History is a two-edged sword—if used as a reference, it can guide and protect, if used as a residence, it can misguide and kill.
The word—history—is derived from the Greek word Historia. Historia means inquiry or knowledge that is often sought by investigation. Such information can be obtained from written documents, oral accounts, ecological markers, and material objects, including art and artifacts.
As we are exploring historical significance of the Indian festival of Raksha Bandhan, it would be interesting to know what the word ‘history’ evokes in the Indian sensibilities. The Sanskrit and Hindi word ‘itihasa’ is considered to be the closest translation of the English word ‘history’.
Though, some scholars do not think so. According to them, the word ‘itihasa’ remains non-translatable in the English language as both the Western and the Indian perceptions of the concept of history are poles apart.
The word ‘itihasa’ in Sanskrit and in Hindi literally means—thus it has been. However, scholars opine that the connotations of this word in both Hindi and Sanskrit too are different.
According to celebrity author Devdutt Pattanaik, the word itihasa in the Sanskrit language “means cultural memoir, and refers to the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata….”, while in the Hindi language it means, “history, a subject that considers Ramayana and Mahabharata as Sanskrit literary works, not more than 2,500 years old….”
Let us then explore some major historical incidents and characters that are significantly associated with the Indian festival of Raksha Bandhan.
Queen Karnavati and Humayun
This story dates back to 1528 CE. The Mughal Emperor Babur defeated the Mewar King Rana Sanga in the battle of Khanwa in 1527 CE. However, the Rajput King did not want to give up, and had plans to kick Babur out of India. Rana Sanga also wanted to annex Delhi and Agra with the support of some Afghan leaders who were betrayed by Babur earlier.
Rana’s plans to renew fight with Babur were not agreeable to his own chiefs. Hence, it is believed that King Rana Sanga was poisoned by his own chiefs on January 30, 1528 in Kalpi. The widowed Queen Karnavati took over the charge of Chittorgarh, the capital of Mewar, on behalf of her elder son Vikramaditya.
It was during this time Bahadur Shah of Gujarat attacked Mewar for the second time. This indeed made the Queen worried. She persuaded the nobles of her court to fight collectively against the Mughal attack as the nobles were not willing to fight for a weak ruler Vikramaditya.
However, on the Queen’s persuasion to fight for the honour of the Sisodias, if not for her elder son, the nobles of Chittorgarh court did fight the battle valiantly, and lost too.
Some legends say that the Queen also sent rakhi to Mughal Emperor Humayun and ask for his help to save her kingdom. However, the contemporary writers and the modern historians like Satish Chandra do not find any historical evidence to support this story. Chandra writes:
The Mughal Emperor Humayun’s own memoirs do not ever talk about the Queen sending rakhi to him as a cry for help to save her kingdom. These memoirs have different reasons for his fight against Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat in 1535 CE.
Nevertheless, all the historical accounts do confirm the fact that the Emperor Humayun did rush to Chittorgarh in spite of being in the middle of Bengal battle. But, Humayun was late in reaching out to Chittorgarh as Bahadur Shah had already captured Chittorgarh for the second time.
In the anticipation of defeat, the Queen Karnavati and the other noble ladies of the court had already performed Jauhar — mass suicide—before the Mughal Emperor Hyumayun could reach Chittorgarh. However, Humayun took back Chittorgarh on his way back to Gujarat by capturing Mandu in 1535, and handed over the kingdom to the Queen’s son—Vikramaditya.
Roxana and King Porus
Alexander the Great, with his infamous, unbridled ambition to own the entire world, finally arrived in the Indian subcontinent. A fierce battle took place between him and the King Porus in 326 BC. This battle is known as the Battle of the Hydaspes.
King Porus ruled the region between the Jhelum River, and Chenab River in the Punjab region. The Jhelum and the Chinab were called the Hydaspes, and the Acesines in ancient times, respectively.
The Battle of the Hydaspes is believed to have taken place in the present-day Mong which is a village and Union Council of Mandi Bahauddin District in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Some accounts mention the place of the battle as the present-day Multan which is a city and capital of Multan Division in Punjab, Pakistan.
The event of the battle is consistent in all the historical records so far. However, the outcome of the battle seems to be different in various historical accounts. One historical version records that Alexander the Great lost the battle as his soldiers mutinied and went back to Macedonia.
The second historical version records that though Alexander the Great won the battle, he was so impressed by the courage and determination of the King Porus that he returned him his lost kingdom. He became friends with King Porus and also helped him expand his kingdom.
Whether Alexander the Great won or lost, many historical accounts do point out the fact that it had been indeed a tough battle for the mighty Alexander the Great. The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great which is a series of translations of the Ethiopic Histories of Alexander by the Pseudo Callisthenes and Other Writers gives us detailed account of this. The book is translated by E. A. Wallis Budge.
The blog Mandy’s ramblings cites an excerpt from this translation: “In the battle of Jhelum a large majority of Alexander’s cavalry was killed. Alexander realized that if he were to continue fighting he would be completely ruined….”
There were many reasons for the mighty Alexander the Great to get worried. First, he had already made so many pre war sacrifices which he was not accustomed to do.
Second, his soldiers were utterly tired, scared of the opponent elephant army, and the challenging muddy and hilly demography of the region. It is against this backdrop, his wife Roxana comes into the picture.
Driven by all this, Roxana finally reached out to Porus as she had heard about the sanctity of the sacred thread called rakhi. She was also aware of its cultural importance. So, she tied rakhi to Porus and took a promise from him that he would not harm her husband – Alexander the Great.
The King Porus graciously accepted this bond of protection, and kept his promise of protecting Alexander in the battlefield. It is difficult to say if Roxana actually tied rakhi to Porus. But, many historical accounts do mention this incident of Roxana reaching out to Porus with rakhi to safeguard her husband Alexander’s life and his army.
We cannot say if Porus willingly withdrew from the battle. However, as per Mandy’s ramblings, E. A. Wallis Budge in his translation The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great notes that Alexander “requested Porus to stop fighting. Porus true to Indian traditions did not kill the surrendered enemy. After this both signed a treaty, Alexander then helped him in annexing other territories to his kingdom.”
Porus’s battlefield skills coupled with his nobility, courage, sincerity and character might have won Alexander the Great’s otherwise stony heart. Famous Greek Historian Plutarch’s words in his book Life of Alexander are enough to substantiate this assumption. Plutarch writes:
Though there are many versions of this historical story, it unequivocally advocates the celebration of Raksha Bandhan—the bond of protection—irrespective of the culture, tradition, and socio-political dimensions of human life.
Maharani Jindan and the King of Nepal
The festival of Raksha Bandhan holds a very unique place in the Punjabi culture. It was the Sikh Khalsa armies in the 18th century that introduced the term Rakhi in Punjab. They promised to protect the farmers of the land from the Mughal and the Afghan armies in exchange of share in their produce.
Another very interesting historical event is that of Maharani Jindan’s sending rakhi to the King of Nepal. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the founder of the Sikh Empire and he and his wife Maharani Jindan were very fond of celebrating Raksha Bandhan.
Maharani Jindan sent rakhi to the King of Nepal who accepted her as his own sister. The King of Nepal honoured his vows to protect her and gave her refuge in Nepal when the Sikh Empire collapsed. For more information on this, read the section: Historical significance of Raksha Bandhan in Punjab in our earlier post: Raksha Bandhan Celebration in Punjabi Culture.
Annual fair in Amritsar
The annual fair of Rakhar Punya held at Baba Bakala in the district of Amritsar on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan reflects the importance of the festival of Raksha Bandhan in the historical and cultural fabric of Punjab.
It is a story of discovery of the true Guru by one honest trader Makhan Shah Lubana. This fair is held to commemorate this significant event in the religious Rakhi history of Punjab.
We have discussed about it elaborately in our earlier post: Raksha Bandhan Celebration in Punjabi Culture. To know more about it, read that post’s section: Cultural significance of Raksha Bandhan in Punjab.
Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal Partition of 1905
Mahatma Gandhi exploited religion to unite the people of India during the country’s struggle for freedom. Similarly, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore used the festival of Raksha Bandhan as an instrument to unite the Bengali Hindus and the Muslims during the partition of Bengal in 1905.
Bengal was leading India’s struggle for freedom in early 19th century. The state’s vehement protest against the British Raj was emerging as a significant threat to the British’s plan to make the state as the hub of their power.
It was to break these protests and the discontent of the people of Bengal that the British decided to divide Bengal on the religious grounds. The decision to partition the state was taken at a meeting between Lord Curzon and a Muslim delegation in Assam in June 1905.
The decision included separation of the Hindu majority in the regions of West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha from that of Muslim-dominated areas of Assam and Sylhet. The orders of partition were passed in August 1905, and they came into effect on October 16, 1905.
October 16, 1905 happened to be the full moon day of the month of Shravana as per the Hindu calendar, which was also celebrated as the festival of Raksha Bandhan across the state. Rabindranath Tagore decided to leverage the sentiments of this festival, and declared that day as the National Mourning Day.
He appealed people of both the communities to come together and tie rakhi to each other to demonstrate the brotherhood, solidarity, and unity to the British. Thousands of people from Bengal, Assam, and Dhaka got together on the banks of Ganges, and tied rakhi to each other.
Tagore started a Raksha Bandhan rally after taking a dip in the holy Ganges. This was followed by another rally to a mosque where people tied rakhis to the clerics without any inhibitions.
The extensive protests against the Bengal partition continued for six years in Kolkata, Dhaka, and Sylhet. The British Government was compelled to revoke the decision of Bengal partition in 1911. It was a significant victory in India’s nationalist movement for freedom from the Raj
Tagore wrote two of his most famous songs, Amar Sonar Bangla, meaning My Golden Bengal, and Banglar Mati Banglar Jol, meaning Soil of Bengal, Water of Bengal during that period. People sang them out loud throughout the processions.
When Tagore started Raksha Bandhan Utsav on October 16, 1905 to unite the people of both the communities, Banglar Mati Banglar Jol became the mantra of the movement. The notation of the song was given by Indira Debi Chowdhurani.
During those years of protest, people from both the communities just used to get together on the streets, community halls and tie rakhi to each other as a symbol of protest against the British Government’s divide and rule policy.
A. Majumdar in his book Tagore by Fireside describes Tagore’s use of the festival of Raksha Bandhan thus: “He transformed the religious tradition of Raksha Bandhan to a secular motif of unity among diversity and resisted Banga Bhanga (Partition of Bengal).”
Though Tagore’s Raksha Bandhan Utsav might have saved Bengal from getting divided on the religious grounds in the year of 1905, the state indeed got divided in the year of 1912 on the linguistic grounds. Bihar, Assam, and Odisha were separated from the Bengal Presidency on the grounds of the language that the people of these regions spoke.
The Bengal that remained united against all the forces saw its worst communal violence on August 16, 1946 after 35 years of Tagore’s Raksha Bandhan Utsav of 1905. This violence is also known as Direct Action Day or the 1946 Calcutta Killings, signaling the end of Tagore’s dream of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.
Nevertheless, Tagore’s ideals of Hindu-Muslim unity and brotherhood are still alive in the hearts of students and residents of Shantiniketan. They still tie rakhi to neighbours and common people to honour Tagore’s message of harmony, unity, and brotherhood.
No wonder then why the festival of Raksha Bandhan has a different meaning for the people of Bengal. It is much more than a symbol of love between brothers and sisters. The celebration of the festival of Raksha Bandhan in Bengal is a powerful social political statement that advocates religious harmony, brotherhood, and secular way of life.
Thus, Raksha Bandhan, perhaps, is recorded to be the first ever festival in the history of India which had been picked up by none other than the Nobel Laureate as a major weapon in the fight against the tyrannies of the Raj.
We have the exact sense of time and space in the Tagore narrative as the incident is of the recent past in comparison to other narratives that we explored. To know why the other stories do have some chronological or factual ambiguity in them, read our earlier post: Mythological Significance of Raksha Bandhan.
Do we then feel that there is an element of myth in the history, and an element of history in the myth? In other words, do we get the sense that the boundaries between the myth and the history often blur, and that there is no space between the two?
Devdutt Pattanaik explains this old debate quite interestingly:
Pattanaik, however, writes that those who are not fed on staple diet of “radical thought, can appreciate how myth (somebody’s truth) comes to be located between history (everybody’s truth) and fantasy (nobody’s truth).”
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Frequently Asked Questions about Historical Significance of Raksha Bandhan
What is Raksha Bandhan for Bengali people?
It is much more than the symbol of love between brothers and sisters. Since Tagore used the festival of Raksha Bandhan as a weapon against the British Raj, people of Bengal celebrate Raksha Bandhan as a festival of communal harmony and brotherhood. For more information on this, read this post’s section: Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal Partition of 1905.
Who sent rakhi to King Porus?
Alexander the Great’s wife is believed to have sent Rakhi to the Punjab King Porus to safeguard her husband’s life and to avoid impending defeat in the Battle of the Hydaspes. For more information on this, read this post’s section: Roxana and King Porus.
Who sent rakhi to Humayun?
The widowed Queen of Chittorgarh Karnavati is believed to have sent rakhi to the Mughal Emperor Humayun. She asked for Humayun’s help to save her kingdom from the second invasion of Gujarat’s Sultan Bahadur Shah. For more information on this, read this post’s section: Queen Karnavati and Humayun.
Who sent rakhi to the King of Nepal?
Maharani Jindan of Punjab sent rakhi to the King of Nepal who accepted her as his own sister. The King of Nepal honoured his vows to protect her and gave her refuge in Nepal when the Sikh Empire collapsed. For more information on this, read this post’s section: Maharani Jindan and the King of Nepal.
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