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Friday, February 29, 2008

Pencils Down for Saraswati

Young learners (and old), wearing mustard yellow, bring the palash flower and open minds before Hinduism’s goddess of learning.


Palash flower (Butea frondosa) sacred to Saraswati,

Hinduism’s goddess of wisdom

Photo: Sandy Ao

“It’s almost like we keep the best for the last!” Sandy Ao writes. Thus our friend in Kolkata, India, describes the final ritual of the Hindu calendar year: Saraswati Puja. The celebration honors the goddess of wisdom (something we may hope to have gained a bit of over the past twelve months). Its purpose is mainly to nourish the seed of brilliance inside young minds, but it’s an inspiration for less young thinkers also—the only floral custom we know of that acknowledges, in Sandy’s words, “books and pencils are holy.” (We think so whenever in the presence of a well sharpened No. 2.)

imageOfferings to Saraswati, Feb. 11, 2008

include a chalkboard with flowers

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy attended several pujas around Kolkata, at her son’s apartment complex, in a private home, and on the outskirts of the city. She also passes along her neighbor Mr. Pradip Kr Pal Choudhuri’s Sanskrit greeting:


Mahavage  (highly revered)

Bidye  (educated)

Kamala Lochone  (lotus eyed)

Biswarupe  (reflecting Universe)

Bishalakshmi  (hugely good)

Bidyang Dehi  (bestowing education)

Namastute  (bowing down to you)

“As Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and wisdom,” Sandy writes, “I guess we are free to chant the above mantra within our own understanding of her deep mystery.”

On the day of Saraswati’s puja, February 11th this year, students “visit the pandals (temporary shrines) and avoid touching books or pencils, ” except as part of ritual. A ceremony called Hathe Khori (literally “hand” and “twig quill”) is when many children first learn to write.  Sandy informs us, “The pandit will write the first three letters of the alphabet on the slate with the chalk, including the English ABC and 123 with the Bengali alphabet’s ABC and 123. English is an important language nowadays, so both languages are being taught on this day!

imageFirst alphabet with the pandit’s help

at Saraswati puja in Kasba, Kolkata

Photo: Sandy Ao

“There will be two ladies to help the pandits while this ritual takes place. First one lady will blow the sound from the shell, and then another one will sound the gong. I guess it’s to wake up the sense from the child… to become alert. After all these rituals, the priest will place some flowers on top of the written slate and show that to the goddess for the blessing.” Could composition classes world wide—journalism, too, for that matter—be improved with Saraswati’s favored palash flowers (Butea frondosa) sprinkled over binders, keyboards, reporters’ notebooks? Undoubtedly.

Many of the children come to the ritual wearing bright yellow garments, color of the mustard flower which is India’s harbinger of spring. “First the pandit will take the child on his lap and then arrange a brass spoon - in fish shape - filled with holy water from the Hoogly River, and place some marigold and bael leaf in it, and offer it to the goddess. While doing that he will tell the goddess the name of the child.”

Sometimes the tiny scholars resist. “This particular 5 year old girl needed 3 - 4 times of pushing and pulling to make her sit on the lap of the pandit to complete this ritual.” Sandy photographed the Saraswati puja in “the village,” actually Bosepokur Lane, Kasba, which is now part of sprawling Kolkata. She was pleased to see how gently all the adults urged the youngsters on. “Everyone around will help the child to learn the first word on this Saraswati puja day. How good it is to feel there is no ugly competition among the parents and children while prompting the children to learn wisdom/knowledge from the goddess.”

Sandy especially was grateful to be invited to a private ceremony in a Kolkata home. Twelve year old Dabu Mukharjee enjoyed his first Saraswati puja, organized in his honor by his older brother. “Maybe the elder brother did not have the opportunity to study himself,” Sandy explains, “so he paid all the expenses of the puja from his earnings and offered a puja for Dabu this year at their home.” The Mukharjee family rose and bathed before 5 am Feb. 11 to be ready for the pandit’s arrival. Hindu priests are, of course, enormously busy on these holy days. “There are thousands of puja to be taken care of within a few hours time. All the pujas have to be done before noon,” and, Sandy writes, the priests usually visit poorer families of the community earliest in the morning.


Saraswati puja at the Mukharjee home in Kolkata, with 12 year old Dabu, his

mother and older brother. Dabu wears a sandalwood tikka on his forehead to

symbolize the rite has taken place and “indicate a third eye, that’s wisdom.”

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy noted that the Mukharjee family’s statue of the goddess—as all others she saw—has only two arms (two limbs less than the four-armed statues of past generations) and learned that the change came about at least 70 years ago. But why? She was told, “We want the goddess more like us, human, and not some one from imagination.”

At Neelachal Housing Complex, more well-to-do children came wearing grown up attire, little girls in bright saris, the boys in Kurta and Dhoti. A lawyer friend told Sandy that the adult clothing symbolizes “though the children physically are still young, mentally they are matured like the grown-ups,” or soon will be, as they learn to write and gain the blessing of wisdom’s divinity. Here many children laid their books and pencils before the idol. “I overheard a few children exchange notes of which books they brought along to be kept with the goddess,” she writes. Most brought the textbooks in their weakest subject at school, to be blessed by Saraswati and returned to them as classes resumed the next day.


Saraswati holds the pens at the observance of her puja, Feb. 11

Photo: Sandy Ao

The Saraswati puja offers humility as mental refreshment. School’s out. Kolkata’s major newspaper, The Telegraph, serves a free meal to the city. Except for those tiny ones seated in the pandit’s lap and writing out their first letters, it’s time to put pencils down. “Before goddess Saraswati, we are forever ignorant,” writes Sandy “and we should go to her with an empty page (open mind).”

Posted by Julie on 02/29 at 01:49 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink