As per Hindu tradition, a house without a tulsi or sacred basil plant is considered to be incomplete. The tulsi, one of India’s sacred plants with rich mythological and religious associations, is usually planted near the entrance to the house in specially made planters known as tulsi vrindavans.
Cities, highrises and tulsi vrindavans have an uneasy relationship and cannot really coexist well together. As a result, it’s rare to see tulsi vrindavans in cities like Mumbai; in smaller towns and rural India, however its a different story and I’ve seen them in my various travels in India.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it happened I saw quite a lot of them !
On my very first evening in Goa, I lost count of the the number of tulsi vrindavans I came across I walked from the service apartment I was staying in at Colva to the Colva beach for dinner. Though I didn’t know at that time, it was tulsi vivaah that day and the atmosphere was quite festive. The tulsi vrindavans were gaily decorated and families were gathered around it for the puja. Oil lamps and kandeels (lanterns) added to the soft golden glow that surrounded the tulsi vrindavans. It was a beautiful sight.
Over the next few days that I was in Goa, I saw them everywhere. Driving from West to East Goa, in Catholic-dominated Fontinhas, at Aldona, inside Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, in Colva… they were everywhere and made from a variety of materials as well.
I returned to Mumbai with the idea that I would write a post on the tulsi vrindavans in Goa as part of my Travel Shot series. But then I came across the following in the last few months:
- A book with a very intriguing title, The Tulsi and the Cross: Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter in Goa by Rosa Maria Perez. I bought it recently and though I have not finished reading it, I can share the gist of the author’s ethnographical research which shows that Goa is, and was, dominantly Hindu and the perception of Goan society as Catholic is a colonial imposition that continues to be perpetuated today.
- This newspaper article, titled “Portuguese Dilemma” by Joseph Zuzarte. The article talks about, among other things, Catholic old timers harking for the Goan (read Portuguese) way of life and Goan Hindus wishing to banish everything and anything that is a reminder of Portuguese oppression.
- A book on Christian Themes in Indian Art, where I came across the state-wise percentage of Christians in India. Goa’s was just 30%.
Each of the readings left me thinking about more and then some more about culture and identity in the context of Goa leaving me intrigued and perplexed at the same time. While I was aware that Goa had a significant Hindu population, I had not realised just how “significant” the number and spread was. If one goes by popular perception of Goa, it is dominantly and almost overwhelmingly Catholic. Anything that does not fit in is either ignored or labelled as offbeat.
Even the media seems to have taken this stand. While at Goa I was surprised to find just how little mention there was of the tulsi vivaah in the Goan newspapers. Instead, they were full of reports of All Souls Day, which had just got over or articles on ancestral visits (of Goans who had migrated to Portugal) apart from local political news.
Tulsi vivaah is an important festival for Hindus, as it marks the beginning of the marriage season. For Goan Hindus, it goes beyond that and is no less than an ancestral visit.
Fellow blogger Mukta (who is from Goa) had this to say about tulsi vivaah over an interaction on Twitter:
… My family does celebrate it. I’ve missed it by a narrow margin a few times but have seen the excitement. The extended family comes together to celebrate and eat etc… In Goa, families are still very close knit so everything becomes a community thing.
It is tulsi vivaah today and families must have gathered from all over at Goa for the ceremony which begins late at night. The tulsi vrindavans would have received a fresh coat of paint and would have been decked with flowers like a bride. Special delicacies befitting a wedding feast would have been prepared. The lamps and kandeels would have been lit adding to the festive spirit.
Sometimes, it takes a while to understand or comprehend what you have seen or observed or experienced. And when that happens as part of a travel experience, you just want to go back again.
I wish I was there in Goa right now participating in the tulsi vivaah festivities. 🙂