“By remembering our (dead) ancestors, we are securing the health, prosperity and well being of the family for many generations to come… In India this period is known as ‘Pitr Paksh’. I had a faint recollection of hearing something similar from an Italian friend last year – ‘All Saints Day'”
The author of the post is Medhika
But why isn’t Papa eating chicken these days? I asked my mother matter-of-factly in one of our mundane everyday telephone conversations. As far as I knew, Navratris were still a few days away and in my mildly rigid Hindu household there was no reason to stop cooking meat so many days in advance. My mother explained to me very calmly how the reason for the abstinence is because the period of Pitr Paksh is going on and as a mark of respect to his father, my father is observing certain rules of conduct in this time period.
The significance of ‘Pitr Paksh’
A quick Google search revealed that Pitr Paksh, which literally translates to Fortnight of the Ancestors, is the 16 day lunar period in the Hindu calendar leading up to the Navratris. It is the time to remember and honour our ancestors especially through food offerings. Generally the male members of the family, through numerous rituals and sacrifices, pay their respect to the dead. It is believed that by remembering our dead ancestors, we are securing the health, prosperity and well being of the family for many generations to come. Only by recognizing the past contributions of our ancestors can we move ahead in life. Pitr Paksh was the time to reflect upon the sacrifices and struggles of our ancestors in getting wherever we are today as a race.
All Saints Day in Italy
While reading about this particular subject, I had a faint recollection of hearing something similar from an Italian friend last year when I had casually quipped about Italy giving us way too many national holidays. Since it was my first year living in Italy, I was still new to the customs and practices of the place. Religious holidays apart from Christmas and Easter!
What? Why did we blame India for having too many holidays when even in the Western world, things did not seem too different, I had wondered back then.
A second Google search confirmed my hunch! There was indeed an Italian festival called All Saints’ Day (La Festa di Ognissanti) on November 1 which was a day to honour all the Cathollic Saints. It was followed by the All Souls’ Day (Giorno Dei Morti) on November 2 which was a day to honour every departed soul. It was a day when families visited the graves of their near and dear ones to honour their memory. Preparations for this day began well in advance by tidying up the family plots and decorating the tombs with candles and flowers. In some parts of Italy, families would eat a picnic at the graveside, as a way of sharing a meal with the departed. In other parts, families would put an extra seat at the dining table as a mark of respect for the departed soul.
In the region of Piedmont, the place which I call home, families generally visit the cemetery in the evening leaving their houses unlocked and with food on the dining table so that spirits can come and help themselves to dinner in what was once their own home.
Parallels in Cultures across the World
The more I read about it, the more I could see some clear patterns. Since times immemorial, before the advent of Christianity, in the months preceding winter, cultures and civilizations have performed rituals and celebrated festivals to honour their dead. From Mexico to the Philippines, there is evidence of marking days to pay obeisance to the dead. Perhaps it is not just a great coincidence that before the onset of winter and before the celebration of major festivals the world over (Diwali, Christmas, etc.) mankind has always remembered those who have left the world and are no longer a part of familial gatherings in times of merrymaking. Perhaps mankind as a whole has always been receptive and respectful of its past.
What this teaches Us
In today’s troubled times, it is a great lesson for all of us that an attitude of gratitude will take us longer in life. Recognizing the fact that wherever we are today is because of the combined efforts of all our previous generations will not only lesson our ego and deflate our overconfidence, it will strengthen our belief in the power of teamwork and co-operation.
For it is only if we live with an attitude of gratitude that we can comprehend our past and create a vision for our future.
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