Karva Chouth falls about nine days before Diwali on the Kartik ki Chouth (fourth day of the waning moon or the dark fortnight) some time in October or November. It is the most important fast observed by the women of North India. A woman keeps such a fast for the well-being of her husband, who becomes her protector after she leaves her parents home. Her husband provides her with food, shelter clothing, respectability, comfort and happiness. In times gone by, a widow became a burden to the household and was best got rid of by burning her on the funeral pyre of her husband. This was glorified by attributing great virtue to the woman concerned, having brainwashed her enough so that she herself would decide to become what was known as a Sati. So it became exceedingly important that her husband remain alive, Hence, the great importance of this fast.
In the olden times, the elders of the family were also keen to discipline the young wife at the tender age of seven or eight years. Great care was taken on the day of this fast to ensure that she took neither food nor water unwittingly. An older woman would accompany the young girl even to the bathroom, or the toiler, to ensure that she did not drink any water.
This is indeed a very tough fast to observe as it starts before sunrise and ends after worshipping the moon, which usually rises at about 8.45 p.m. No food or water is to be taken after 4 a.m. or after sunrise. Nowadays, this fast is kept even in modern educated homes, becoming a symbol of the sentiment that a woman has for her husband. Many women do not adhere to the strictness of the fast, and many do not keep it at all, without causing any ripples in the Hindu society or any damage to their dear husbands! Actually, such a fast is not bad at all, since it is good for the digestive system, and does teach one to complete an assignment, however difficult it may be. Still, if it is inconvenient, and causes one to fall sick, it should be abandoned or the severity curtailed, by taking water, tea or coffee during the day.
There is great festivity on this day, and the day preceding it, as the mother-in-law of a newly wed makes much ado about sending the stuff for sargai (eating before sunrise on the day of the fast). Women whose husbands are alive join together and eat before sunrise. The food they take is thirst-quenching and keeps the body liquids in proper shape - milk, fruits like singhara and oranges, sherbet, tea or coffee must be taken and, of course, puri and aloo, cooked fresh in the morning; pheni dipped in milk and anything else one may fancy. All these items, except the liquids, are sent to the girl's house by the mother-in-law a day prior to the actual vrat (fast), as the girls spend the night in their mothers' house but come to their in-laws' place during the day. This is the custom for a newly wed, otherwise both sargai and puja are done in one's own house. On the day of the vrat, the women rise early, have their bath, and dress up in finery, with gota and kinari. Those who have the chunri wear it even for the sargai. The newly married girls wear their lehanga and chunni, which is very much in fashion again. Heavy jewellery can be worn, but one has to be careful these days.
On Karva Chouth the young women are not supposed to do any work of the household, or any stitching or knitting either. So, these free young ladies generally crowd around a mehndiwali and a churiwali (bangle-seller), wherever they can find them, getting their palms and feet decorated with henna and filling their arms with bangles. It is fascinating to watch henna coming out of the container and forming the beautiful patterns on the palm, as the mehndiwali decorates it with great artistic precision, quite like icing a cake. Really, one has to see for oneself to believe the variety and the beauty of their designs. Buying bangles, bindis and kajal all for oneself without anyone putting a spoke in the wheels for once, makes the occasion so very enjoyable. It's a day to fuss over oneself. Going to a movie or playing cards is the order of the day and keeps the women busy and happy. Of course, too much excitement must be avoided as it leads to one becoming thirsty, and maybe, a little sick.
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