Diwali Indian Festival of Lights in Cathedral Square – Saturday 3 November and Sunday 4 November, 2pm to 9pm
Stage performances start at 5pm
Celebrate the Indian festival of Diwali with fabulous food and fun, in the heart of Christchurch. There will be Indian arts and crafts stalls and colourful classical and modern stage performances. The most popular of all Hindu festivals, Diwali is dedicated to the goddess Kali in Bengal and to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, in the rest of India. As with several other festivals, Diwali is associated with one of the stories about the destruction of evil by God in one of his many manifestations. In Jainism, where the festival is also known as Mahavira Nirvana, Diwali celebrates the attainment of Nirvana by Lord Mahavira. Diwali also marks the start of the Hindu New Year; goddess Lakshmi is therefore thanked on this day and everyone prays for a good year ahead. In many parts of India, it is the homecoming of King Rama of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile in the forest. The people of his kingdom welcomed Rama by lighting rows (avali) of lamps (deepa), thus its name, Deepawali, simply shortened to Diwali.
Diwali concert and workshop at Tūranga – Sunday 11 November 11am to 12.30pm
Celebrate Diwali with acclaimed local group Revathi Performing Arts. Enjoy a demonstration of Bharathanatyam, the most popular South Indian Classical Dance, then participate in a workshop. Bharathanatyam originated in the temples of South India thousands of years ago. Started as part of daily worship of the temple deity, this art form has evolved over the years to its current form. Free, no bookings required. TSB Space, Hapori | Community, Level 1, Tūranga
What is Diwali?
Diwali or dīpāvali, the festival of lights, is traditionally celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs with the rising of the new moon at the end of the month, Ashvin. However, in a country as diverse as India, where people from many different faiths live side by side, the festival is not limited to one particular faith for it represents the victory of light over darkness and the triumph of wisdom over ignorance. Throughout cities and villages the darkness will be symbolically turned back. Clay lamps (diya) will be lit in homes and shops, fireworks will be released into the sky and the streets will be filled with music. Read more in Simon’s blog post about Diwali.
The back roads of North India’s mofussil in the first half of the nineteenth century were not a place where you would wish to find yourself alone. Not only had the decline of the once mighty Mughal Empire led to instability, but the region had also suffered from the wars between the Marathas and the British East India Company. Poorly maintained, the roads were the haunts of dacoits (robbers) and wild animals.
Yet every year, once the monsoon rains had passed, many were forced to traverse these lonesome highways. Merchants and farmers left their homes to trade in nearby villages. Others departed to undertake pilgrimages to a distant shrines. Sepoys, who had spent the rainy season on leave, would hasten to return to their barracks.
Many never returned home. Having vanished without a trace, their families would spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to their loved ones.
John Cracroft Wilson
There are seven witnesses to his good character, and did I not know the loose manner in which all depositions are taken in almost every court…I should be inclined to think him an innocent man.
So wrote John Cracroft Wilson when faced with a prisoner who, by all appearances, seemed an ordinary man. Decades later, while living out his retirement by farming the land which would later become the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere, it is possible that he often reflected on such encounters. For unlike many of his social peers in colonial Christchurch, he had started his career by assisting in the eradication of a murderous practice which had brought misery and devastation to untold Indian families.
John Cracroft Wilson was born in Madras Presidency, India, in 1802. The son of a British judge, Alexander Wilson, and his wife, Elizabeth, he was later sent to England for his education. There he was schooled at the East India Company College at Haileybury where he would have learned the skills required for a colonial servant in India. In 1826 he furthered his education at Brasenose College, Oxford. He does not appear to have completed his studies, for two years later he married Elizabeth Wall.
Following this he returned to India where he entered into the Bengal Civil Service. It was in this capacity that he was eventually appointed as assistant commissioner to William Sleeman (1788-1856), the district officer in Jubbulpore, and, as a result, drawn into the sinister world of thuggee.
Throughout history, the threat of being attacked by bandits has often led to travellers joining together for protection. In India it was no different. Upon arriving at rest houses, travellers would seek out the company of those whose destination also lay along their route. Most often such unions resulted in the traveller safely reaching their journey’s end.
But for the unlucky few, they were marked for death the moment they accepted the offer to join a company of travellers. Confident that there was safety in numbers, they would spend weeks, sometimes even months, sharing the hardships of the road with their newly found companions.
To the unassuming traveller there was nothing extraordinary about their companions. Hindu or Muslim, they appeared no different from the usual farmers, merchants or priests that one might encounter on the road. Yet these men were in fact, thugs, practitioners of a particular form of highway murder known as thuggee.
Thugs differed from regular bandits in that they followed a strict code which regulated how the murder was to be carried out. Thugs would always lure their victim into a false sense of security and then, at a prearranged moment, strangle the victim with a cord. The body was then either buried or disposed of in a well. Anyone could be a victim: man, woman or child, Hindu or Muslim – they did not discriminate.
Hunting the stranglers
In 1830, it was the regular discovery of these bodies that caused William Sleeman to realise that something more than random highway murder was taking place. He saw these unsolved murders as a chance to raise his profile in the eyes of his superiors. Through methodical investigation, interrogation and meticulous record keeping, he created a policing system that was effective enough to track down the gangs of thugs which were operating in or, at the edge of, British territory in India.
In 1832 Sleeman put Cracroft Wilson in charge of operations in the doab region and made him his representative at Etwah. The role required Cracroft Wilson to carefully investigate those men who were brought before him on charges of thuggee, especially since those who were accused often appeared to be respectable family men and contributing members of society.
Those thugs who were found guilty of murder were summarily executed, while others were transported to the Andaman Islands. Some turned against their fellow thugs by becoming informers. In return for assisting British officials in tracking down their former colleagues, these men escaped the death penalty but would spend the remainder of their lives in prison.
Although they found the crimes of these reformed thugs abhorrent, working in such close capacity with the informers, and recognising that they behaved no different than ordinary men in their daily lives, caused some British officials to develop a strange sense of respect for the former thugs. Cracroft Wilson even commented that one of his informers, Makeen Lodhee, was “one of the best men I have known!”’
It was the publication of Sleeman’s report on these criminals and their methods which led to thuggee entering the Western imagination. The thugs were portrayed as a highly organised secret cult, fanatical worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kālī, to whom they sacrificed their victims. Post-colonial scholarship has sought to undo some of these misconceptions but they still remain, as can be found in the ridiculous portrayal of thuggee in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. However, Sleeman’s work on thuggee remains with us today in that the ruthlessness and lack of remorse which these criminals possessed caused the word thug to enter the English language.
By 1840 Sleeman was able to proclaim that thuggee had been removed from Indian society.
John Cracroft Wilson continued to work as a magistrate before taking leave in 1854 to visit Australia and then New Zealand, where he purchased land which would later become the suburb of Cashmere. He would later settle permanently in Christchurch, accompanied by his Indian servants, for whom he built Old Stone House.
Cracroft Wilson was certainly a man with personality flaws. Many in colonial Christchurch considered him to be rude, abrupt, and arrogant. Yet his role in the eradication of thuggee, and thus bringing to justice those men who murdered without any regard for their victims, should not be overlooked.
Do you wish to extend your appetite beyond your usual Indian takeaway order? Perhaps you are intrigued by the rhythmic dance moves which so often feature in Bollywood movies? Or maybe you need to learn some basic Hindi for a friend’s wedding in Mumbai? This week marks the celebration of Diwali. Here at Christchurch City Libraries we have many resources on offer to help you learn more about this auspicious occasion and displays and crafts on at libraries.
Diwali or dīpāvali, the festival of lights, is traditionally celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs with the rising of the new moon at the end of the month, Ashvin. However, in a country as diverse as India, where people from many different faiths live side by side, the festival is not limited to one particular faith for it represents the victory of light over darkness and the triumph of wisdom over ignorance. Throughout cities and villages the darkness will be symbolically turned back. Clay lamps (diya) will be lit in homes and shops, fireworks will be released into the sky and the streets will be filled with music.
As a result of the Indian diaspora, the festival is now celebrated worldwide. The first Indians to settle in Christchurch arrived in the 1850s with Sir John Cracroft Wilson (though it is possible that Indians working on whaling ships may have visited the region at an earlier date). Although the number of migrants started to grow in the first half of the twentieth century, Diwali celebrations in Christchurch initially remained limited to small community and family events.
In recent years the Indian Social and Cultural Club (ISCC) has been responsible for bringing Diwali to the wider Christchurch community with their Diwali – Indian Festival of Lights event. The first public celebration was held in 2010 at Victoria Square. Since then the festival has been held at Horncastle Arena. Sponsored by Singapore Airlines, it has grown in size and variety. This year’s event is on Saturday 22 October, from 3 to 9pm.
For many, a highlight of the Christchurch event are the dance performances. Various local groups, from university student dance clubs to dance companies, whose performances range from traditional to Bollywood fusion, take part. Many of these groups spend months preparing their routines for the event.
Another draw card is the variety of food available. Tired of tikka masala? Then try street stall food such as pav bhaji and aloo chaat. Sweets are also an important part of Diwali. Make an effort to track down gulab jamun (dumplings soaked in a sugary rose water syrup), or barfi (sweetened milk mixed with pistachios and left to set).
While at the festival you will hear many different languages being spoken. In fact, there are 122 major languages and 1599 minor languages to be found in India. However, Christchurch City Libraries can prepare you for this challenge. All Christchurch City Libraries users are free to use Mango Languages to learn a range of Indian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.
Holi is an annual celebration and Hindu religious festival that originates in India. It traditionally occurs at the end of Northern Hemisphere winter, at the full moon in March. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, a day to forgive, look ahead and come together as a community.
In Christchurch those wanting to take part in the Holi festival can attend the celebration at The Commons on 5 March. This is a chance for people to gather together, eat good food, dance and enjoy each others company.
One of the most striking Holi traditions involves throwing and smearing coloured powders on each other. This stems from the story of Krishna, who had blue skin, and the fair-skinned Radha. In the story, Krishna, on the advice of his mother, colours Radha’s face. In Hindu tradition Radha is Krishna’s supreme beloved. Colours also symbolise people becoming equals, whether they are old or young, friends or enemies, rich or poor.
The traditional game of matki phod will also be played, in which small teams compete to make human pyramids in order to reach a container of yoghurt. This is also based on stories of Krishna’s youthful exploits.
Christchurch Holi Festival 2016
Where and when: The Commons, 70 Kilmore St, 11am – 3pm
Price: $10, free for children under 10 years (coloured powders are included in the ticket price. More will be available to purchase if you go wild with them and run out)
Tip: Wear old clothes (and shoes) that you don’t mind getting stained by colours.
Author Jean Watson, who was recently featured in the documentary Aunty and the Star People, died in Wellington yesterday 28 December 2014.
Ms Watson wrote several novels. Stand in the Rain, which was published in 1965 and which was partly based on her marriage to writer Barry Crump, was her first and most well-known.
However, in the last 28 years or so, her focus was split between writing and philanthropic work in Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where she set up, funded and helped run a home for disadvantaged children. It was there that she acquired the affectionate name of Jean Aunty. She wrote about the experience in Karunai Illam: The Story of an Orphanage.
My colleague Lisa was lucky enough to see Jean Watson at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival in August. Lisa’s blog post about the session is fascinating. While the focus of the talk was on Watson’s involvement in Karunai Illam, as depicted in Aunty and the Star People, I particularly enjoyed reading Jean’s comments on a number of New Zealand luminaries, including her description of Dennis Glover as a “very sort of sarcastic, open person”. He apparently called her a “middle-aged Ophelia”.
Back in the 50s I grew up in a largely white and mono-cultural Christchurch – prosperous, but bland and somewhat stultifying. Perhaps because of this, the variety offered by other cultures and countries has always attracted me and the lure of difference has always been an influence on my life.
There were not many opportunities to interact with those from other cultures, but those that occurred often had a huge impact simply because they were so rare and intriguing.
One vivid encounter with a lovely Indian woman on a Wellington tram made a great impression on me when I was six. She was wearing a colourful sari and she stood out from her low key, muted surroundings and seemed very alive. I thought she was wonderful and I wanted to know all about her. Slight though it was, this incident made impression an on me and influenced my later interest in India, leading ultimately to a decision to study for a degree in Asian History at university.
I’m still intrigued by the country and happily we have a lovely selection of DVDs to allow easy indulgence of my interests. My favourite is The Story of India by Michael Woods which gives beautiful and very watchable account of Indian history, India which follows Sanjeev Bhaskar (of the Kumars at no. 42 fame) on a trip “home” is well worth a watch and the controversial and touching film Water gives an insight into the ancient practice of widows being excluded from society. Ancient India covers the very early cultures such as the Indus Valley and there are many others . Naturally we also have lots of fiction and non-fiction to read as well.
I wonder what influence such encounters have on the young people of today? Does the promise of the exotic still intrigue? Are we raising a generation that will be truly international, interested in and at home in any continent? Or has daily contact with other cultures simply made them a part of the world that is just taken for granted?
William Dalrymple’s presentation The Last Mughal was the last major session of the festival and what a way to go out. The man is a wonderful writer and a great performer. His voice swoops up and down in emphasis, his turn of phrase is dramatic and the history he recounts is fascinating and tragic.
The court of the last Mughal emperor in Delhi was a place of little political power or financial wealth in 1857 but it was a place of great cultural wealth. Dalrymple described it as like the age of Shakespeare for South Asia. The emperor himself, now very old, was a fine poet. It was also a place where Muslim and Hindu cultures met harmoniously.
The rise of religious fundamentalism and the arrogance of conquerors that beset the British East India Company (think Microsoft with an army says Dalrymple) lead to actions which precipitated a calamatous uprising and the eventual destruction of the Mughals and their beautiful city Delhi. The British, lead by people whom he describes as imperial psychopaths were ruthless in their crushing of opposition.
Backed by some lovely slides illustrating the art, the people and the places Dalrymple held us absorbed in his tale and finished by reading a beautiful poem attributed to the emperor as he lay in a British prison and one which is still widely read in India today.