Harella Festival: Be Well, Live Well, Stay Well

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I received the invitation on one of my rainiest day of conducting interviews in Kasiyalekh village. I’d been walking from house to house with my friend and translator Tulsi as well as the president of the local Self Help Group, an active woman and teacher named Munnidi who I’d interviewed several weeks earlier. All of the women we met with were rained out of work and finally had plenty of time to just sit around and talk, so that’s exactly what we did- often a group of us sitting, drinking chai in the aftermath of an interview, chatting about other subjects. Munnidi, delightful and energetic as always, urged Tulsi with a flood of questions for me- “Do they grow apples in the US? What are American weddings like? When will you get married?” and finally, “Will you come celebrate Harella with my family?”

Harella is a Kumanoi festival to bring prosperity, good luck, and a good harvest. It is very unique to this region and is very family-oriented, so I was really touched to be invited to celebrate with Munnidi. Tulsi clapped her hands in anticipation, beaming at me encouragingly. I responded with an emphatic, “Hoi hoi!” or Kumanoi for “Yes yes!” (Note: it’s difficult enough trying to learn some Hindi while I’m here, but I’m also doing my best to incorporate the local language, Kumanoi. My mind’s a little scrambled but it’s worth seeing villagers’ warm reactions whenever I make earnest attempts in their language.)

Early in the morning at Munnidi’s house, Tulsi and I turned up and made puris with her daughter in the kitchen (essentially fried chappatis that are usually eaten on special occasions). We then watched as they cut the Harella plant in preparation for the Harella exchange. This unusual looking plant is a mix of rice, wheat, and other seeds that is grown ten days prior to the festival in completely darkness, usually covered by a box in a corner of the home. The bright yellow stalks grow about one foot before they are cut on the festival day and kept in heaps on a tray.

So here’s how the exchange goes: two family members face each other, usually squatting on the floor, holding Harella stalks in their hands. They then address each other with three touches of the stalks – once by the other’s feet, then at the waist, then at the head – while correspondingly reciting the phrase, “Jeere, Jagre, Betre.” Tulsi translated this to mean roughly, “Be well, Live Well, Stay Well.” This exchange is repeated twice for each of the family members, and stalks are even kept for family members who aren’t present until the next time they visit. The gesture is simple, sweet, and loaded with well wishes.

I ended up revisiting several of the women I’ve interviewed and spent time with in the village on past visits, Over the course of the day, I managed to unsuccessfully deny offers of food and sweets, acquire new “Kumaoni mothers” and “Kumanoi grandmothers” along the way, and perform the Harella exchange in all of the households. I asked for Tulsi’s help in adding a new phrase to my arsenal to express my gratitude to all of my new Kumanoi families:

In Hindi:“Aj bahut maja aiya!”

In Kumaoni: “Aj bhut maj a!”

And in English: “I very much enjoyed today!”

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About Shumita Basu

A host/producer/reporter at WNYC Radio