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Govardhan Puja: Honouring the cow

SANJEEV V SARDESAI

Goa is a demarcated land that was born only after the present day borders were finalised, after the New Conquests of the Portuguese regime around 1788 AD. Prior to that, these lands along the Konkan Coast were ruled in small pockets, by many dynasties.

The lands along this Konkan Coast, at Gomanchala, were blessed with ideal natural ports. This land was also known by many names such as Gopakapattam, Gomanta, Gomanchala, Govapuri; while the Mahabharat referred to this land as Goparashtra or Goavarashtra – the land of the cowherds. Ptolemy, the great geographer identified it in 200BC, as Gouba, while the Arabs
identified it with Sindabur, a possible corruption of the name Chandrapur (Chandor).

The land of Goa was a very fertile terrain and its main local occupations relied on farming and agriculture. In fact, the very ancient identity of Goa, through historical records, is surmised to have been arrived from Go-manchal or Go-mant, the ‘land of cows’ which in turn portrays this land of the Konkan strip, which we know as Goa, to have been rich in agriculture. And to carry out the tedious tilling and ploughing of land, cattle were the most important asset of any land owner of that era.

As we have seen through the past articles, Goa celebrates almost all its festivals, directly or indirectly, offering its respect to natural resources and celebrating nature. And this is very prominently observed on the fourth day of the Diwali celebrations when people observe Govardhan Puja or the Annakut Puja. This is connected to Lord Krishna and is supported by a beautiful mythological legend in the ‘Bhagwat Purana’.

Lord Krishna is always depicted as spending time and frolicking with cowherds and feasting on curds and butter. He would also play his flute during the time he spent with the cows and cowherds. While he stayed at Vrindavan (Braj), near Govardhan Mountain, he observed that people were venerating Lord Indra, the God of Rains. He did not approve of this veneration, as he felt that people should venerate the Govardhan Hill, since it provided them and their cows with life-sustaining resources. He convinced the people to venerate the Govardhan Hill, and stop venerating Lord Indra.

This did not go well with Lord Indra, and in his anger, he started a heavy downpour leading to flooding of Vrindavan. It is said that Lord Krishna lifted the entire Govardhan Mountain on his little finger and held it aloft like a huge umbrella, where the people could take shelter. It is further said that he held this mountain up on his finger for seven days and nights, without taking any break. Lord Indra realising that he was fighting a losing battle gave up and stopped the rains. This was a time for rejoicing for the people and the tradition of carrying out Govardhan Puja started.

The Annakut Puja is also related to the lifting of Govardhan Mountain. It is said that, since Lord Krishna could not move during those seven days, people prepared 56 different food items called as ‘Chappan Bhoj’, and lovingly fed him. Continuing this tradition, today, people make various vegetarian food items, on the fourth day after Diwali, using rice, grains, wheat and vegetable culinary dishes, and offer it as ‘prasad’ to Lord Krishna as their gratitude. Till date, devotees still go to the Govardhan Mountain and circumambulate the 11 mile trek, while offering flowers to the shrines on the way.

Though Govardhan Puja, also known as Bali Pratipada, is celebrated all over India, each region has its own way of celebrations and rituals, depending on the geography of the land.

Goa being mostly an agrarian land is surmised to have had a huge population of cattle – cows, bullocks, buffaloes, etc; and this tradition was accepted by the farming community here. On this day, one must visit a house which rears cattle and see the beautiful ritual that takes place. A miniature diorama of the mountain is created using cow-dung and is decorated with trees and cows. The houses too are decorated with flowers and different aesthetic rangolis or designs made with coloured powder or flower petals, on the ground.

Those having cattle, create a design of the cow shed with dung, and decorate it with flowers and oil lit lamps. The cows, bulls and other cattle are bathed in the morning and garlanded with fresh flowers. Many cows are decorated with rings of colour on their bodies which are created with turmeric, vegetable colours and are dough based. They are fed ‘polles’ or flattened Indian bread, while some are hung on their necks. Sweets such as ‘kheer’ (sweetened rice or vermicelli) and ‘batasha’ (hard sugar-based toffees) are prepared and served to family members. It is also a day to express gratitude to these cattle, without which farming would be a Herculean task.

In present times however, the introduction of heavy mechanised agriculture has led to the utility of cows in ploughing the fields taking a backseat. Thus, this beautiful relationship between humans and the beasts of burden is slowly and surely going behind the curtains of time. And though Govardhan Puja is celebrated once a year, it would be a healthy practice to routinely visit the farming community or the Goa Chitra Museum at Benaulim with your children, and create a bond with the ancient occupations of Goa.

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