SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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Rewind, Reset, Renewal

by Dakshina Gammanpila

The weekend just past turned out to be a pivotal one in India with Covid cases as well as the temperature, on the rise. In Delhi the numbers hit the highest levels so far. In the UK, having gone through wave after wave of the pandemic in a leaky boat saved by the cruise liner offered by the vaccine roll-out and the submarine of successive lockdowns, the situation has improved. But with so many contracting the disease, and R-numbers skyrocketing, the death rate escalated. It has undoubtedly taken its toll on the nation’s economy and morale. Finally, on the Sunday after Easter, England saw restrictions, following the third lockdown, ease.

The relief obviously felt was diminished as Queen and country were plunged into mourning with the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, the Queen’s husband of 73 years and the longest serving consort. Her rock, counsel and friend. His death coincided with Good Friday, a national holiday in the UK marking the crucifixion of Christ. Just shy of becoming a centenarian by 2 months, HRH Prince Philip, had led a long, colourful and full life. A lucky man in many ways, seeing the marriage of his grandchildren and birth of great-grandchildren, including the future King of England, his heir (by genes if not Crown). Side by side with his Queen, he witnessed the century of greatest change in human history.

Death and rebirth are very much front and centre, and we have been forced to face the colossal scale of grief worldwide. Not for a century have we experienced a global tsunami of loss. The last time was another pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918. Yet today, a year or so on from the first cases in South Asia and Europe, we are very much reminded of the cycle of life birth and death sitting cheek by jowl. I alluded to Easter in last week’s Equinox article but this vernal cycle is celebrated and observed in ritual and festivities in a variety of religions and cultures.

The harvest festival of Baisakhi, also known as Vaisakhi, is celebrated in Haryana, the Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. It celebrates the new solar year and the foundation if Khalsa in 1699 under the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, in order to protect and defend religious freedom. Traditionally community melas and processions occur and Gurdwaras are decorated.

In fact there is a congruence of many festivals celebrating the New Year in many states in India this week. Alongside Baisakhi there is Senghan, Ugadi, Vishu, Tamil Puthandu, Gudi Paduva, Rongali Bihu, Mesha Sankranti, Pana Sankranti, Poila Boisakh, Navresh, Cheti Chand, Bisu Parbu, Sujibu Cheiraoba, Buisa, Bwisagu, Bohug Bihu, Pahela Baisakh and Jur Sital. Not an exhaustive list by any means, and you may care to research the location and significance of each.

In Sri Lanka, New Year is today (I am writing on April 14th) and being Sri Lankan we celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year, both in mid April and also January 1st. Other Sri Lankan National holidays include Tamil Thai Pongal Day, Independence Day in February, Milad in Nabi (the birth of the Prophet Mohammed) Deepavali, Christmas Day and Eid. Each Full Moon Day is also a national holiday known as Poya Days. People wear white to commemorate the new moon and a type of rebirth each month.

The week began with Ramadan (Ramazan, Ramzan, Ramadhan) on Monday April 12th observed in the Islamic faith by prayer, reflection, fasting and motivated by the improvement of self-discipline. How apt in these times. Again it centres on the moon and lasts from the sighting of one crescent moon to the next. The Arabic root of the word is ‘R-M-D’ meaning ‘scorching heat’.

Easter or Pascha Sunday is also linked to the phase of the Moon, being the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon which in turn is the Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, signifying the beginning of Spring in the Northern hemisphere. Being a predominantly Catholic country I recall many happy ‘Pascoa’ (from the root Pascha) celebrations in Brazil, with bunnies, eggs and chocolate in abundance.

The idea of birth and resurrection (rebirth) may be synonymous with Easter, however, the Festival has its roots not in Christianity, but the pagan festivals of the Anglo-Saxons. It was originally a Spring Festival as Paganism, followed by the ancient Britons, centred on Nature, in that every living thing, even rocks and rivers, bore a soul and was protected by a guardian deity. Likewise, each aspect of the weather was subject to a god or goddess. It was part of life to venerate and placate the guardians for every tree felled or river dammed. In essence an abiding respect for the natural world was paramount; much like the Aborigines in Australia, the Maoris in New Zealand, the Vedas in India and Sri Lanka, the Navajos in the US and the Guarani tribe in the Amazon. In fact each and every indigenous community.

My husband and I had the privilege of spending time with an indigenous tribe in a remote rain forest in Malaysia, one of the most ancient in the world, reached only by boat. We went out in the forest at night, in the blackest black, to witness them hunt with a blowpipe. Their respect and knowledge was palpable and we were awestruck. The next morning we were told how elephants had walked around where we had slept. We had no clue, but they did.

During our first year in India I was asked by my children’s former school to make Easter cards and crafts with the younger children and to explain the meaning of Easter.  The irony was not lost on me – a Sri Lankan Brit of Buddhist upbringing speaking about Easter’s origins in an international school? The wonders, and incongruities, of India never cease.

The link to Easter, its name and significance is fascinating, incorporating the natural world, history, ancient rites and man’s strange desire to want to superimpose thoughts and faiths on others. In AD 595 Benedictine monks were sent from Rome by Pope Gregory to convert the heathen Britons. They changed many of the ancient festivals to Saints days but one they could not strike was ‘Eostur- monath’ or ‘Paschal month’, thus the name Easter, and the celebration survived conversion.

Eostre was the goddess of the Pagan Spring festival, the vernal equinox, celebrating life, fertility and regrowth. There is an irony in the pagan name Easter/Eostur remaining, despite it being the most significant ecclesiastical commemoration. In Judaism, Passover, arguably also the most significant event in the Jewish calendar, takes place around Easter; time of the crucifixion and resurrection for Christians and commemorating Exodus the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt for those of the Jewish faith – death, birth, rebirth and freedom. Eostre may have also given her name to oestros, the periodic state of sexual activity and proceptivity, the ‘in heat’ period for many mammals for Spring is inextricably associated with joy, revival and new births. Interesting indeed that oestrogen or estrogen is the female hormone responsible for female physical and reproductive characteristics.

So many celebrations of Spring, the New Year, harvest and new life in this mid-April week. But at this critical time we have to be a little less pagan-like and show restraint. To be hedonistic now in this, the worst ever time for India and its battle against Covid, will undoubtedly prove catastrophic. We have to understand that the virus is a living entity; that it is clever, wants to thrive and survive and will mutate in order to do so. Our ancestors would acknowledge that salient reminder of Nature’s power. So should we.

For our family, celebrations have been small-scale or shelved. We will not go out to big events or festivities; crowds and even groups are a No-No, and in fact we have not done so for what seems like an age (because it is). Staying in has not become the new going out, it has become the new norm. It is far from piety, having seen and experienced the waves in the UK, outwitting Covid-19 if at all, can only be achieved by respecting the majesty and, at times, wrath of Nature, following the ideals of indigenous peoples.

What we can celebrate is the fact that we have more knowledge than we did a year ago, more data, more remedial action and of course, a Holy host of vaccines. The wonders of contemporary research and the old ways of masking up, washing hands and staying apart. A year on what have we learned? Kindness to ourselves and those around us, both seen and unseen, creates space to think, breathe and be.

Stay safe.

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