Finding a Fig Tree

-Jinisha Lodaya, Padmini Chakravarti

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Auspicious objects to be offered to the well, being blessed at the household shrine.

Date: 22nd December 2016

Source: Padmini Chakravarti nee Quinny

The sun has set on the western coast in Mobai. Wedding rituals are underway in the Uttan gaothan, an urban village inhabited majorly by the East Indians - an indigenous community from Mumbai. The bridal squad consisting of her close friends and family has set out to fetch water to bathe the bride, from a well in the vicinity of an Umbar (Indian fig – Ficus Racemosa) tree. This pre-wedding ritual is known as the Umbracha Pani, (literally, water from the fig tree). The groom’s family follows this tradition too.

 

Now you may wonder what a fig tree has to do with well water? Traditionally, trees of the Ficus species have been used for water divination, to help decide where to plant crops or dig wells. The bark of Indian fig trees can be rubbed with a stone and water, to make a paste that helps get rid of blemishes. It is believed that the roots of the fig tree would infuse the well water with skin healing properties. Thus, the rituals incorporated natural practices for looking one's best by bathing the bride/groom on their wedding day with the Umbracha Pani.

 

Led by a 16 piece Brass Band, the enthusiastic bridesmaids start the procession from the bride-to-be`s house carrying on their heads a ‘ghata’ (metal pitcher) in which are placed auspicious mango leaves and a Srifal (coconut). The offerings are first presented to the household shrine to be blessed before being taken to the well. Flanked by family and friends, the girls dance along with the procession, only stopping for an occasional selfie.

 

Upon reaching the well various auspicious offerings are made as a sign of respect, such as flowers (marigold), betel nuts, fried delicacies such as phugyas (dough balls) and even a glass of alcohol. Earlier the alcohol was made locally from the fermented sap of the toddy tree. Today usually a glass of whiskey or wine, bought from a local shop, is offered. Prayers are said, candles are lit and the Srifal (coconut) from the ghata is broken and tossed into the well along with the above-mentioned goodies.

 

Water is then drawn, strained, and carried away in the ghata by the bridesmaids, back to the house of the bride. Next day in the morning, a special mandap (informal stage) is built in the open space outside the house. Here is placed a chowki or a low height stool, on which the bride must stand and the ritualistic bath ceremony is performed using the water drawn from the well the night before. 

 

Nowadays, let alone the water being beneficial for the skin, the well water may border on being unfit for human consumption. Other than religious paraphernalia such as clay lamps, garlands, food offerings and printed images of gods etc., the community wells are now littered with all sorts of garbage from plastic bags and bottles to potato chip wrappers. With the natural aquifers of the city being blocked with new construction and complete reliance on piped water for everyday use, the physical importance of the well and its water level, both are steadily decreasing. The paani (water) in the Umbracha Pani tradition has lost its relevance and is reduced to a pre-wedding dance workout.

 

Many East Indian gaothans in Mumbai are already lamenting the loss of culture that the disappearance of the wells has caused. With no water in the well, the only thing left to do is compromise. Some families in Mahim, where there are hardly any wells left at all, have resorted to taking a short procession from the bride’s house to that of any East Indian family nearby, and filling up a pot of water from their bathroom tap.

 

The late Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

With the loss of these wells, there is also an erosion of the hyper local geographies that anchor the East Indian to the land of Mumbai, creating a loss of Indigenous knowledge and culture for the city as well.

Source: All photos graciously shared by Padmini Chakravarti nee Quinny, as part of her own wedding ceremony held on 23rd December 2016.