Bamma is a 72 year old woman who has fulfilled all her responsibilities in life like getting married, propagating her genes, educating the kids, arranged-marrying them and seeing to it that her kids are doing the same as well. Now that she has grown old she has set her eyes on one last milestone - The Kashi Yatra
A Little Background Information
The Kashi yatra symbolizes giving up all worldly possessions and making “the final trip”. In the days of yore, it was often the last item in one’s bucket list because it was a dangerous activity that involved walking for weeks at a stretch (dangerous for a 70 year old), trekking across the Vindhyas (It’s more a South Indian thing) through the jungle with tigers. A safe return was seldom guaranteed.
Going on a Kashi Yatra is making a statement. It is telling the world that you have seen enough of it, and that you’re ready to move on. To celebrate that otherworldly spirit, the custom is to renounce the one thing you like the most thereby letting a small part of you die as a token of respect for the God of Destruction.
This custom, despite very noble intentions, had a glaring loophole. Soon old men started renouncing the one thing they swear they love the most – their wives! To plug this loophole, the rules were made more specific. It can’t be “anything”. It has to be a food item – favorite fruit or vegetable to be more precise.
Cut to the 21st century, the tigers have been poached, the jungles mined and the Vindhyas are crossed by snoring in a sleeper class compartment. Bamma like all other Bammas has packed eight pieces of luggage for a three day journey. She is accompanied by her young grandson who is going through that awkward, indifferent, just-out-of-teenage-but-still-didn’t-get-laid phase where he thinks he is the sole victim of a 5000 year old civilization!
Bamma is very stout about following these sorts of customs and so she gave up the thing she loved the most – mangoes. (She is diabetic and is not supposed to eat them anyway)
Things have changed a bit.
For centuries, Renounce-your-favorite-fruit service was the monopoly of the Kashi-Vishwanath temple! Worse, renouncing was exclusive to senior citizens. However, neo-liberal policies of the last 20 years have rubbed off a little on religion too. You want to renounce your favorite fruit but do not have the time to go all the way to Kashi? Don’t worry, you can now avail the benefits of renunciation without even activating your roaming. You can do it anytime, anyplace. All you need is a face!
Yes folks, Shiridi and Tirupati offer some excellent plans. Their devotee-friendly staff is there seven days a week to help you renounce something you really like. Even the favorite-fruit-or-vegetable-only rule is relaxed. I have a friend who at the age of 17 renounced meat in Tirupati. Something that was unimaginable 20 years back! Awesome, huh?
Note: Renunciation is still limited to food items. You can’t dump your wife in a temple yet!
Speaking of Wives
The Kashi Yatra is also an important aspect of South Indian wedding too. It’s a nice fun pre-wedding ritual which is acted out like a one act play.
The story goes something like this. Immediately after his student life, the young bachelor (the groom) has two choices – married life (grihasta) or an ascetic life (sanyasam). The eligible bachelor having been exposed to various ideas of post-modern masculinity (mostly through American sitcoms) is naturally commitment-phobic and thus prefers Sanyasam.
And so he embarks upon his journey to Kashi searching for the ultimate truth with the help of his The Essential Sanyasam survival Tool Kit which includes a pair of slippers, an umbrella, a bamboo fan, a copper jug with a handle (Telugu: mari chembu) and an Android Google Maps app (you know, for directions!)
And so, the groom begins his remarkable journey to Kashi. In Tamil weddings, he is stopped on the way by the father of the bride who advises him on the superiority of the married life compared to the life of an ascetic (conveniently skipping the tribulations of marriage) and to prove his point, he offers his daughter for marriage.
In Telugu weddings, it is the brother of the bride who persuades the groom to marry his sister. And he persuades by placing a small piece of jaggery under his chin.
Now back in the days when weddings were memories, a small piece of jaggery sufficed. But in the modern photo-op weddings of today, the small piece is not very photogenic. So they had to increase the size of the piece of jaggery and it is now approximately the size of a brick!
The disproportionate size of the brick can be quite confusing for an outsider who doesn’t have this cultural context. It looks like the groom just cheated on his girlfriend and is running away from the village but her brother catches him and says, “You think you can dump my sister and run away? Marry my sister or else I will bludgeon you to death with this sweet yummy brick!”
In short, a pure veg. shot gun wedding!
Image: Painting by Manish Khattri http://www.paintingsilove.com/image/show/179492/varanasi-ghat