CELEBRATION OF ALL CREATION:
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GAHAMBAR
The genesis and provenance of the Gahambar – like the genesis and provenance of much else – is shrouded in the mists of time.
The Gahambar as it was observed and celebrated centuries ago, was doubtless vastly different from the Gahambar as it is now understood, observed and celebrated. The essentials, however, remain unchanged. The Gahambar continues to be now, as it was then, a time for the community to come together, to feast, to bond!
The origins and meaning of the word
Gahambar’ orGhambar’ vary. According to the Iranians, the word is
Gahanbar’, derived from the Persian, signifying storage of food for the lean winter months. Another version describes the wordGahambar’ as a time for gathering of food and people. Yet another version places the literal meaning as
the proper season’. Some scholars credit the provenance to the Pahlavi wordGaasamber’.
Gaas’ (orGah’?) meaning time, and `ambar’ meaning the getting together of people. Consensus evidently boils down to: a time for gathering of food and people, in various seasons.
According to some scholars, the Gahambars are said to be instituted by the Prophet Zarathushtra himself, and are stated to be the only `festivals’ mentioned in the Avesta. King Jamsheed is generally credited with having intitiated the Gahambar Ceremony. Intitially agricultural in nature, the Gahambars subsequently assumed religious and social dimensions, as also cosmogonical ones.
Each year celebrates six Gahambars, over a period of five days each. The six Gahambars represent the changing seasons, as also the six stages of the evolution of the Universe, reflecting the six `primordial creations’ of Ahura Mazda:
- Maidyozarem Gahambar, the mid-spring feast, (Heaven), celebrated from, in terms of the Gregorian Calendar, April 30 to May 4;
- Maidyoshahem Gahambar, the mid-summer feast, (Water), celebrated from June 29 to July 3 ;
- Paitishahem Gahambar, the harvest feast, (Earth), celebrated from September 12 to September 16;
- Ayathrem Gahambar, the herding feast, (Flora, Vegetation), celebrated from October 12 to October 16;
- Maidyarem Gahambar, the mid-winter feast, (Fauna, Animal life) celebrated from December 31 to January 4;
- Hamaspathmaidyem Gahambar, the feast of all souls, (Man), celebrated from March 16 to March 20.
Each Gahambar is celebrated over five days. The first four days are devoted to prayers and liturgical services, beginning with the Benediction Ceremony, the Afrin, (Afrinagan, Afrinameh), prayer in love and praise and remembrance of our ancestors. The fifth day is meant for communal interaction and feasting.
Today, to the uninitiated, the word Gahambar generally does mean just that: community get together, over a feast. And rarely is a Gahambar celebrated over five days. However, that does not – and should not – detract from either its significance, or its purpose, or its importance in the lives of present day Zoroastrians across the world. Five-day Gahambars six times a year would perhaps be difficult to observe, in modern times. However, regular observance of the Gahambar, even for a day, would be an excellent way for the community to meet, to bond, to resolve differences, and to share ideas, find solutions to issues, interact, aided by good food, good wine, and camaraderie.
Since time immemorial, the Gahambar commemorates the celebration of brotherhood, (not to forget sisterhood too!!!), of charity, of good deeds, of truth, together with the celebration of All Creation, the different seasons of the year, the Universe itself, and of course, the Creator of All: Ahura Mazda. The Zoroastrian religion does not frown on celebration, and indeed gives an important place to food and victuals. In all our rituals and liturgical services, food for all living beings, food also for the souls (as distinct from the `soul’) holds an important place: [jashan ni chaashni, satum nu-bhonu,(when the favourite delicacies of the dear departed are offered together with the prayers), and the custom of keeping gai nu daran, kutra no buk, chakli no daano] … etc. Fasting or deprivation has no place in Zoroastrian tenets, and scholars believe that the Prophet himself laid an obligation on his followers to celebrate the High Feasts. Thus, meals in every season are enjoyed in remembrance of the beneficent Creator, who has created such plenitude for the maintenance and health and happiness of every living creature, and also the Archangels. It is believed that the aroma of good food attracts Spiritual Beings, and that during the High Feasts, or the Gahambars, spiritual and physical beings together partake of the victuals laid out.
The Gahambar is also a great equalizer. Rich and poor, learned and not-so-learned, young and old, get together, pray together, sit together, eat together, laugh together, enjoy together. The funding of the Gahambar traditionally has been done by those who can afford it; meals were prepared together by volunteers, and served by volunteers. It is a time for the community to get together, forgetting old grouses and grudges, to reaffirm old friendships, forge new ones, and come together in unity and harmony, for the prosperity and well being of all. The importance of the various acts of piety, including radih (being charitable) and rastih (being truthful) is re-indoctrinated into the minds of all, and one is re-oriented with one’s religious and social roots.
So much for the
food for the soul’. What aboutfood for the body’? And let’s not knock
food for the body, folks! Lin Yutang, in his wonderfully iconoclastic collection of Essays,With Love and Irony’, quotes Lord Balfour as `wisely saying’ that “… the human brain is as much an organ for seeking food as the pig’s snout …”, placing robust common sense and practical survival above abstruse, abstract thinking. We Parsees, of course, are great ones for good food!
So, what would the menu of a traditional Gahambar consist of? The good old papeta-ma-ghosh, it appears! Together with the traditional Iranian soup, aush, and the siroj, or fried bread. There would also be kharu-ghosh, ambakalio, kachumbar. And the ajil or lork, i.e. a mix of seven different dried fruit and nuts; pistachio, roasted chickpeas, almonds, hazelnuts, figs, apricots and raisins. Variants could include roasted squash or melon seeds, walnuts, cashews, mulberries, etc.
Nowadays at most Gahambars, one is served the traditional lagan-nu-bhonu, or the sagan-no dhaan-dal-patio, or fish curry-rice, accompanied by bharuchi akuri, bhaji-dana-nu-ghosh, patties, etc. Rarely, if ever, is the service done by volunteers, or even, for that matter, the actual cooking, the preparation of the meal. Nor is every Gahambar necessarily one of the six mentioned above. There is also the khushaali-no-Gahambar, sometimes sponsored by one or several Humdin, for a celebratory purpose, or a Gahambar to commemorate something or someone. There is both precedent and authority for that.
One of the most moving stories related to a Commemorative Gahambar, I have come to learn from my mother, Homai Wandrewala: That of the vaal-no-Gahambar, or the Variav behedin-nu-parabh. This is connected with the historic and heroic Jung-e-Variav,or the Battle of Variav, fought sometime during the late 11th Century, or early 12th century AD. The small village of Variav, near Surat, on the banks of the river Tapti, (now part of Greater Surat), had a largely Parsi Population. A Rajput Price who had suzerainty over Variav, the Raja of Ratanpur, was enraged with the Parsees of Variav, because they defied him, and refused to pay the unjust, excessive tribute / revenue (mehesul), which he would forcibly collect. In order to enforce his unjust demand, he would send mercenaries, (called
garasias’), to claim the mehesul. Generally, these garasias were repulsed by the brave Parsi men of Variav. One day, the menfolk had gone off to a far-off village, for a vaal and toddy party, leaving behind the women and the elderly. It was on that fateful day that the garasias decided to pay another visit to Variav. The women, pre-warned of the impending attack from the clouds of dust across the river raised by the horses’ hoofs, decided to try and repulse the garasias themselves in the absence of the menfolk. Led by a brave lady named Navaz, the women donned their men’s riding attire, put on visors on their faces, and got astride horses with whatever arms they could lay their hands on. Indeed, they fought so bravely, that the garasias were repulsed and started riding back towards the bridge fording the river, when one of them happened to turn around and noticed the earring on the ear of a woman, whose visor had shifted askew during the fight. Realizing that they were being beaten by women, the garasias returned with renewed frenzy. The women, apprehending molestation by the garasias if caught alive, en masse jumped into the river and drowned. The garasias then forcibly collected the mehesul from the elderly folk of Variav, who narrated what had happened to the young men when they returned. It appears that on that day every year thereafter, the men of Variav, to commemorate the bravery of their women, held what they called the vaal-no-gahambar, or the Jung-e-Variav Gahambar, at which only vaal was served. Apparently, this was on roz Ashishvang, mah Ferverdeen. There is some uncertainty as to the historical authenticity of this story. Apparently however, there is mention of the Jung-e-Variav in one of the Disa Pothis (Family Death Register) unearthed by Dr. Sir Jivanji Mody, during his researches. It appears that most families then kept aDisa Pothi’ which, apart from giving details and genealogies of individual families, also was a repository of much historical information.
As said, generally, the Gahambars are funded by those who can either afford to or wish to, the rich, the affluent, the charitable. Gahambars are also funded by contributions collected from the community at large. While there are funds specially created for the holding of the Gahambars, there are also Gahambars held to raise funds for worthwhile charitable purposes, all over the world, wherever the diasporic Parsees have made their homes. And the charities are not necessarily limited to the country or place in which the Gahambar is hosted, the charitable objective may well be in a different country!
Today, our community is at the crossroads. Divergent views, notions, perceptions – including about what is doctrinally right or wrong – are creating avoidable divides within the community, and from what I can gather, (subject to correction, please!), especially in India, the `mother country’. This is something all of us can ill afford, even those living outside India. We need a unity of understanding, some commonality of perception, and a tolerance of differing views and perceptions, so as to hold together. We need to count our blessings and curb our cribs. We have enough, within our community, for the well-being of all. Perhaps we need to revive the tradition of the Gahambar, holding one at least for half a day, six times a year. Then, uplifted by prayer, soothed by wine, replete with good food, charmed with camaraderie, perhaps – just perhaps – the divisions will not seem so divisive any more, and rapprochement seem not impossible. Perhaps then we can truly reaffirm our basic Faith, even while maintaining our individual identities, so that the ethos and the identity of the Community is not lost in the infighting of individuals.
Jamva chaloji, saune salamati!
GAHAMBAR NU PAPETA MA GHOSH