Although I grew up in Madras (now called Chennai), my mother didn't perform Varalakshmi puja, and so I only had a nodding acquaintance with it. This is the first difference between Varalakshmi puja and other more-inclusive Hindu rituals, such as those performed on holidays like Diwali. Predominantly celebrated in South India, Varalakshmi puja is more like a rite of passage that has to be earned--and, the devout would say, deserved. You have to be initiated into it by an elder woman, preferably your mother or mother-in-law, in order to do the puja. (Puja is the Sanskrit word for religious ritual.)
My mother and grandmother never got initiated, and so Varalakshmi puja was never performed in our household. It was a different story in my husband's family, where the women celebrated the it with great sincerity and joy. One year, my husband's aunt Bala asked if she could come to our apartment in New York and do the puja. Of course, we said yes. At that time, Aunt Bala had just received her Ph.D. in special education from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she worked in New York as a counselor for children with special needs. Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, she would kneel down before a wheelchair and speak to a child with Down's syndrome in the most normal of voices. I knew her as an experienced, if harried, professional who wasn't fazed by the loud erratic behavior of her mentally challenged patients. This time, however, I got to see another side of her. She came to our apartment the night before the puja, clad in a demure sari and armed with silver utensils and all the necessary accoutrements for the ritual.
Varalakshmi puja is always performed on a particular day in August or September--the Friday immediately following the full moon in the month of Shravanam. That evening, my husband and Aunt Bala went to the Wholesale Flower Market in downtown Manhattan, where they stocked up on lilies, roses, and other fragrant flowers by the dozen. Like all pujas for Hindu goddesses, this one involves lots of floral decorations. Our tiny apartment smelled wonderful that night.
After dinner, Aunt Bala and I swept and mopped my small puja-room, or altar. (It was actually an empty TV cabinet that I had converted into a puja-room.) We drew designs with rice flour on our wood floor; these traditional drawings, called kolam, are believed to bring prosperity to a household. Aunt Bala took a lovely silver pot, which we call kalasham, and put all kinds of "auspicious things" inside: turmeric-stained raw rice, a few quarters (money is auspicious in Hinduism), some betel nuts, a lemon, and a small packet of vermilion powder. Some women put bangles, a comb, and a mirror into the kalasha-pot, but Aunt Bala kept it simple. The assumption is that devotees ought to put in all the "womanly things" that they believe Goddess Lakshmi will enjoy.
Aunt Bala placed a clutch of mango leaves that we had bought in the Little India neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., on top of the silver pot, and over it a large coconut. She used a thread to attach a silver-relief of the goddess's face to the coconut. We decorated the silver face with black kohl lining her eyes and a red bindi on her forehead. We draped rose garlands over the silver kalasham, surrounded it with flower-vases, and left it overnight.
The next morning, Aunt Bala woke up at dawn. She needed to cook five kinds of prasadam, or food-offerings, for the goddess. These prasadams vary depending on the household and woman. Thankfully, two of Aunt Bala's prasadams were quite easy. First we made cooked rice; then idlis, which are rice-and-lentil dumplings that are steamed in a pressure-cooker. Payasam or kheer is also traditionally offered, as well as vadas, which are spicy deep-fried lentil-doughnuts. Finally, we sat down to assemble the modaks, which are like dumplings with a sweet filling of shredded coconut and jaggery (unrefined sugar).
By 9 a.m., Aunt Bala was ready for the puja. She carried a taped recording of all the mantras and their accompanying instructions. My husband and I watched as she chanted mantras and offered flowers, fruits, and food to the goddess. It was a short puja, by Hindu standards. An hour or so later, she was done. We shared the prasadam and off we went to our respective jobs.
I now live in India, and here Varalakshmi puja acquires an altogether different flavor. For one thing, it is a school holiday. The streets are rife with different vendors selling garlands, bangles, and turmeric-stained yellow coconuts. There is a festive air. This year, I visited my mother-in-law in Kerala to participate in this holiday. My mother-in-law learned the puja from her mother-in-law and someday I will learn it from her. That is the implicit assumption, anyway.
I have to admit that this puja daunts me. Like all Hindu rituals, it is elaborate and involves what Hindus call "shraddha," or sincerity. Shraddha implies, among other things, purity of mind and body. Women take an oil-bath on the day of the puja and don't eat a thing till they finish it. The night before, my mother-in-law personally washes a sari that she saves year after year to wear on puja-day and hangs it out to dry. Once she dons this sari, she doesn't touch anyone who is "impure"--meaning people who haven't had a bath--until she finishes her puja.
Shraddha also implies sincere effort. Most women make all the food-offerings themselves; my mother-in-law actually rehearses the menu a few days before the puja, to avoid any mistakes. Some younger women take pills so that their monthly menstrual period is postponed, because it is customary not to perform any religious rituals or even enter the puja-room when one is menstruating. There is no room for error, in other words, and that is what daunts me about this puja.
My mother-in-law holds similar views. Although she is a rationalist who has studied in Harvard and travelled the world as a women's right advocate, educator, and manager, her faith lays claim to a large part of her heart. Come August, my mother-in-law marks the date for Varalakshmi Puja.
This year, my mother-in-law and I welcomed Goddess Lakshmi into our house by singing a traditional song, "Lakshmi Raave Ma Entikki," which means, "Lakshmi, please come into my house" in the Telegu language. We carried the silver kalasha-pot into my mother-in-law's spacious puja-room and set it down on a bed of rice. My father-in-law officiated as priest and master of ceremonies. The previous day, he had decorated the puja-room with Christmas lights, flower garlands, strings of mango-leaves, and young banana trees on either side of the entrance. The whole effect was quite stunning.
At 10:15, we all sat down to do the puja. My two daughters, ages 9 and 5, inheritors of this faith, were forcibly conscripted into the ritual. They had been happily watching the Cartoon Network all morning as the adults in the household rushed around getting ready. My mother-in-law ended the puja by tying turmeric-stained twine around the wrists of all the women in the household--me, my daughters, and finally herself. This was our protective amulet and a mark of our faith, which we couldn't remove for a week or so. It was well past noon by then and we all fell on the delicious food-offerings.
But the celebration was not over, as it had been when Aunt Bala left for work immediately after finishing the puja in New York. This time, about a dozen ladies from our neighborhood visited us that evening dressed in their finest silks. We offered them sweets and urged them to sing for the goddess. When they stood up to leave, we gave them haldi (turmeric or yellow sandalwood) and kumkum (vermilion powder), which are traditionally offered to married women,along with tiny photo-frames--souvenirs that my mother-in-law had bought in Florida when visiting her daughter. The ladies loved the American keepsake.
It was late when the last guest left. "Perhaps next year when both kids are in full-time school, I can initiate you into this puja," my mother-in-law ventured. That means she will teach me the mantras, and which I will repeat after her while mimicking her actions in performing this puja instead of just observing her as I did this year.
I smiled and nodded. I knew that it would take me a while to get the hang of the rituals; it would take me many years to perfect the menu and the ritual food-offering. But this seemed like a small price to pay for the faith that the goddess inspired in my mother-in-law, Aunt Bala, and legions of South Indian women.
I took a deep breath. I was ready for the plunge.