Varalakshmi Vrata is one of those rare festivals that are strictly feminine. At this time women celebrate and reaffirm their connection with Goddess Lakshmi, the Divine Mother and provider of abundance and wealth. It is both a celebration and a strict observance, practiced exclusively by married women. Wives take turns honoring each other as representatives of the Goddess, exchanging sweets, spices, new clothing and money. Women chant the prayers, prepare the offerings and conduct the entire ceremony themselves.
Varalakshmi is the giver of vara, meaning boons or wishes. In this form Lakshmi brings prosperity, well-being and fulfilment to the home. The vow, or vrata, is each woman's pledge to honor the female principle in the highest manner by observing this elaborate festival.
Married women in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra celebrate this festival on the Friday preceding the full moon in the Hindu month of Shravana (August/September).
Women who wish to wholeheartedly seek the Goddess' protection receive blessings to do so from another who practices the tradition. Girls may participate but do not perform the puja. Homes are thoroughly cleaned, decorated and prepared the day before for the Goddess' arrival. The next morning, a ceremony is performed honoring Ganesha, the Lord of Beginnings. Then, through song, the women invite Varalakshmi into their home shrines. She is represented by a brass vessel (kalasha) filled with uncooked rice, betel leaves, betel nuts, coins, turmeric root, dates and other auspicious items. A coconut is seated over the mouth of the pot. The face of the Goddess, an impression usually made in silver (sometimes a coin), is attached to the coconut fibre. The kalasha is then decorated with jewelry and draped with cloth and brocade to look like a beautiful Goddess. Several women attach a black-beaded braid with a tasselled ornament at the end.
Hindu women pray for their family's prosperity and well-being. A toram or saradu--a thread stained in turmeric paste with nine knots in a row--is tied to the Goddess. A similar thread is prepared for each lady and placed in front of the Goddess during the puja. After the rituals, the thread-bracelets are distributed and worn on the right wrist as a mark of protection.
The recipes are unimaginably complex and time-consuming. Their loving preparation is itself a means of venerating the Goddess and, through Her, all women. To be proper, a feast must have at least a dozen appams, salty pongal, steamed rice cakes and kolakattai, twelve each with coconut filling and sesame seed filling--to name a few items on the menu. Camaraderie abounds and blessings flow in abundance as participants feast on delicacies. Foods prepared for this day are surpassed at no other festival.