For the blessings of your ancestors
With the beginning of Pitru Paksha, Sanskrit for the fortnight of the ancestors, devout Hindus get into piety mode, refraining from making lavish purchases and inking business deals. They also abstain from cutting their nails and having non-vegetarian food.
This year the period starts on 18 September. The 15-day period, during which devotees withdraw from earthly pleasures to honour their dead relatives, is widely considered to be an inappropriate time to splurge on high-end goods and start new ventures. Failing to adhere to such customs, they believe, will anger the spirits of their ancestors and result in misfortune.
Pitru Paksha, the dates of which vary each year in accordance to the lunar calendar, has its roots in Hindu mythology. In the hope that their ancestors rest in peace in the afterlife, devotees offer food and water as charity to the poor, and servings of rice pudding, lentils and vegetables to priests.
During the 16-lunar day period of Pitru Paksha, Hindus pay homage to their ancestors (Pitrs), especially through the ceremony, known as Shraddha or Tarpan. In southern and western India, it falls in the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada (September–October), beginning with the full moon day (Purnima) that occurs immediately after the Ganesh festival and ending with the new moon day known as Sarvapitri Amavasya or Mahalaya Amavasya.
Legend has it that the souls of three preceding generations of one's ancestors reside in Pitru–loka, a realm between heaven and earth. This realm is governed by Yama, the god of death, who takes the soul of a dying man from earth to Pitru–loka. When a person of the next generation dies, the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God, so Shraddha offerings are not given. Thus, only the three generations in Pitru–loka are given Shraddha rites, in which Yama plays a significant role.
When the legendary donor Karna died in the epic Mahabharata war, his soul transcended to heaven, where he was offered gold and jewels as food — items he had donated as charity on Earth. However, Karna needed food and asked Indra the reason he was being served gold. Indra told Karna that he had donated gold all his life, but had never donated food to his ancestors in Shraddha. Karna said that since he was unaware of his ancestors, he never donated anything in their memory. To make amends, Karna was permitted to return to earth for a 15–day period, so that he could perform Shraddha and donate food and water in their memory. This period is now known as Pitru Paksha.
Tarpan (offering holy water to the manes) is a very important ritual of the Pitru Paksha period. The ritual is also held on the death anniversary of the ancestor. The Shraddha is performed only at noon, usually on the bank of a river or lake or at one's own house. Families may also make a pilgrimage to places like Varanasi and Gaya to perform Shraddha.
It is essential that Shraddha is performed by the son—usually the eldest—or a male relative of the paternal branch of the family. However, on Sarvapitri amavasya or Matamaha, the daughter's son can offer Shraddha for the maternal side of his family if a male heir is absent in his mother's family. The importance of Pitru Paksha is even mentioned in the Puranas and holy Bhagavadgita.
Places such as Pehowa in Kurukshetra, Varanasi, Prayaga (Allahabad), Gaya, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Rameswaram, Nashik, Kapal mochan Seshambadi are the most famous of the many holy places where Shraddha is performed.
Pehowa (Kurukshetra): Pehowa in Kurukshetra is a place of great historical and religious importance and is well recognised all over the country for its sacred association with Vedas and Vedic culture. The town gets its name from King Prithu who on the death of his father sat on the bank of river Saraswati and offered water to all visitors. As a result, the place came to be known as Prithudaka or Prithu's pool and the town built here came to be called by the same name, that later changed to Pehowa. As per popular belief, Sannihit Sarovar contains sacred water that is highly regarded for conducting prayers and Pind Daan rituals for all deceased ancestors and it is believed that all of them attain moksha or redemption from cycle of birth and death.
Pushkar: Pushkar, a small town on outskirts of Ajmer in Rajasthan, is famous for its Pushkar festival and only temple of Brahma in India.
Legend has it that Lord Rama did Pind Daan of his ancestors here during his exile and since then the place has been famous for offering puja and Pind Daan/conducting Shraddha rituals for deceased ancestors so that they could attain mukti or freedom from cycle of birth and death.
Badrinath: The city is the abode of Lord Shiva and well-known for religious offerings, conducting important pujas and rituals for the dead. All Pind Daan/Shraddha services are conducted at Brahma Kapal Ghat.
Allahabad: Allahabad is a sacred pilgrimage place which bears high importance for every Hindu. At times of Pitripaksh Mela, which is organised every year starting on the day of Anant Chaturdashi of Bhadra Shuklapaksh the place is visited by a large number of pilgrims belonging to Sanatan Hindu religion.
Varanasi: It is commonly believed that people who die here attain salvation and freedom from re-birth and get moksha. Sarvapitri amavasya (all fathers’ new moon day) is intended for all ancestors, irrespective of the lunar day on which they died. It is the most important day of the Pitru Paksha. Those who have forgotten to perform Shraddha can do so on this day. A Shraddha ritual performed on this day is considered as fruitful as one conducted in the holy city of Gaya, which is seen as a special place to perform the rite.
In Bengal, Mahalaya marks the beginning of Durga Puja festivities. Mahalaya is the day when the goddess Durga is believed to have descended on Earth.
Bengalis traditionally wake up early in the morning on Mahalaya to recite hymns from the Devi Mahatmyam (Chandi) scripture. Offerings to the ancestors are made in homes and at puja mandaps.