Aug 18, 2015

Bead Bai: Swastika in Khoja Feminine Memory

Seals from archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro 

Acknowledgment: The British Museum Collection

The earliest su-astik, the symbol for Blessings of Abundance, is found in seals from archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (approximate region of Sindh). These were the pre-Hindu and pre-Islamic civilizations of the Indus Valley between 2600 to 1900 BC. The symbol has been preserved for thousands of years by many cultures of India, China and Japan, over many geographies, religions and ideologies. The su-astik has been handed down from a woman to  woman in Khoja families and lives as a living tradition in the Khoja women's visual memory. It is re-created in the sapatia configuration in one of the elaborate ritual arts of the Khoja marriage. The su-astik reminds the bride and groom of their origins as they are blessed stepping over the threshold to make a family of their own and a new generation. Making of the swastika in rice grains is also called saathia puro.

Extract from Bead Bai (2nd Ed 2014)
Part Eight   Chapter 31   pages 264 -269

Su-astik at the Threshold
I step into the Devji family home, a sixteen year old bride in a pink velvet frock on which flows zari vine at the side from the ankle to the shoulder. People of the town come to see me, the wife of their own Nairowua born boy with smallpox marks on his face. Haiderali was born of Khoja Momna bead merchant family on the border of Kenya Colony and Tanganyika…
“She is the wife of my first born son,” proudly says Ma Jena Bai to the women of her jamat khana volunteer group called the Naandi Committee. The Naandi Committee receives, sorts out and arranges the evening’s food offerings at the veranda where the evening draught pushes the fragrance of the cooked curries and smoke of loban over red hot coal into the open courtyard. “She is a blessed Saurashtran devi,” someone at the back whispers. Yes, I am beautiful like the ancient women of Ajanta, fairer than all the men and women of the Devji family. I am of narrow waist on broad rounded hips and a backside bulge under my long velvet frock…
I stand on the patlo stool like a statue on a pedestal at the threshold of the Devji home, listening to my sass, Ma Jena Bai, bragging how she found me. However, she knows my Dadabapa gave me to Devji Momna, her husband’s father, to seal their friendship with a tie of their grandchildren’s marriage, forever. She talks about my accomplishments as a zari embroiderer and teacher’s assistant at the religion school. “She is shy,” I hear someone say.  In truth, I felt lonely. Uneasy among the people I had never seen before. I was not shy. I keep my eyes down, screened by my pachedi pulled over my forehead in laaj, avoiding any eye contact. Eyes that are studying details of my symmetry. I feel like a prey, circled by a pride of lions whose hungry yellow eyes are fixed on the impending kill and feast.  I tense my body, push my shoulders in and hold myself together standing on the patlo stool. In my hands is a coconut, the seed of life awaiting fertility to birth. Meethi Bai told me I would be bringing new life into the Devji family home to continue their progeny, honour and name. Haiderali stands by my side on another patlo stool. He is laughing and joking with the women who in turn laugh at him in fake mockery, lisping audible whispers, “You are such an ugly toad. You are black. You are short like an eggplant. Your nose is a trumpet. Your hair a mesh of wire. You don’t deserve this bride! This jewel of Nairobi!”  Cold sweat trickles down my nape under the pachedi…
“Jari, come and sit here beside me,” Ma calls Zarina her daughter. “The rice is for fertility,” says Ma Jena Bai to Zarina, instructively, as she goes over the su-astik with a second line of rice trickling from her funnelled fingers. She performs the ritual of describing the su-astik before us speaking in resolute sentences. “It’s the su-astik that connects the ancient religions of Saurashtra - Jainism, Buddhism, Satpanth and the many panths descending from the Vedas that hold pirs’ words sacred. Here in the centre where the four lines meet, we place a piece of silver, the mark of Laxmi and Light of Satgurpir. Put it here in the centre of the su-astik,” says Ma putting her finger on the point at the union of the four sides of the su-astik. “The union is propitious. It’s the meeting of the four directions. Marriage is such a union.” She gives Zarina a fifty cents silver coin with the head of bearded King George, crowned and cloaked in fur.  “Now take this betel nut and stand it on the fifty cents sumuni. The hard seed protects the shine of prosperity in the house. Keeps evil away.”  I know the su-astik is the chakra’s centre of life’s energy from all directions and a welcoming sign to the lucky bride, the incarnate Lakhsmi who brings abundance as she steps over the threshold into her new life.

I step over the threshold with my right foot and crash onto the inverted clay saucers revealing the su-astik sketched in rice. Suddenly the sound of crashing clay under my feet awakens me into a new life. Consummation of my marriage? I ask myself. I step over my childhood and enter into the Devji home, a woman. I have accepted the ancient sacrament of my forefathers and made a covenant with the Earth below my feet to take me home. 

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