In the pre-dawn dusk, the pilgrims arrive. After crossing the narrow bridge that spans the Salinadi River, they enter the inner sanctum at the Sankhu temple complex. Although the moon is full, the mist from the river hides its cool brilliance. About 200 women devotees gather around fires in the inner sanctum, absorbing its warmth before taking their first holy bath in the cold Himalayan stream. Today marks the first day of the annual month-long festival that is dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Shree Swasthani.
Although Hinduism as it is practiced today is generally a patriarchal system, its ancient roots are matriarchal. Unlike most major religions, Hinduism has a multitude of masculine and feminine deities that are worshipped and receive equal veneration from its devotees. In the 20th century, the nuclear family structure has become the “fashion,” influencing social mores and customs in traditional societies, eventually breaking down matriarchal communities and practices. However, in the Hindu tradition matriarchal principles and traditions still exist.
The Swasthani Festival (Swasthani Puja) is one example of a matriarchal tradition that survives. The principal participants are women who have temporarily left their homes for a month of worship and fasting. The men who are present at this event play a subordinate role, assisting the women pilgrims during their daily ascetic routines. The married women who participate do so because their families at home, including their husbands, have taken on all of the familial responsibilities while they are away.
After witnessing this event for the past 3 years, what intrigues me most is not only the fervor of the devotees, but also the enthusiasm and devotion of the crowds that visit the festival every day, supporting the women during their rigorous endeavor. In this series, I want to show how all participants — the pilgrims and throngs of observers — are integral parts or principal players, acting out an ancient ritual or drama.