'I'm a British citizen and an NRI but also a Hindu. So I must perform a very sacred ceremony every year,' says Praladh 'Paddy' Sharma, who travels to India every year to perform the 'shradh' or 'pitrupaksh' ceremony for his father and ancestors in line with the Hindu way of life.
The shradh, which this year fell during Sep 7-21, is not the best period for new business ventures, weddings, buying property or expensive items like cars, home appliances, expensive garments or jewellery. Shradhs are considered inauspicious as they are related to death; thus this is a low period for businessmen. Many Hindus postpone these decisions and start-ups until the two-week period is over and the festive season starts with the first day of Navratri. The big shopping spree begins in earnest for the festivals - nine nights of Navratri, Dussehra, followed by the biggest of them all - Diwali.
Hindu NRIs wait for Navratri to start their new ventures, shopping and festivities. This is especially so for Gujaratis, who mark it with nine nights of dancing for goddess Amba, and Bengalis, who worship goddess Durga.
In Britain, the US, Canada and East Africa, many Gujarati organizations invite singers from India to perform during these nights. Similarly, Bengalis get talented sculptors from their home state to create a deity of their goddess and singers for this festival. On the 10th day, they celebrate Dussehra.
Before Diwali, NRIs hold special 'melas' or fairs to shop for gifts and enjoy Indian food. These Diwali melas have become a major social gathering, as there is plenty of entertainment. But before all these celebrations, due homage must be paid to the departed souls especially the ancestors.
A holy ritual performed as a respect for and in memory of dead relatives, shradh is supposed to bring peace and salvation to their souls. It is a simple ceremony performed by a priest. The participant sits down with the pandit (priest) and kneads rice flour or millet flour into small balls. Made of perishable food, each ball represents a departed relative; the idea being that the physical body is made of food and gets dissolved into physical matter after death. Since the soul is immortal, one should not grieve for the body.
Once a dozen or so of these flour balls are ready, the ceremony begins with the pandit reciting the holy mantras and speaking the name of the departed one for each ball. Once it is over, all the offerings are immersed in water and the pandit is given gifts in the form of money, food and clothes.
Today, the Internet can help an NRI. Many sites provide full information on this ritual and the dates for holding the ritual in their Hindu calendars. Some sites of Hindu organisations abroad provide details of this ritual and other festivals with the time, date and venues and how the priests can be contacted. One can even perform it on the Internet. If an NRI does not know the exact date for performing the ritual, then the last shradh falling Sep 22 covers all departed relatives.
Those who travel to India for shradhs head for special venues in Haryana, Maharashtra and Gaya. Why so many places in Haryana? Because the great battle of Mahabharata was held in Kurukshetra in which millions of soldiers perished. Their relatives, especially the widows, wanted salvation for their dear ones and so an area of over 50 miles (80 km) from the battlefield was declared as holy for this purpose by the sages.
Modern young Hindus in India sometimes defy this period and go for huge discounts in buying flats and cars that are at low price