Hoping that hope transcends this crisis: Notes from the Editor’s Desk

Our war against the Coronavirus remains unabated. This war has brought in unprecedented and quirky changes: the novel and stylish addition to our wardrobe through the ubiquitous masks. We see the emergence of a new evolving on-line culture with its own new norms and correlated expressions of identity, social etiquette and social skills. I am fascinated by the new types of everyday practices that are mushrooming as virtual work, zoom meetings and online communication become more prevalent.  We need to be building a repertoire of new social skills for the new media within the new normal! When should one raise a hand rather than blurting out one’s contribution? Or, how often should one go on typing out messages in Chat? The emerging etiquette is still evolving within the boundaries of online hierarchies and may consider or reject other sensitivities.

Colourful, printed, embroidered and matching masks represent an opportunity of expression not only for the fashionistas and style aficionados but also for those who like me have not yet mastered the art of online retail clothes therapy. The masks with their patterns and colours are amazing – polka dots and paisleys, tartan and pleated with three or two layers; the range is enough to satisfy the most finicky and discerning tastes. On a more serious note, the many acts of kindness that we have heard of, and seen, during these unprecedented times have the magical power of a rainbow across the rain-lashed skies that never fails to lighten our spirit and infuse us with hope.

Keep hoping, keep smiling and stay safe

Smita Tripathi

Editor, SAaS Newsletter and Trustee

Ray of hope…healing hand for nature

Another day passes. The night is swallowed by the morning light. The days are smaller and British Summer Time has been swept back, left behind.  All around me nature goes on giving. Autumnal colours are at their peak. In the obvious gloom and despair which follows the rampage of this global pandemic, there appears to be a silver lining for Mother Nature. Unintended consequences perhaps, but nevertheless true; lockdowns and travel restrictions have ushered in a cleaner, less polluted airspaces, renewed interest in sustainable industries and a welcome positive focus on the ability of human beings to co-exist with nature. While the human toll relentlessly surges, killing more than a million people, nature is getting some respite – it is perhaps able to breathe more easily! The polluting haze has somewhat cleared as lockdowns, factory closures and other Covid 19 restrictions have led to temporary falls in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in many parts of the world.

Kingfisher

Oddly enough, there is either excessive anxiety about getting ill and possibly dying, or in sharp contrast, there is unhealthy denial and scepticism. Why cannot we be guided by nature and react in a healthy and sustainable manner? Accept the transience and fragility of life, yet take reasonable precautions for keeping oneself and others safe. This kind of positive and balanced outlook will go a long way in ensuring that humanity will emerge from this horror into a healthier, cleaner world. But we need to keep the pressure on and continue to have the required debates and conversations, keep the pressure on for green jobs and clean energy, balancing infrastructure, efficiency and sustainable futures. After all our collision course with nature probably brought about the pandemic. The Covid 19 crisis surely overlaps with the climate and biodiversity crises. For instance, all the infectious diseases of the recent past have come from animals – either wild ones or the livestock we farm in ever larger numbers to satisfy our demand for meat. So it is pertinent for us to keep a balanced perspective and demand a more holistic and equitable policy of sustainable public health that is in tune with the health of the natural environment.

Robin

When I think of nature, in all its bounteous charm and beauty (although danger too lies in its wings), autumn is special, for the magic, it weaves with its tana bana of colour and contrasts before the onset of grey and dark days of winter. I think too of another bird Neelkantha (the Indian blue jay or roller, Coracias benghalensis) which has relevance and significance for so many of the Asian cultures. And, that reminds me of the Kingfisher and the beautiful poem by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris so evocatively in their awesome book called The Lost Words. And, if you are thinking of buying a gift for someone you love, I can, and do recommend this book as a special gift.

Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker,

         river’s quiver.

Rainbow bird – that sets the stream alight with burn

         and glitter!

Dushhehra, Navratri and Durga Puja

Contributed by Drs. Amit Dholakia and Smita Tripathi

Navratri (literally nine nights in Sanskrit) is a religious festival from the South Asian sub-continent celebrated variously by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. The festival is celebrated in the bright half of the month of Ashvin, which typically falls in September and October. It is vividly rich in thematic and content variations imbued with many diverse flavours unique customs, rich traditions and accompanied by medley of dances, songs and bhajans. Different parts of the sub-continent celebrate it variously; as manifested through the range of languages, foods, cultures, performances, rituals, celebrations and even attire associated with it. It is celebrated in Mauritius and Bali, along with other countries where Hindus reside. The diverse traditions and customs is traced back to regions and varied heritage, syncretism and unique path dependency of how the festivals evolved in the numerous regions and cultures. A very rich cultural – religious mosaic of events and rituals marks the unique celebrations and events. It is truly a special joyous exuberant opportunity to rejoice as expressed through the Sanskrit word Utsav (meaning to grow upwards) which is often used in connection with it. 

The worship of the divine Devi, Shakti or Goddess is another central theme of the celebration and acknowledges the significance and role of the feminine and the maternal in our cultures. The worship of Goddesses represented by mothers, sisters and daughters are an amazing feature of this festival.

The spiritual overtone of this festival includes a focus on relaxing, reflecting, turning inwards and recharging ourselves with new energy. It suggests how negativity within or outside can be conquered by the inherent goodness and positive qualities of an individual. Our minds are constantly inundated with all kinds of noises, emotions and externalities, bickering, arguing, and judging, and so on. The isolation and the economic – social ramifications during this pandemic has been huge; Navratri is a time to overcome these tendencies, emerge stronger and come together as human beings.

In Northern parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent

To celebrate a good harvest and to please the nine planets, women plant nine different kinds of food grain seeds in small containers at the start of the nine days and then offer the young saplings on the tenth day as a sacred offering. adoration

In the Northern tradition, another popular ritual is Kanya Puja, which takes place on the eighth or ninth day. On this occasion, nine young girls are dressed as the nine goddess aspects celebrated during Navratri and are adored with rituals and worshipped with offerings of food and clothing.

Dussherra is celebrated on the tenth day and is associated with the victory of the Lord Rama over the demon-king Ravana. Ram Lila is a theatrical representation of the epic Ramayana (the Story of Ram) in play, song, dance and music over the nine days. The final day witnesses the victory of Lord Rama over the evil king Ravana (‘Vijay Dashami‘ day). The effigies of Ravana, and his two generals Kumbhakarna, and Meghnath are burnt to celebrate the victory of good over evil.

Dussherra is considered an auspicious time to begin educational or artistic pursuits, especially for children. The day often begins with a worship of our writing instruments, educational and work tools and a documenting of familial achievements in a family register. Ravana is worshipped on the morning of Dussherra, primarily because of his intellect, skills and prowess.  

In Western parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent

The festivities in the West focus on communally performed dances, most famously the Garba and Dandiya, especially in Gujarat. These dancers wear elaborate, colourful, embroidered dresses. The dances are very energetic, exuberant and involve a lot of rotations, twirling and circling. They truly express the soulful and intense vibrance of Gujarat. Since it is believed that the Goddess is fond of red flowers and yellow colour, women and young girls prefer wearing clothes in these colours.

In Garba, women dance gracefully in circles around a pot containing a lamp whereas in the Dandiya dance, men and women participate in pairs with small, decorated bamboo sticks, called dandiyas in their hands.

In Eastern parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent

In Eastern parts of the sub-continent including Nepal and Manipur, Dussherra has its own variant and flavour as Dashian and is celebrated over fifteen days. On the 10th day a ceremonial Tika of yogurt, vermilion, and rice is applied on the forehead.   Another important aspect is the worship of God as Mother (Maa). Followers of the Goddess Durga/Shakti, celebrate the occasion as Durga Puja.

The central storyline of the victory of good over evil is staged in the clay statues produced for the annual festival of Durga puja. It begins with the shape-shifting buffalo-demon Mahisa, who tricks the Gods into granting him immortality with the proviso that he could only be slain by a woman, hence making him practically invincible. The Demon Mahisa then becomes a scourge, challenging and harassing the Earth and the Gods incessantly till they decide to fight back; they combine their energy, the light streaming out of their heads joined together to materialise as Durga, a woman of sublime beauty. Armed with divine weapons and riding a lion or tiger, Durga approaches Mahisa and using her wit, charm and brute force, eventually slays him in a dramatic showdown.

In the traditional puja representation, Durga is shown in the crucial moment of the fight, piercing the beheaded demon with a spear, while her two sons Karthikeya and Ganesa and her two daughters Lakshmi and Sarasvati stand supportively by her side. Lion/tiger signifies dharma, the will power, while the weapons denote the focus and severity needed to destroy the negativity in our minds and environment.

It is said that Shiva gave permission to Durga to see her mother for nine days at this time of the year and this festival also commemorates this visit. Therefore, this tradition enables married women to visit their childhood homes.

Dhunuchi Naach is an impromptu dance performed in front of Maa Durga by worshippers dancing with burning incense pots. They dance and execute tricks holding burning pots to the beat of the dhaaks which are perfect musical accompaniments to the frenzied movements.

Sindoor Khela is held on Mahadashami when it is time to bid adieu to Maa and is occasioned by ritual play with red or orange colour. In parts of the sub-continent, in sharp contrast to feasts, extravagant meals, and social get-togethers, the festival is a time for fasting and prayers.

In Southern parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent

The festival takes on regional colours and hues with a very wide range of celebrations and forms. In Kerala, Poojavaippu is celebrated as a festival of education and learning with a focus on children worshipping their pens and books – this marks the beginning if their educational journey.

In Andhra Pradesh the festivities take on a floral aspect with the nine days being dedicated to the Goddess Maha Gauri. In Bathukamma Padunga (literally meaning ‘Come Alive Mother Goddess’), women make floral stacks accompanied by fascinating floral dances and songs.

In parts of Tami Nadu and Karnataka, Golu is the festive display of dolls and figurines during this period. Its regional names /variations include Bommai Kolu in Tamil which means Divine Presence, Bommala Koluvu in Telugu or the Court of Toys and Bombe Habba in Kannada which means Doll Festival.

Golu is the festive display of dolls and figurines during this period in parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Interestingly the dolls and figurines show every day scenes along with more religiously inspired divine scenes from the epics like Ramayana.

Spiritual Significance

The spiritual significance of the festival is rooted in meditating on the antar dhayan – the inner source of all energy. Through fasting, prayer, silence and meditation, the individual seeks an improvement in themselves – purifying oneself from within. This symbolic dhayan and manan, it is claimed causes one to emerge stronger and purer, it brings relief at the three levels of our existence – physical, subtle and causal. While fasting detoxifies the body, silence purifies the speech and brings rest to the chattering mind, and meditation takes one deep into one’s own being. The essence of this knowledge is acknowledged by celebrating the tenth day as Vijay Dashmi.

The Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist or Islamic ways of life has since time immemorial advocated living in harmony with one another and with nature. The symbiotic relationship between an individual, their community and nature has come into sharp focus during this period of lockdown. The Hindu philosophy of interacting with humanity in a way that promotes universal prosperity to satisfy everyone’s needs rather than greed shines through in this religious celebration. Navratri is the time for you to realize that you are loved, and dwell and rest in this feeling of love. When you do this, you come out feeling stronger, wiser, rejuvenated, refreshed and harmonious.

The celebration of Navratri is in essence the worship of the one Divine existence who manifests in various forms and avatars. The supreme being is worshipped in various ways – all aspects of life and nature are worshipped during these days. Worship of this divine enables the victory of good, removes miseries, sorrows and pains; bestows peace, prosperity and joy on one and all. In the end, Navratri is really about praying for universal wisdom and a simple wish to reconnect with something much bigger than each one of us and the occasion is a tool that helps us do that.

With the blessings of the Divine, may each one of us be imbued with the blessings of the Adi Seer; May you have–

Ichcha Shakti – Willpower

Kriya Shakti – Power to perform right action

Jnana Shakti – Knowledge of right action

Eid- e- Milad un Nabi

The Prophet’s Birthday, or Milad un Nabi as it is commonly known in Muslim culture, is celebrated in many countries to commemorate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. It is celebrated in the third month of the Islamic calendar Rabbi-ul-Awwal. While the Shias celebrate it on the 17th of the month, the Sunnis celebrate on the 12th of the month, according to the Islamic calendar. The date of this festival varies in the Gregorian calendar.

The celebration of Prophet’s birthday is believed to have its origins in the 8th century when the Prophet Muhammad’s birth house was converted into a house of prayer by Al-Khayzuran. Al-Khayzuran was the mother of Caliph, Harun-al-Rashid. Originally, the festival was celebrated by the Shias. For centuries, the day was celebrated with animal sacrifices and huge processions during the day which culminated by a speech by the rulers. People celebrate it with offering prayers in the mosques and distributing food and alms to the poor. In some parts of the world, the festival is observed with large processions and a carnival-like atmosphere. There is an atmosphere of festivity and people exchange gifts. The mosques are decorated with lights and sermons are given to large congregations. This is a public holiday in most of the Muslim countries. The custom of celebrating the birth of the Holy Prophet on an enormous scale began in Egypt with the descendants of the Prophet, through his daughter Fatima. Gifts of honey in particular is a unique part of the festival. One memorable part of the festivities include the Sheer KhurmaSheer means milk in Persian and Khurma means dates. The sweet dish is made by cooking fine vermicelli, milk, dates, and other dry fruits until they all come together to make a delicious delight. Shahi Mutton Biryani, Hyderabadi Mutton Haleem and Peshawari Naan are some other delicacies that are enjoyed during this celebration.

Annual Event 2020

Following our earlier communication, we have discussed our options during the AGM as well as in our trustee meeting following the AGM. In line with prevailing guidance, we have decided not to organise any face to face event this year. However, in these difficult times when we are increasingly isolated, it is ever more important to ensure we are socially engaged within and outside the community. 

In a true community spirit, we are in discussions to organise our Annual Event virtually. It will of course not be the same experience but we are hoping to make it bigger and better. Quoting Einstein, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity“. Through our annual event, we are usually able to engage between 200 to 400 community members. Organising such an event virtually will potentially allow us to engage with a much wider population in Devon and Cornwall. 

Please save the date 28th November in your diaries. Further information and details will follow in our October Newsletter in the last week of October.   

Trustee Board Update

This year we are delighted to welcome Dr Amit Dhulkotia as an associate Trustee. Dr Dhulkotia is a GP and an active member of the community who is keen to help progress the organisation as a value-based unit promoting further cohesion among communities through cultural exchanges.

Dr Smita Tripathi, Dr Satish BK and Mr Abihjit Ghatghe have now completed one year and are now full trustees of the Society. 

Following the AGM, in our first trustee meeting, the following changes to office bearers were agreed 

Chairperson – Dr Arunangsu Chatterjee
Secretary – Dr Smita Tripathi
Treasurer – Mr Raja Srinivasan 

Prof Awadesh Jha completed his 3-year tenure as chairperson and will continue as a trustee. The entire team wholeheartedly thanked Prof Jha for his tireless efforts in the last 3 years to ensure that we continue and scale our contribution and impact as a society. He has successfully raised the profile of the society and we have been recognised through a number of channels including the community award we received from the Devon and Cornwall’s police and crime commissioners office. The trustees and wider members of the community thank Prof Jha once more. 

Supporting SAaS – Amazon Smile

As a charity, we have now signed up with Amazon Smile. For those who are not aware and if you shop on Amazon, it is a way for you to support our work and our ability to organise more events and activities in future. By following the steps below, you will be able to add us as your preferred charity. If you shop on Amazon, they will then donate 0.5% of all eligible purchases to us when you shop. There is no additional cost to you. 

Step 1 – Visit https://smile.amazon.co.uk/ch/1110925-0 and add us as your preferred Charity 

Step 2 – When shopping online, rather than visiting www.amazon.co.uk, please bookmark smile.amazon.co.uk and do your shopping as usual.   

Step 3 – On your Amazon mobile app find ‘Settings’ in the main menu (☰). Tap on ‘AmazonSmile’ and follow the on-screen instructions to turn on AmazonSmile on your phone.

That’s it. If you need any further information of clarifications then please feel free to email us. 

Many thanks for your support.

What crisis can teach us about hope (and change): Notes from the Editor’s Desk

We are at war against a novel virus that has rampaged around the world causing devastation and distress to families and communities. This unprecedented situation has seen the health crisis morphing into an economic and social crisis. Angst at the overwhelming impact, the South Asian community has come together in a modest charitable act of giving for the Food Banks (more on this later on). In the midst of this virus-induced situation, hope rears its head time and again reminding us that profound, positive change is possible provided we act together in unison. So many resources and policy efforts are being channeled at finding ways to mitigate the virus; our hopes are buoyed by the progress on vaccines (very much in the offing) and medical knowledge, including testing and increased health care capacity. We have already started adjusting and fitting in with the ‘new normal’. We have mostly worked in a united, concerted manner to get the R0* down; this unity of action makes me hopeful. That, despite the big divisions that rift our society, we have been able to put our best foot forward and pull together as a society. We have learned more about how to manage the virus; we individuals have power and social responsibility that can make a difference. We recognise the kind of challenges there lie ahead and are getting ready for the predictive winter resurgence of the disease.

*R0, pronounced “R naught,” is a mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is. It’s also referred to as the reproduction number. As an infection is transmitted to new people, it reproduces itself. https://www.healthline.com/health/r-nought-reproduction-number

Despite the rainy days since the school holidays began, I know that there will be sunny days when we explore the South West and go out and about. This is not wishful thinking! Like much of life, the dhoop chaaw (धूप-छांव translated from the Hindi to sun and shade), the ups and downs of life mean that despite the Covid 19 and its rampage, I have friends who are pregnant, who have secured new and exciting jobs, who have found partners and are walking in the Alps (of their minds) …life and love keep blooming and the shades of grey disappear in the gleam of the rainbow lurking behind the clouds.  

Newspaper and magazine editors are passionately writing about the learning being unleashed and the profound and positive change that is happening. We are hopeful, that hope exists along with the difficulty, uncertainty, and the suffering that lies ahead.   Before we go much further, I must make clear that the views expressed in the newsletter are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of SaaS. I also invite articles to reach me before the 20th of the next month at the following email: southasiansocietynewsletter@gmail.com. Let us make this collective resource a big success.

Nina Simone’s smoky rendering of Feeling Good reverberates in my mind as I pen off:

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Keep hoping, changing and smiling
Dr Smita Tripathi
Editor, SAaS Newsletter and Trustee

Nag Panchami & Raksha Bandhan

One of the very important festival among the hundreds of feasts and festivities in the Hindu culture is Nag Panchami . It is an extremely significant day in the Hindu calendar and this year it was celebrated on 25th of July 2020 on Saturday. It was celebrated throughout Nepal and India and other countries where Hindu adherents live. Worship is offered to Nag Devata or Serpent God on the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Shravan, (July / August) according to the Hindu almanac. This is an annual celebration with the devotees of both Lord Shiva and Vishnu observing the day with great reverence and devotion.

Tradition and faith decree that observing fast on the day offers protection against snakebite. When you recall that the subcontinent has almost 300 varieties of snakes, 50 out of which are highly poisonous (Huffington Post), it suddenly makes sense to propitiate the serpent God! On this day, idols/ photos of serpent Gods are worshipped with offerings of milk, sweets, flowers, and lamps. At many places, devotees also offer milk to live snakes. Communities come together with dance and food, celebrating the bonds between man and nature. Nag Panchami Puja is a momentous reminder that one should love, respect, and embrace all forms of life on earth.

Raksha Bandhan (or more simply Rakhi) is a festival that is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Shravan according to the Hindu Lunar calendar. This day is a celebration of the love and respect between siblings marked by sisters tying a Rakhi or a colourful thread/band around their brothers’ wrists. The brother affirms his respect and duty of care for his sister. The word Raksha means protection, whilst Bandhan is the verb to tie. Traditionally the sisters tying a Rakhi around their brothers’ wrists celebrates their relationship. The sister prays for the brother’s health, happiness and success and puts a tikka on his forehead and offers a sweet to him, he in turn gives her a gift.

The festival goes back to antiquity with many legends and stories associated with them. It has now evolved over the years to celebrate other relationships like those between friends and close ones, spreading the message of love, respect, and care. Rakhi is a vital reminder that one should love, respect, and embrace relationships and value them forever. It is a significant festival in the Hindu calendar, followed eight days later by Janamashtami (which we shall cover in the next issue). This year it will be celebrated on the 3rd of August.

AGM & Annual Event 2020

As the situation is still uncertain and the government rules for social distancing are constantly changing, we now aim to organise the AGM online on 29th August from 10:30 am – 12 pm

Subject to social distancing rules, we are planning to walk in the afternoon of the same day in the moors. We will provide details of the AGM and the walk in due course. 

Existing trustees please email chairpersonsaas@gmail.com by 21st August 2020 if you would like to continue as Trustee. We also encourage members of our society, keen to play an active role, to consider joining as associate trustee. Please email us (chairpersonsaas@gmail.com) if you are interested to join by 21st August 2020. 

There are no further updates on the Annual Event planning yet as we are monitoring the current situation. We will provide an update in the September Newsletter.