Yama, She Tricked You!!!, Karadayan Nonbu
Damn, I hate the 5000 miles that separate me from home 😦 . One of the most irritating things about living in the US is all the delicious festival food that you miss out on. And so it happened last saturday. When all my friends at home were enjoying Kozhukattais and Karadais that their moms and aunts had cooked up, here I was, surviving out on pasta and burgers.
It was Karadayan Nonbu, a yearly celebration of Savithri’s victory over Yama. A festival that I always associated with the mouth watering Karadais that Jayashree Aunty, my mother’s friend, used to bring for me. Studded with kidney beans, the adais were made in two versions – the sweet and the savory, and both melted on my tongue, creating an explosion of senses in my food-o-philic brain. Yum.
Every year, when the solar month of Maasi melts out into the divine month of Panguni, the married women in India prepare for one of the most important vrathaas on their calendar- The Karadayan Nonbu. Also known as the Sati Savithri Nonbu, the vrathaa is a common obsevance in many of the brahmin families of South India. On this day, the women folk gather together and pray for the single most important boon in their life- the long lives of ‘their’ gods (read -Husbands). In observing the vrathaa, they follow the rituals that were carried out eons ago by Savithri, their heroine and role model. A heroine who was caught up in a very grave situation.
The story of Savithri is well narrated by Vyaasa in the Mahabharatha, with vivid descriptions and details. Savithri was the only daughter of King Ashtapathi. The perfect example of ‘beauty and brains’, she was naturally the apple of the King’s eye. When she reached a suitable age for marriage, the King, like any other girl’s father became anxious about her marriage.
One day he summoned her to his chambers and poured out his worries. “Savithri, you have now come of age and need to be given in marriage to a person who would be able to protect you and this kingdom after my time. You are beautiful, yes, but yet my heart worries about finding a fitting suitor for you. I fear that I may marry you off to the wrong person.”
Hearing her father’s words of worry, Savithri knelt beside the King and taking his hands into her’s, she said, “Father, if it is not a problem for you, I would like to select my future husband on my own. Please grant me permission to do the same.”
The King was relieved, “Then I will call for the grandest swayamvara ever. You can choose from the best of princes across the country” he said.
Savithri, however immediately cut him off, “No swayamvara father, I will find him on my own. You stop worrying.” The king reluctantly consented to his daughter’s wish.
One day Savithri was roaming in the forest adjoining her father’s kingdom when a strange sight met her eyes. A man, strong and well built, with all kshatriya latchanas was walking along the forest path with two baskets hanging from a stick that was balanced on his muscled shoulders. In one basket sat an old man, and in the other an old woman, presumably the wife of the old man. Strange indeed.
Driven by curiosity, she confronted the man. “Who may you be Sir, walking in this thick forest with two other old people.” The man set his baskets down and replied “I am Sathyavan and they are my parents in the baskets. They are blind and cannot walk. So I carry them this way. I live in an aashram on the other side of the forest and was going there when you stopped me. Who are you, may I know?”. “I am Savithri, the daughter of the King.”, she replied and all of a sudden she blushed and ran away leaving Sathyavan truely confused.
At King Ashtapathis’ palace, a heated discussion was taking place. “Father, I am marrying Sathyavan. So what if he is a forest dweller? I am sure he would take care of me. He was so devoted to his parents. I was in love from the very first sight.” The King was furious, “I am not letting you marry him. You dont even know his kula or gothra. What if he is not a kshathriya at all?”
At that moment, a palace informer came to the King’s chambers and announced the arrival of Narada, the celestial sage. The King welcomed him with all due respects. “We are blessed to have you here, Oh Devarishi. May I know the purpose of your visit?”. Narada, with the twinkle in his eye, looked up at Ashtapathi and said “I heard that your daughter is of marriagable age. Who have you selected to marry her?”
Ashtapathi’s joy knew no bounds “Oh Devarishi, we were just discussing it out. My daughter seems to be adamant on marrying this one Sathyavan, who happens to be a forest dweller. I am hardly able to talk sense into her. If your holiness could get the idea out of her head, I would forever be grateful.”
Narada shook his head “Ashtapathi, your daughter has made an excellent choice. Sathyavan is a kshathriya by birth. He is one of the most learned and intelligent princes ever. Unfortunately, his father lost the kingdom to some evil conquerors and now here he is, in your forests serving his parents with complete devotion inspite of all the difficulties.”
The king’s face bloomed with joy, on hearing this. He ran to tell Savithri, the good news and brought her along to get Narada’s blessings. “Bless me with a long and happy married life, Devarishi”, asked Savithri and prostrated before him. Narada, however, remained silent.
“Why the silence?” asked Ashtapathi, anxious all of a sudden.
“Savithri, though I am sure that your married life with Sathyavan will be happy, I am doubtful if it will be for long. He is cursed to die one year from the day you marry him.”, said Narada, his voice low.
Savithri was shocked at this divine revelation, but was quick enough to recover. “Father, I am not going back on my decision. Make all arrangements for my marriage with Sathyavan.”
And so Savithri married Sathyavan amidst much pomp and colour (the tinge of anxiety in the King’s mood was overlooked as the sadness that accompanies the marriage of a dear daughter). Savithri moved into the aashrama with Sathyavan and started her duties towards her in-laws. She even surpassed Sathyavan in his service towards the old couple. She started getting accustomed to the forest way of life and bore all the difficulties with cheer. And most importantly, she observed the vrathaa that Narada had told her about when she married Sathyavan. Every morning she invoked Gowri, the divine mother, asking her to bless Sathyavan with a long life. She made simple adas as the naivedhya and ate them alone for her everyday meal. Slowly and steadily, the year passed by and the fateful day dawned, sunny and bright.
As usual, Sathyavan left early in the morning for cutting wood. Knowing that the day had arrived, Savithri secretly followed Sathyavan at a distance. Sathyavan got down to the hard task of cutting the tall trees and making logs out of them. He hacked and sawed and cut ceaselessly. Soon the noon day sun was scorching his back and all of a sudden, he fainted and fell onto the forest floor.
Savithri, who had watched him all morning from behind a tree, immediately ran towards him. Picking up his head, she gently placed it on her lap and tried to revive him. His pulse was shallow and he was sweating profusely. Savithri sent up quick prayers to Gowri and continued to tap Sathyavan on his cheeks.
Suddenly, a dark shadow fell upon them. Looking up Savithri saw a terrible sight. There stood Yama, with his buffalo by his side. Strong and powerfully built, with a thick moustache and a dark skin, Yama was frightening enough. Add to that, the long noose and the almighty mace, the sight is enough to make a person faint from fear (perhaps that is the whole point 😀 ).
Yama threw his noose around Sathyavan’s neck and commanded his soul to come along. The soul too followed. Sathyavan’s breathing stopped all of a sudden. He was no more. Jumping up on his buffalo, Yama was about to start, when Savithri called out, “Dharmaraja, dont you think it is too young for him to die?”
Now, Yama was shocked. He was never visible to the eyes of a mortal, yet here she was, calling out to him like that. He was impressed. “Oh princess, I am visible to you only by the virtue of you being a true pathivratha. But I have work to be done. You husband Sathyavan was a great man. He will find eternal happiness in my kingdom.” Saying so, he turned south, the direction of his kingdom.
Savithri left the body of Sathyavan alone and started to follow Yama. Yama’s buffalo charged through the thick woods. Savithri followed them, with much difficulty, her soft feet tearing itself on the sharp stones of the forest floor.
Yama was impressed again, “You cannot follow him to the lands of death. Turn back now”, he bellowed.
Savithri calmly replied, “Just as it is your duty to take the life of my husband, so is it mine to stay by him come what may”.
Yama was really awed by her loyalty “That duty of yours is at an end. However, I am highly impressed by your sense of duty. I shall grant you one boon, but not the life of your husband.”
“Then let my father-in-law regain his lost kingdom and let both my in-laws regain their sense of sight again.”, demanded Savithri.
“Given”, said Yama and continued to ride. Savithri, however still followed him. As they were crossing a river bed, the thorns and shrubs at the bank parted to allow Yama through. Savithri on the other hand got her clothes torn and her body pricked by the vicious thorns. Yama was now getting concerned.
“You have come far enough, Savithri”, he said, his voice more mellow.
“You say that my husband will find eternal happiness in your kingdom, but oh protector of Dharma, do you fail to realise that you are taking my happiness with you too?”, Savithri pleaded.
“Your love is commendable. But death is natural. Even love has to bend to some power. Your devotion to you husband pleases me. Ask me one more boon, but the same rule applies. Not the life of Sathyavan.”, offered Yama.
“Then, let my father have many more offsprings who may rule his kingdom justly after his time has come.”
“Well, your father will have many more valiant sons to carry on the generation. Now turn back.”
Yama now started climbing up a steep mountain. His buffalo seemed to float in the air and in no time he was gliding over the mountain slope. Savithri followed him yet again. She huffed and puffed up the hilly region and finally at the very summit, when Yama turned back, he was aghast to see Savithri right on his tail, sweat streaked and panting.
“Savithri”, he shouted, “You have reached the limits of the mortal kingdom. I forbid you from coming any further.”
“Whatever you say, Dharmaraja, my heart refuses to leave Sathyavan”
“You will not come further”, said Yama, his voice laced with vexation.”I will grant you one last wish for your courage and firmness in the face of death. ask what you may, except… aah you know it”
“Then, Oh king of Dharma, may the clan of my father in-law grow through me. Let them have the happiness of seeing a thousand grandchildren.”
“Thathaasthu” said Yama, granting her wish and turned back southwards.
“If that is so”, voiced Savithri, “return my husband back to me. How can they have a thousand grandchildren through me, if their son, i.e. my husband, is not alive? Keep up your words, Yama Dharma Raaja”, she ended, her voice triumphant.
Yama’s jaws fell. The clever girl, he thought. Turning back, he released Sathyavan’s soul. “Savithri, your wits are as as sharp as your will. May you lead a happy life with Sathyavan. At the end of your times, you will be guided to the eternal happiness of my kingdom.”
Savithri bowed to Yama and praised him as the true protector of dharma. These praisings of Savithri are today chanted as Yamaashtakam. She claims in the final lines that those who chant the Yamaashtakam with true devotion and faith would have a long happy life and lose the fear of death. Yama then entered his legion leaving Savithri to hurry back to Sathyavan.
As can be guessed, Savithri reached Sathyavan’s body under the tree to find him gently breathing. Sathyavan woke up as though from a deep nap and lovingly looked at Savithri.
The story ends with them both making their way back to the aashrama. True to Yama’s words, the blind king regained his kingdom and his sight. Sathyavaan became the King in due course and had hundreds of sons through Savithri. At the end of their lives, they were escorted into Yamapuri with all due respects where they lived for eons together.
Thus ends the saga of Savithri and the reason for her being catapulted into stardom among all married women. The vrathaa that Savithri observed for the entire year before her encounter with Yama, is what is now being observed as the Karadayan nonbu.
On the day of the festival, the women folk get up at the crack of dawn and after their ablutions set up a kalasha in the place of worship. The kalasha is decorated with flowers and garments and is taken to be a form of Shri Maha Gowri. The women sit in front of this kalasha and sing the praises of Gowri and sometimes even read the story of Savithri. Then after all the pooja, each woman places one karadai, one kozhukattai, one betel leaf, a betel nut, a fruit of her choice in front of the kalasha and finally offers a dollop of butter on the adai. When everyone has had their turn, they all prostrate to the goddess and chant the following verse unanimously,
“Urugaatha Vennayum Oru kaaradayum naan nootren
Orukaalamum en kanavar ennai vittu piryadhirukkavendum”
(I offer you un-melted butter and one Kaaradai, At no time whatsoever should I ever be separated from my husband)
The adai is then distributed to everyone as the prasadam and I tell you, it is yummy. The women also tie a thread around their wrist at the completion of the nonbu. The thread is not supposed to be removed until the next nonbu. All the women then prostrate before their husbands and ask them for their blessings. The nonbu then ends with a grand feast for the entire household and all the invited guests where delicious food is served.
And so I believe live the men of India, by the prayers of their devoted wives. I am sure that they will be totally lost were it not for the many Savithris who make up for a good size of our population. Whatever maybe, I have not eaten my due share of Karada this year and that is my matter of concern at the present 😀