Each part of India rings in the nine days after the Mahalaya Amavasya in a different way. For some, it is the start of a fresh sowing season – the gap between the two types of monsoon winds. For others, it indicates a change in dietary patterns to signal the start of the cooler seasons. Some people pray by fasting, others celebrate the occasion with delicious food, beautiful clothes, music and dance.
For many people, Navaratri is a social occasion. We visit our friends’ homes, sing traditional songs and celebrate the divine feminine energy. Many visits end with a small goody bag that has cute gifts and a small packet of food. It is becoming common, though, to shovel a few teaspoons of food in a Ziploc bag, or other disposable plastic containers, and serve food in laminated paper plates.
Plastic is ubiquitous, convenient, and often leak proof. It is also easier to source, and to find high quality variants. Equally, though, it has a definite shelf life. A plastic bag that has carried food, is almost definitely going into the trash the next day. Even a food-grade plastic container will break or deform at some point, and finally reach the landfill.
Since we are celebrating the feminine energy, here are a few tips to have a great time, and still tread lightly on the bhoomi – the truly divine being that sustains life.
1. Donnais are a girl’s best friend – Consider making your own disposable food packet from banana leaves. Broad dried leaves from trees like Sal, Banyan and Jackfruit can also be stitched together and used as plates. In some parts of India these plates are made by small cottage industries. If making these plates and packets is difficult, look for biodegradable options at the supermarket. There are a few companies making cutlery and containers from areca nut and banana fibres. Hopefully, your friends will segregate their waste and allow the container to peacefully return to the earth.
2. Return Gifts – Traditionally, this involved a small tamboolam with betel leaves, some areca nuts, a knob or two of turmeric, some vermilion, and perhaps some flowers and cash. Most of these were considered auspicious symbols for women and were either worn, applied, or eaten. Convenience now means that turmeric and vermilion are sold in two plastic containers stuck on a plastic betel leaf.
Return gifts are becoming more elaborate, and the amount of time and money we are willing to spend on this has increased. Which is a great thing! Now is the time to patronise local handloom weavers, artisans, painters, and sculptors. Every nook and cranny of India has rich traditions of handmade beauty. Find them and help revive traditions that were dying from lack of patronage. It can be wonderful to suddenly become the owner of a piece of Warli art, or a beautifully woven gamasa with intricate red patterns.
3. Goody bags – Place the food and gifts in drawstring pouches made of jute and fabric. If they are dyed with natural colours, the bags can be washed, dried and reused, even if your food hamper accidentally spills its contents. At the end of its utility, the bag can be quietly composted, and allowed to become food for worms (which then make soil – circling around for life).
The details can vary, of course, but do consider the simple principles of sustainability when celebrating a festival.
– Refuse: single-use petroleum products
– Reduce: the goody bag doesn’t have to be stuffed full
– Reuse as long as possible: look for natural, high-quality materials with a long shelf life
– Repair when needed: Stitching is a deadly useful skill
– Decompose the biodegradable parts: like the food container stitched from leaves
And finally (after doing the first five steps)
– Recycle the leftover bits and scraps