Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy has a magical passage in which Kabir and Lata, young lovers, take out a boat on the river Ganga on Sharad Purnima night. Reading that passage aroused my interest in the night of Sharad Purnima, the brightest night of the year.
'Purnima' means the full moon, and Sharad is the name of the season that comes after the monsoon rains, marking the beginning of cool weather in most of India.
The Sharad Purnima is the equivalent of the equinoctial moon. During the equinox, the moon moves closest to the earth. So when you have a full moon around that time, it appears larger and brighter than usual. People in the Northern Hemisphere see the brightest full moon of the year around the time of the Autumnal Equinox, September 23rd. And I don't want to offend my friend Uma in Australia - you'll see yours in March.
Sharad Purnima did not coincide with the Equinox this year, but it occurred a month later.
The Sharad season begins in the Indian month of Ashwin (called Ashshin in Bengali, and Aippasi in Tamil). The Indian calendar measures time in terms of the sun as well as the moon, with the year measured in solar time, and the months in lunar cycles. The months in this calendar don't run parallel with the months in the global calendar. When Ashwin coincides to some extent with September, chances are that Sharad Purnima will coincide with the equinoctial moon. If not, it will be the full moon after that one.
The Ashwin moon is especially significant. The new moon or Mahalaya Amavasya marks the beginning of 'Navaratri', nine days and nights of goddess worship. In Bengal, it is the beginning of Durga Puja. The tenth day of the moon is Bijoya Dasami. The night of the full moon is observed as Lakshmi Puja.
Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity. The moon is a symbol of plenty: a good harvest of course, but much more than simply wealth. The fulness and brightness of the moon on this night stand for fulfilment, the abundance of blessings, peace and well-being.
It is said that any wish made on this night comes true.
Seasons of Splendour by Madhur Jaffrey, a book my daughters read when they were children, is an interesting compilation of the legends and folk tales that surround Indian seasons and festivals. It mentions the tradition of threading a needle 100 times in the moonlight on Sharad Purnima night. The moonlight supposedly contains drops of nectar, which enter the eyes of the person performing this feat.
I love the Bengali tradition of Lakshmi Puja. It is a day of great piety. A religious festival like this one has a simplicity and charm quite untouched by the bustle and commerce of the 'big' festivals. Any festival held in a tea garden is enhanced by the surroundings: by the large open spaces, and the peace and quiet.
Unlike Durga Puja, which is conducted by a community of people, Lakshmi Puja is performed in people's homes. An elaborate feast is prepared. For many years, a Bengali family in our garden has been sending us 'bhog' or 'prasad'. There is luchi (the Bengali Poori), paayesh (kheer/payasam), narkul nadu (coconut laddoos) of two kinds, white and brown, and the delicious bhog khichuri (rice and dal savoury) with the vegetable side dish called labra . It is delicious - like all consecrated food offerings are.
In the Dooars, the moonlight is undiluted by city lights or smog. The Sharad full moon rises over treetops, and the silhouettes of the trees seems to shrink in contrast. The light is silvery all night. I stand and gape at the moon for as long as I can. It is said that standing in the moonlight and absorbing the rays is good for the body. It does your soul good too, I'd say.
Sharad Purnima was two nights ago, on October 22, but it was not the brightest night of the year in the Dooars. The sky was overcast until almost ten o'clock and we couldn't see the moonrise, easily the best part of any full moon night.
Last night, the moon was still almost full, as it was again tonight; a perfect round, and to our delight, perfectly visible when it rose.