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The Coming [Mehndi] War

The Coming [Mehndi] War

Subhash Kak
February 9, 2000
Title: The Coming [Mehndi] War
Author: Subhash Kak
Publication: Kendra
Date: February 9, 2000

Note: the words in square brackets, [ ], are to be italicized.

We see the beginnings of a new culture war in Pakistan.   The first skirmish in this conflict is the demand  to ban the festival of [Basant], or Vasant. An old sub-continental tradition, it celebrates the onset of spring with kite-flying and other festivities. Much ingenuity goes into the design of the kite and the string, to give it strength and agility to capture other kites. The string is soaked  in special compounds so that it is able to slice other  strings. When a kite falls, a great cry of [Bo kataa]  goes up from the rooftops.

I lived a few years of my childhood in Jammu, where Vasant was celebrated with great gusto.  Some of my most magical memories of that period relate to the kite-battles of Vasant. My father grew up in Kapurthala and went to college in Lahore and he had done a lot of kit-flying in his youth, so he was keen I should get an experience of Vasant madness!

When India was partitioned, most Pakistanis abandoned the Vasant festivities as a relic of the Hindu past. But over the years the memories of the festival have returned, and in Lahore and elsewhere celebrations have resumed. But not everyone is pleased.

Writing for a ban on the festival in a Pakistani newspaper, Professor Anis Ahmad says that  ``it helps in creating conditions where men and women  can intermingle indiscriminately while flying kites,  by shouting [Bo Kataa] and by singing suggestive songs, provoking sexual emotions among youth, and  ultimately promoting a promiscuous society.'' He reminds us that Pakistan must be different from   India in culture, values, vision of life, concept of space and time, art and literature.

This carping about Vasant is a small element of a much larger turning away from things which are Indian or Persian in language or culture. For example, [Khuda], God, is a Persian word of pagan conception, so some Pakistanis want it replaced in the popular greeting of [Khuda-hafiz] by [Allah-Hafiz]. Etymologically, [Khuda] or Avestan [Kshvataa] is related to the Sanskrit root [kshi-],  which means ``to rule'', from which is derived [kshatriya].

Thankfully, this struggle over language or kite-flying excites only sections of the public. Some disapprove of kite-flying because it leads to accidents. And not all Pakistanis are aware that [Khuda] is a pagan word, just as they are not aware that [wah-wah] of the [mehfils] is a remembrance of the [svaha-svaha] of the Vedic ritual.

But [mehndi], or henna, is something else. It is used as an integral part of the marriage celebration. On [mehndiraat], women sketch intricate designs on the hands and feet of the bride and the groom for good luck and then dance around them. This ceremony is performed the same way by most groups in the Indian sub-continent.

Although it has been long known that the use of [mehndi] is Hindu in origin, it is only recently that  Pakistanis have realized its deep religious connections.

The word [mehndi] is from the Sanskrit [mehaghni], which is also a synonym for turmeric (more commonly [haridra] in Sanskrit).  The use of [mehndi]-- and turmeric-- is described in the Vedic books for a painting on hands and feet of the outer and the inner suns. Vedic customs are meant  to awaken the spirit and so the gold of  [mehndi] is the medium to tell a deeper story, symbolically. A traditional [mehndi] design shows the sun on the palm,  which in this context represents the mind.  Other designs are more abstract, like yogic yantras. The [mehndiraat] songs speak of the mystical power of [mehndi].

In many ways, [mehndiraat] is the quintessential marriage ceremony for women because, traditionally, they  didn't accompany the [baraat] to the bride's house. When the marriage took place the following day, not all the women relatives were expected to be present. But this didn't matter as they had had their celebration with dancing and singing.  The ceremonial use of [mehndi]-- its pageantry and religious connection to the Vedas-- is redolent of Hinduism's hoary past and one of the symbols of Indian cultural unity.

The use of [mehndi] has recently become popular in the West. As an icon of the world-triumphing American pop-culture, its use for personal decoration is spreading everywhere.

Pakistanis are prepared to play the [firangi] game of cricket because it is considered an activity  without any esoteric meaning. It is not viewed connected to Christianity in the same manner that kite-flying at Vasant is seen a part of a ``Hindu'' activity. Ultimately, Pakistanis may  even fly kites,  but there is general agreement that a line should be drawn at things that smack of another religion.

Dean Swift in [Gulliver's Travels] tells us how the Lilliputian fought an epic war about whether eggs should be broken at the small end or the large end. The Pakistani conflict may appear to be similarly trivial, but it will be fought with the same intensity.

As the Hindu basis of the use of [mehndi] becomes widely known, clerics will denounce it  strongly. Certainly, the homage to the inner sun that the use of [mehndi] represents will not be tolerated. But are Pakistani women prepared to give up a custom that has been a part of their collective memory for generations? Will they give up an old practice that is being embraced by MTV and Hollywood?

(Subhash Kak is a professor at Louisiana State University. He is the author of several books including ``The Secrets of Ishbar''.)

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