As a child, I remember every Diwali, our family friends and relatives showered us with new clothes, sweets that were devoured in minutes and of course, good ol’ currency notes. I always wondered why whatever the denomination, it was accompanied by a single Rupee coin. I usually stashed the rupee in a piggy bank and spent the rest on whatever my heart fancied. Only in my later years did I realize, that the one rupee that I absentmindedly discarded was what marked the auspiciousness of the gift as well as the occasion, for it sought to bring luck to the receiver.
The auspicious denomination is just one of the many ways in which the Gifting Space in India is and has always been a tad different than the rest of the world. It inhabits different and esoteric currencies, motivations and sometimes even occasions. It is a timeless tradition – literally. Gifting in India is not always anchored to a specific occasion or a festival; it also doesn’t revolve around the gesture itself, but rather around the relationship between two people. While it can be ritual practice which is imbued with social and cultural meaning, driven by various community and regional beliefs, it is also about the euphemistic spinoff we put on ‘incentives’ we offer to those we do business with.
An average Indian receives a plethora of gifts over the course of his lifecycle – before ever being born in fact it is showered with presents. Majority of these presents come from older relatives and the family elders – in the form of blessings or in other words ‘Aashirwaad’. Aashirwaad is an overarching emotion that all Indians recognize, revere and solicit for no other gift or gesture can be at par with. Whether it be confirmation of marriage, pre-wedding customs, celebration of first pregnancy, the birth of a child, naming of the child, coming of age or milestone occasions of academic and professional success, new ventures and asset acquisitions – every community, every region has its own unique way of marking the event and the emotion with blessings to beget more occasions to celebrate! In fact, these events are shared with close relatives, friends, well wishes and the larger community – that bring in the congratulatory hues to each occasion – Badhai ho! Everything from clothing, jewelry, food – the three most essential currencies to us Indians, exchange hands, between two families, two relatives and two friends. May it be Christmas, Easter, Diwali, Eid – these emotions are universal and so is the custom of gifts.
However, while many may critically claim that it is mere custom here; gifts stand for much more than that. More than custom, the sharing of gifts and festive occasions is a reminder of the ties that we are born with, new ties that we grow to make, the ties that we share out of community or religious identity – and acknowledgment via gifts helps people strengthen those ties and stay in touch with their roots. In India, gifting revolves around a certain kind of reciprocity; an exchange of emotions via events and gifts – thus, while gifts are given without any explicit expectation – the recognition and acceptance of the sentiment behind the gift between the giver and receiver is what it truly material. Thus, a sister ties a thread on her brother’s wrist, as a gesture of gratitude for his protection and affection and he in turn blesses her in the same manner via gifts – seems like an archaic concept; the festivity of Rakshabandhan, brings siblings closer to each other and help engender the feelings of accountability and mutual trust between them. Or perhaps even the festival of Karwa Chauth, wherein a wife fasts for the sake of her husband’s long life – the husband in turn showers his wife with new clothes, jewelry and presents, not to mention the additional tokens(for Shringar, like Henna, Bangles) she receives from her mother-in-law alongwith the traditional sargi(vermicelli pudding, sweets etc.). These occasions often confuse the western gaze; they are a means for certain roles and emotions to manifest openly without explicitly stating them – like a wife’s affection for her husband and vice versa.
Yet, not all gifting is a celebration of relationships. Much self and community gifting takes place on calendar events (or tithis) that are meant to bring luck, prosperity, good health and other meritorious and intangible benefits. This is particularly a very important ritual amongst Hindus to select an auspicious day or time known as “mahurat” to make new beginnings or to make important purchases like gold or property. Akshaya Tritiya is one such auspicious day. The legend is that any venture initiated on the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya continues to grow and bring prosperity. Buying gold is a popular activity on Akshaya Tritiya, as it is the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity. Giving gifts is also an important part of Akshaya Tritiya. The religious merit that is believed one acquires by giving gifts on this day is considered inexhaustible. People visit temples and feed poor people or go to orphanages and old age houses to give gifts. Many gift jewellery, “Lakshmi-inscribed” gold coins, diamond jewellery and golden coins with the pictures of many gods and goddesses to our close friends and family members. Gifitng on this day maximizes divine benefits. Similar is the case with occasions like Dhanteras, or Makar Sankranti – the auspicious times that call for exchanging the correct currency, transferred generation after generation through myth and stories.
Indians, thus think of wealth and prosperity, knowledge, success etc. as gifts one receives from the divine – and as our duty and sense of gratitude we share these gifts with those around us. Gifts, in India therefore, are more than customary – they carry in them a pinch of the sacred, a reverence to tradition and emotions of love, concern and well-wishes that are difficult to articulate in words but equally as simple as a tangible token of our sentimentality.