‘A step forward in the journey,
Hope shining bright for a new day,
As she looks to the light;
The sun casts her shadows far behind.’
As the first rays of a golden-red sunrise glint on the mountains, warmth gently pushes away the night’s cold air. Bird’s chirps echo in the valleys and a few mountain rabbits scurry out of their hiding to grab their morning meal. The still of the night is replaced by the stirring of life and the start of a new day.
The residents of this tiny town in the Himalayas welcome the warmth of each new day. Living high in the mountains life is hard, the soil is unyielding and the weather conditions are unforgiving. Sunlight is often considered a luxury, up here the clouds reign and snow covers the barren land for close to six months of the year.
Prem Singh is one of the many shepherds in the hamlet. Growing up in the mountains, he has known no other life. At over 50 years of age, he still treks difficult trails daily, to get his sheep to the best herbs high in the mountains. Life is hard and predators abound. Prem Singh keeps a sharp watch on his flock; not one sheep will go missing on his watch.
A soft footstep sounds as the dawn breaks. A young girl, of sturdy built, emerges from the tiny home with two pots in either of her hand. She heads off to the field to milk the sheep; pulling her heavy sweater tightly around her body. The early morning cold in the Himalayan villages, can chill the bone. As her olive-green eyes look around cautiously, they catch your attention. Nirasha smiles softly. In her tiny village, there are few strangers, and even fewer visitors. So unforgiving is the climate, so out of reach the location. So, unforgiving her name. Nirasha, ‘the disappointment’.
Prem Singh wanted a boy. His first was a girl and then the second. “No worries,” said the villagers, “this happens. The third will definitely be a son. God is great.” The third and fourth were girls too. Prem Singh was distraught. Prem Singh followed every ritual the elders suggested. The fifth child came along and Prem Singh was heartbroken. A little girl again. He refused to even look at her and simply spat out her name. Nirasha. Three more daughters followed. Prem Singh was convinced he named his daughter well. Nirasha,the centre of disappointment of his hopes for a male heir.
As the sun rises higher up in the sky, Nirasha basks contently in the small patch of sunlight that seeps through the clouds, as she folds clothes. She and her sisters want to finish their daily chores as quickly as they can so that they can run and play in the open mountain fields. There, the sun shines brightly on the vast meadow and the flowers dance in the light. Such is the playground of fairies and children of the mountain.
Nirasha’s mother watches her girls as they work hard, lifting loads of hay for the cattle to feed, carrying buckets of water on their petite shoulders and helping their father keep the home fires burning. Her eyes sometimes well up with tears, as she misses her two oldest daughters; both married. The third and fourth have been temporarily adopted by a kind-hearted local school teacher, so that they can complete their education. She wonders what the future holds for all her younger girls. She worries especially for Nirasha. With a name such as that, which boy would want to marry her? Nirasha’s mother was brought up in a very conservative home. A home where a woman wasn’t encouraged to think for herself or have any dreams of her own. She saw her husband only the day they got married; after the marriage ceremonies were done. Her own mother told her two things: to always keep her eyes lowered and to give birth to a boy child. The first she could manage out of practice, but how was she to know to achieve the second?
Like a bud emerging out of parched land, Nirasha too shines as a beacon of hope for her parents. The burden of an undesirable name does little to dampen her spirits. She has devoted all 16 years of her young life to being the perfect child to her parents. Her younger sisters Aanchal, Neha, and Tamana look up to her for guidance and she looks to them for companionship. Aanchal is Nirasha’s best friend and confidante. They share their future dreams, unspoken love, and even quiet giggles over the posters of Bollywood heroes at the market.
Nirasha loves the mountains. The wide expanse of nothingness and the unending horizon always promise new beginnings. She has seen glimpses of city life through stolen glances at the local barber’s television set. The rusty little box shows people rushing, women wearing pretty clothes, children playing with gadgets she doesn’t understand and so many lines of shops selling trinkets at which she wonders in awe. Will she ever be in a big city one day? She looks at Aanchal and they exchange an innocent smile. Aanchal suddenly leaves Nirasha’s hand and beckons her to a race to their nearby playing spot in the valley.
Nirasha has dreams of a better life. Unfettered by the name given to her, she sees a future stretching beyond the boundaries of the mountains that surround her home. She studies hard and wants to be a school teacher. She wonders often how much longer her parents can afford her education and thinks if she tries harder, she might go to college on a scholarship. An early marriage might clip her wings and destroy her dreams. She has much to live for and many things she wants to do for her parents. And most importantly, for herself.
There was a time, when the occasional pitying glance from a neighbour at the local market or understanding look shot across by a relative would have been enough to upset Prem Singh a few years earlier. Now, he returns the look with eyes filled with pride. He has known much sweat and toil all life long, now his life is filled with the blessing of being surrounded by loving daughters. Daughters are no less than sons, Prem Singh has realised over the years. Bound by societal pressures and age-old beliefs, he often regrets the times he ignored his young girls, wishing for them to turn into sons . Prem Singh feels it’s time to change Nirasha’s name. He cries bitterly at the pain she might have gone through.Nirasha has been his hope, his strength and courage. His Asha. Prem Singh realises often that he has known more strong women in his life than men: his mother, his two sisters, his wife, and now his daughters. Each with an iron-clad will to survive, protect, and love.
As the sun sets on yet another day, Nirasha walks home slowly tired from the day’s effort in the field and from playing with her sisters in the mountains. Her mind races with thoughts of the future and she knows in her heart it will be a bright one. There’s already talks of her teachers being happy with her grades at school and how she might get an opportunity to attend college in a big city. The future shines as bright as the first rays of the sun at dawn. And the sky’s the limit. Nirasha felt ready to take on the world.
Content written by:- Joanna D’souza
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Mandi Shivratri fair at Mandi: A legacy of many generations
The end of February every year sees Mandi erupt in grand celebration in honour of the Hindu god Shiva. Maha shivratri begins on the 13th day of the Magha month of the Hindu calendar. This festival celebrates the marriage of Lord Shiva and goddess Parvati and marks the triumph of truth over ignorance and light over darkness.
The first known grand celebrations of Maha shivratri, in Mandi, date back to the 16th century under the rule of Raja Ajbar Sen. Raja Ajbar Sen built the Madhav Rai Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the Bhootnath temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The specific beginnings of this festival as a week-long fair, started with one of the next rulers of Mandi, Ishwari Sen. He was captured by rival forces and later rescued. On his return to his kingdom, he invited all the deities of nearby villages to celebrate the occasion. This invitation happened to coincide with the festival of Maha shivratri in the Hindu calendar. From that time on, the festival is celebrated every year with equal vigour.
Mandi has been at the forefront of Shivratri festivities in India. People travel from across the country to witness the grand celebrations which are graced by the presence of deities. Over 200 deities are brought in from towns surrounding Mandi and worshippers can pay obeisance to the god of their choice. The deities are carried on ‘rathas’ or chariots, some of which are made of real gold and silver. Devotees mark the occasion through prayers, hymns, fasts and meditation.
Content Written by :- Joanna Bhusari