Athithi Devo Bhava

Athiti Devo Bhava, and no it’s not the ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign that I’m talking about. The literal translation of this Sanskrit phrase reads “guest is god” and is kept alive by traditional Indian hospitality. And it is this Athiti Devo Bhava experience that I wish to talk about.

Indians have long been known for their hospitality. At the very least, anyone visiting an Indian home will be offered a cup of tea/coffee or a cold drink (if not a full meal), on his immediate arrival. Of course it’s a different thing that these days we also wonder silently while serving the guest ‘why, they could have at least called before landing up unannounced” or “they had to turn up now when I’m in the middle of so many things. Isn’t there such a thing as informing someone of your visit” or “oh no! There goes my schedule and had they informed me I would have at least bought some eatables and been prepared” and so on. Well you see, unfortunately the so called “modern”, “urbanized” Indian is always in a rat race, fighting against time, self-absorbed and self-contained and is barely able to offer a drink to the not so welcome guest. Of course this isn’t a sweeping generalization but a mere observation of many households.

It was early this year when I experienced the true meaning of “athihi devo bhava” thanks to a milkmaid and her farmer husband who went all out and epitomized traditional Indian hospitality. Having visited my husband’s relatives in Nasik, we made our last stop over at Ghoti – a small non-descript  town/village located 30 kms from Nasik housing a population of some 20,000 odd people. I hadn’t heard of Ghoti earlier, except for my husband’s recollections of the place, which he had last visited some 12 years ago. Being city bred I was looking forward to a first-hand experience of simple living in a small dusty Indian town. Needless to say I was both anxious and excited. We reached late at night and after a hearty meal of chapattis, curried vegetables, rice and lentils and some excited chitter-chatter, I went to bed on the cotton mattress laid out on the cool floor of my aunt-in-law’s house. I awoke early the next day and was chatting up with everyone, when the milkmaid or “doodhwali” (the hinmilkmaiddi equivalent) made her usual entrance. She was grey haired, about my grandma’s age, stout, plump and a traditional village belle – sari tied in the maharashtrian style, head covered, a huge circular nose ring, a large red circle of vermilion on her forehead and tattoos along the length of her arms. I quickly called my husband to click a few pictures of her and she indulged by shyly posing for us and giving us her best smiles. Once we were done with the clicking, she graciously invited us to her home which she said was by the side of a beautiful lake.  We nodded nonchalantly and she left.

Later that afternoon, when we set out sight seeing, on an impulse we decided to drop by the doodhwali’s place. The dusty sumo spluttered and trudged along the narrow dusty dirt track leading to her hutment. We got down from the car as curious children looked at us, bemused. Least expecting us to show up, she welcomed us with a huge smile and quickly called upon her husband to lay out the charpoy for us to sit on. I suddenly felt a bit odd, like we were imposing but her warm smile and graciousness put me at ease. We were offered water in tall brass tumblers and although her abode was just a simple hut we were invited to have a look. Her grand-children were seated on the mud floors, with plates before them as their mother stirred some porridge and turned over thick chappatis on a choola.

The doodhwali and her husband offered to show us around their farm where they grew vegetables. We accepted and they led the way through fields of cabbage and cauliflower, until we reached their plot of land by the side of a beautiful lake. The sun beat down mercilessly and he heat was searing. While we were busy taking pictures, she and her husband were plucking fresh tender drumsticks from their tree. All through the way they kept expressing their disappointment at not being able to serve us anything. “villagefolkYou are guests who have come to my home. I cannot send you empty handed” she kept saying. We assured her that we were perfectly fine and just wanted to enjoy the village sights and sounds. When we decided to head back home, she gave us a huge bunch of drumsticks saying “this is all we have to offer you. Please accept it.” I was touched by their hospitality. You see, unlike elsewhere in the world farmers in India are poor and their produce is a fruit of their labor in the hot sun and the only means to their livelihood. Yet this humble couple picked the best of their produce by the dozen and insisted that we take it home with us. Who were we to them? From my perspective, we were just a bunch of odd visitors living miles away and who would probably never see them again. From their perspective, we were guests to their home, and guests to them are like God – meant to be welcomed and treated with the utmost respect and hospitality.

This is where the spirit of Athiti Devo Bhava lies.

PS: Four months after I returned to Singapore, I mailed the doodhwali a photograph that we had clicked of her and her husband. The photographs serve as a reminder of their warmth and hospitality and where we truly come from.

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