Rakshabandhan is observed on the last day of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Shravan. It is deeply imbibed in Hindu mythology, folklore and folk practices. On this auspicious day, sisters tie a talisman or amulet, called the Rakhi, around the wrists of their brothers and receive a gift in return. The rite also symbolically represents that the brothers protect their sisters from all evils. According to a legend, this ritual can be traced back to the times of Mahabharat. Once, Draupadi tied a piece of cloth on Lord Krishna’s wrist, as he was bleeding profusely. As a gesture of brotherhood, Lord Krishna protected Draupadi during the episode of ‘Cheerharan’ by ensuring she was always covered with a sari. According to several other anecdotes, this ritual has helped in strengthening political ties among kingdoms. Several other episodes in history such as the Battle of Hydadpes (Porus refrained from striking Alexander the Great to stick to his brotherhood commitment as his wife Roxana tied him Rakhi, with a request of her husband’s life) and the instance when Mughal emperor Humayun restored the kingdom of Chittor to keep his brotherly promise to Rani Karnavati, have reiterated the significance of this sacred ritual.
My mother, a Bengali, an avid bibliophile and a trivia-junkie has always been a source of tid-bits of history for us. She once narrated how the festival of Rakshabandhan transcended from being a religious ceremony to that of a socialist movement, to mark a symbolic protest against the Bengal Partition of 1905. All thanks to Rabindranath Tagore. The incident happened at a time when the country was grappling under the control of the British Raj, who came up with a plan to divide the growing solidarity between the Hindus and Muslims — slowly but surely adopting a national identity in Bengal — against the Britishers. With an aim towards breaking the harmonious co-existence between the two, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon ordered the partition of Bengal, based on religious grounds. According to Curzon, the Muslim dominated region of Assam and Syhlet (now Bangladesh) were to be separated from the Hindu majority region of West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. The British government opined that the rationale behind the move was purely administrative but the people believed that the real motive was their policy of divide and rule.
The order of partition was passed in August 1905 and came into effect on October 16 of the same year. Incidentally, the date of separation collided with the Purnima (full-moon) of Hindu calendar month of Shravan, the day celebrated as Rakshabandhan. In order to mark a symbolic protest, Rabindranath Tagore, decided to observe the festival in a manner that would send a strong message to the British Raj.
Tagore urged Hindus and Muslims to tie amulets or rakhi on each other’s wrists to express solidarity with each other. Tagore’s call for harmony and unity was adhered to by many members of both communities and Hindus and Muslims in Kolkata, Dhaka, Sylhet came out on the streets and tied the knot of unity on each other’s wrists. This was a representation of the brotherhood, togetherness and ‘the thread of protection’ as a medium to protest against British’s partition policy by showing a picture of unity among the two communities. “He transformed the religious tradition of Raksha Bandhan to a secular motif of unity among diversity and resisted Banga Bhanga (Partition of Bengal),” writes A Majumdar in his book ‘Tagore by Fireside’.
The decision to partition Bengal was withdrawn in 1911, after six years of widespread protest by both the communities from West and East Bengal. But its vision was short lived as the religious venoms led to the partition of India in 1947. However, Tagore’s vision of a unified Bengal was short-lived with the state being permanently divided in 1947 into the present state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh.
At a time when the country is witnessing a surge in religious intolerance and communal divide, this instance from the annals of history serves as a timely reminder of religious harmony. As we celebrate Raksha Bandhan today, it’s important to take cognizance of how more than a century ago, the concept and sentiment behind the festival were used to unite two communities, Hindus and Muslims.
(Author is a research scholar at CSRD, JNU with a keen interest in history, food, lifestyle & society. She can be reached on Instagram at www.instagram.com/ati_sanskaari_naari/)