Hitesh the Storyteller is back with a vengence. Having last surfaced during Onam, he wishes to make up for the lost time by using the 5-day festival of Diwali to the hilt. Today is the first of these 5 days, Dhanteras. Following is Hitesh's take on the mythological origins of Dhanteras:
Also called Yamadeepadan, Dhanteras is celebrated on the 13th day of the wanning moon of the Hindu lunar month of Ashwin. Simply put, two days before Diwali. The story goes that the sixteen-year-old son of King Hima was fated to breathe his last, owing to snakebite, on the fourth day of his marriage. On the D-day his wife illuminated the house with numerous lamps and placed a heap of gold and silver coins and ornaments in front of their living quarters. All through the night she sang songs and told stories. It is said that the lights of the lamps, and the dazzle of the coins and ornaments blinded the god of death, Yamaraj (the one who goes around on a cool buffalo). Thus, the wife succeeded in saving the life of her husband. In memory of this event, the women of the house choose this day to purchase gold and silver ornaments ( going by the number of jewellery stores in this state, something chechis of Kerala seem to particularly love).
Another name for this festival is Dhanavantri Triyodashi. The legend behind that is even grander. The devas and asuras once collaborated to undertake a great mission, that of churning the 'Ksheera-Sagara' (the ocean of milk) so as to obtain its valuable treasures. This mission called 'Sagara Manthana' took days and required frequent interventions by Lord Vishnu (who took three avataars Kurma the Tortoise, Ajita the Unvanquishable and Mohini the Enchantress) and Lord Shiva (who gulped down the toxin halahala to become Neelakanthan - no relation to a PGP11er of the same name). Many treasures came out of the ocean, including Kamadhenu (a forty-jersey-cows-in-one cow), Ucchaisrava (the white-green horse), Airavata (the multi-trunked mutant white elephant only Indra liked), Kaustabhamani (a diamond that was offered to Lord Vishnu), Kalpavriksha (the wish fulfilling tree; more about it tomorrow), Laxmi (the goddess of wealth, who soon after married Lord Vishnu through a swayamwara), Varuni (the goddess of wine and intoxication - the world was never the same again). Next came the apsaras, beautiful dancing girls. There almost was a battle for their ownership, till one of the apsaras pointed out that they have free will and prefer to go to the devas (Apsaras and Varuni, now thats what caused the downfall of Indra!). At last, Dhanvantari (the divine physician) appeared with a pot of amrita (nectar of immortality) in his hands. A free for all ensued, with the asuras and devas both wanting all of it. Dhanvantari, having only just entered the real world panicked and ran for his life. The clumsy guy that he was he spilled some of the nectar in Nasik, Haridwar, Ujjain and Allahabad. Every 12 years these cities see millions converge from all over the Hindu world to celebrate Dhanvantari's clumsiness! Yup thats the story behind the Kumbh Mela!
But I digress. Sensing that Dhanvantari would soon be too tired to keep up, Lord Vishnu decided to intervene. A keen observer of the chauvanistic Asura male, he saw that the only way to control them would be to appear before them as a beautiful maiden named Mohini. So enchanting was Mohini that asuras agreed to share the nectar with the devas as long as Mohini served the same. Mohini used this 'trust' to the hilt, she gave devas all the nectar and asuras plain water. There were complications, but by and large the divine plan succeeded. Dhanvantari, now jobless, seeked some employment that would use his knowledge of medicine. Indra appointed him the Physician of the Devas. Grand title, little work - having become immortal the devas didn't need a physician. Dhanvantari utilized all the free time he had to write an appendix to the Rgveda called - u guessed it right - Ayurveda!
So how do u celebrate this day? You could, of course, buy loads of gold and silver in honour of Hima's son. Knowing the poor economic conditions of people here, I think we would be better of honouring Dhanavantari. How do we do that? Well honour doctors and physicians. Run to your nearest doctor (whether near the supermarket or in Hostel C) and pay your respects. The latter of the two doctors may end up blushing, but tradition doctor-madam, is tradition!