattoo artist, set up her table outside an Indian clothing store on 74th Street in Jackson Heights. Minutes later, her first customer arrived.

As the client, a woman named Shwetambra Nath rested her hand atop a small, brown box Shetty covered Nath’s palm with traditional Indian bridal designs.

It was the first step in a centuries-old tradition practiced each fall by Nath and thousands of other Indians across New York. Called Karva Chauth, the ritual requires Indian women to spend a day fasting and praying that their husbands have long and healthy lives. The fast, which occurred Oct. 7, ends only when the women see their husbands’ faces against the moonlight.

For Nath, a graduate student of Teachers College at Columbia University, following tradition would prove tricky.

Because her husband is at business school in Virginia, they planned to connect via the Internet Wednesday evening. She would see the moon, his face on the screen, and then proceed to eat, she said.

New York is home to roughly 175,000 Hindus, according to projections by the Hindu American Foundation, though no one can say how many participate in Karva Chauth. But over the past decade, shifts in the rigid rules surrounding the tradition have broadened its appeal:  : computers, hopeful single women, egalitarian married men, and unenthused traditionalist elders have all become part of the modern, amorphous equation. Some say that Western culture has transformed, even tainted, this North Indian tradition in communities like Queens.

Once reserved for married women, Karva Chauth has become trendy, drawing young, single women like Poonam Gonga. Gonga, 27, also had her palm covered with henna for her sixth Karva Chauth fast. “You get new clothes,” said Gonga, “New everything. It’s fun. Everybody does it.”

Neena Pal, another tattoo customer, expressed concern with these shopping excuses. Pal, who is married, has been practicing Karva Chauth for 20 years. “Normally everyone does to get a good husband,” Pal says, “Now it’s become like a fashion. The girls just want new clothes.”

A woman prepares a plate for the Karva Chauth ritual at the Hindu Center in Flushing.

A woman prepares a plate for the Karva Chauth ritual at the Hindu Center in Flushing.

Karva Chauth’s popularity has grown from frequent appearances in Bollywood movies, says social historian and New York University religious studies Professor Varuni Bhatia. Film has had a crucial impact on how Hindu rituals have changed in the last 20 years because movies have exposed the Hindu population at large to the various regional practices throughout India, according to Bhatia. “[Karva Chauth] has become the single representative faith of all kinds of women’s rituals that women would do for their husbands from different parts of India,” says Bhatia. Since the practice has lost its solely local appeal, Bhatia suspects this has been a catalyst for the changes surrounding Karva Chauth.

Later, on 74th Street, Nidhi Sharma sat for her tattoo, while her husband and in-laws crowded behind her, eager to witness their newest family member’s first henna as a wife. This is Sharma’s third Karva Chauth but first henna as a married woman, as she fasted during her engagement. When Sharma mentioned that her husband Ravinder Kumar, also fasted, they both giggled.

“If she can sacrifice for me, why can’t I do it?” Kumar said. Kumar’s friends make fun of him because this ritual is especially for women, and he said that men generally don’t fast. This is Kumar’s fifth Karva Chauth fast; he began fasting before he was engaged, for his future bride. He feels his break from tradition has been influenced by Western culture.

On Wednesday, the Hindu Center in Flushing provided Karva Chauth rituals from 4 to 8 p.m. At 4:49 p.m., nearly 60 pairs of shoes clogged the foyer. In the temple’s ritual hall, a priest sat cross-legged on a small stage. Six red, square blankets spread across the floor, each with an orange cloth adorned bowl in the middle, awaiting food offerings for the gods and goddess.

Dozens of married women gather in circles at the Hindu Center in Flushing, as the priest tells the story of Karva Chauth.

Dozens of married women gather in circles at the Hindu Center in Flushing, as the priest tells the story of Karva Chauth.

Dozens of women with henna-clad hands, bodies draped in their finest bridal suits in all colors, heads veiled in shawls, each held a ritual plate. They formed circles around the blankets. The priest told a story of Karva Chauth: How a princess named Veeravati, was tricked by her brothers into thinking she saw the moon, thus breaking her fast prematurely, and causing her husband to take ill. In between the priest’s narrations, the women rotated their plates around the circle, seven different times, chanting a Hindi song about Karva Chauth.

Smiling as he watched his wife participate in this age-old practice, the center’s secretary, J.C. Awasthi, said he was not a proponent for the modern Karva Chauth adjustments. He said that according to Hindu tradition, whatever the husband does, the wife gets half in return. For Awasthi, if the wife fasts, she automatically receives what benefits her husband. Because Karva Chauth is one of the oldest Hindu traditions, Awasthi said, “We should not break the principles or rules of karma.”

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