- Waiting for Moonrise: Fasting, Storytelling, and Marriage in Provincial Rajasthan
Ethnographic encounters with women’s ritual storytelling in North India provide the central substance of this essay and contribute to the study of narrative transformations over time. I highlight two distinct although related themes. First, and most importantly, I consider women’s changing expectations of marriage, approaching these through intimate, conversational ethnographic accounts. Second, with an expanded scope stretching across regions as well as over decades, I observe variations as well as processes of standardization: how diverse tales associated with a specific ritual may ultimately be reduced to one standard plot. Such processes are hastened by all forms of media—print, film, and internet. My account here draws on long experience (intermittent visits and revisits between 1980 and 2015) in a single region of Rajasthan, North India. I focus on storytelling and other practices in the context of two women’s ritual fasts: Bari Tij (“Grand Third”) and Karva Chauth (“Pitcher Fourth”). The festival names refer to dates in the Hindu lunar calendar. In what follows I normally refer to Bari Tij simply as Tij.
I have worked on and off since 1979 in one region of Rajasthan—the Banas River Basin, spanning Ajmer and Bhilwara districts. Here both Tij and Karva Chauth involve explicitly difficult fasts undertaken by married women to protect the lives of their husbands. For both fasts in both places, participating women go without food or water the entire day and into the night until they are able to see the moon.1 Some women told me that the ritual required a woman not only to see the moon but also to look at her husband’s face before she can break her fast. Women are not merely waiting for something in the sky.
In 1980 as a novice anthropologist engaged in doctoral fieldwork on popular Hinduism while living in Ghatiyali (a large multi-caste village in Ajmer district, Rajasthan), I observed Tij for the first time. In 2010 as a senior anthropologist engaged in fieldwork on place and identity while living in the subdistrict headquarters of Jahazpur (a market town in Bhilwara district, Rajasthan), I had another opportunity to see women celebrate Tij.2 Two months afterwards the same group of neighbors participated in the apparently similar celebration of Karva Chauth. In Ghatiyali I had photographed the Tij ritual and recorded its accompanying story as told in Rajasthani which I eventually translated (Gold 2002:193–94). In Jahazpur at the request of my hosts, I photographed Tij worship but made no attempt to talk with participants about its meanings or to document the story. On the day of Karva Chauth, however, I recorded several conversations with small groups of women about the fast and its chartering narrative. At the actual worship I again played the role of respectful photographer but made no recordings.
This essay proceeds as follows: in the first and largest segment I introduce the festivals, noting the considerable documentation and analysis of both in anthropological and other literatures. Drawing on my own ethnography, I sequentially describe two rituals and their accompanying stories as I saw and learned about them. I begin with Tij in Ghatiyali, 1980, then turn to Karva Chauth in Jahazpur, 2010. The second section draws from selected secondary sources to scan the festivals and their significances within North Indian women’s religiosity. My attempt is neither to survey fully nor to chart all variations from place to place, but simply to expand horizons and alert readers to the limits of conclusions based on any individual’s ethnographic observations. Such observations will always swim in a vast sea of variation: lunar calendar dates, the direction of gift-giving, the castes that participate, and the worship tales’ plots. Fortunately some significant commonalities resonate across contexts. It is also possible through this survey to observe the workings of an inevitably reductive standardization.
Finally, speculatively and briefly, I reflect across my fieldwork experience of 30-plus years spending intermittent time with Rajasthani women in village and town, in order to hazard a few thoughts on the ways that social change, ritual change, and the changing fates of particular devotional narratives...