Rituals and Reverence: Understanding Hindus Death in 15 Steps

Understanding Pitru Paksha: An In-Depth Guide

Table of Contents

What is Pitru Paksha?

Pitru Paksha, also known as Shraddh Paksha, is a 16-day period in the Hindu calendar when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors. It falls in the lunar month of Bhadrapada, usually spanning September-October. Hindus believe that during this time, the souls of ancestors who died come down to earth and accept the offerings and prayers made for them.

Significance of Pitru Paksha

Pitru Paksha holds great religious and spiritual significance for Hindus. According to Hindu beliefs, those who die cannot attain salvation or moksha until their progeny begets offspring and performs shraddha rituals for them. The spirits stay in an in-between state until these ceremonies are performed.

The fortnights dedicated to making offerings to the ancestors ensure the ancestors attain peace and are liberated from the cycle of rebirth. It is believed that the ancestors in turn shower blessings on their living descendants. Performing tarpan, a ritual of offering water to the ancestors, ensures the ancestors attain moksha.

Rituals and Practices During Pitru Paksha

Some of the important rituals and practices observed during Pitru Paksha are:

  • Tarpan – This is the main ritual where water mixed with sesame seeds, rice and barley is offered to the ancestors while recalling their names. This is done everyday during Pitru Paksha, usually at dusk.
  • Shraddha Ceremony – On the day known as Mahalaya, a special shraddha ceremony is performed for all ancestors. On other days, this is done for specific ancestors. Rice balls or pindas are offered along with prayers.
  • Chadah – Rice cakes made from specific grains are offered to the ancestors.
  • Food Donations – Food is donated to the priest and the needy in memory of the ancestors.
  • Avoiding Pleasures – Things like getting married, buying new property or vehicles are avoided during this period out of respect for the ancestors.

Who Performs the Rituals?

The head of the family, known as the karta, performs the rituals on behalf of the entire family. In absence of a male member, the wife or any female member can perform the rituals. Unmarried sons and daughters too can perform shraddha for their deceased ancestors.

Significance of Mahalaya

Of the 16 days, Mahalaya holds special significance. It is believed that on this day, the souls of ancestors are appeased by prayers and offerings. It is also the day when the Hindu month of Bhadrapada begins, which is associated with the Pitru Paksha period. On Mahalaya, offerings are made for all ancestors and not just specific ones.

End of Pitru Paksha

The 16-day period concludes with Purnima or the full moon day falling in Ashwin month. On this day, Tarpan rituals are performed and prayers are offered to the ancestors to bless the living and attain salvation. It is believed the ancestors depart after accepting the ritual offerings.

Modern Practices

With changing times, some of the Pitru Paksha rituals are now adapted according to people’s lifestyles. For those unable to perform long rituals daily, mantras and prayers remembering the ancestors are recited. Food is donated to orphanages and old-age homes instead of individual priests. The essence, however, remains the same – to pay respects to one’s ancestors.

How is Pitru Paksha celebrated in different parts of India?

Here are some details on how Pitru Paksha is celebrated differently in various parts of India:

North India

  • In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, large community feasts known as ‘tarpan samaaroh’ are organised where priests perform mass tarpan rituals for thousands of families. 
  • In Delhi and surrounding areas, milk mixed with cereal is offered to crows in memory of ancestors on the first day. 
  •  In Punjab and Haryana, families decorate the graves of ancestors and spend the day there. Langar or community feasts are also organised.

West India 

  • In Gujarat, special dishes like Undhiyu are prepared and donated as part of the pitru tarpan ritual. 
  • In Maharashtra, the 16 days are spent performing daily tarpan rituals and offering food to crows. Families visit cemeteries together.

South India

  • In Tamil Nadu, terracotta lamps are lit near temples and rivers. Pindas made of cooked rice are offered as part of tharpan.
  • In Karnataka, special dishes like Sakkare Acchu are prepared. Coconuts are broken in running water as offerings. 
  • In Kerala, tharpan is done by priests in temples and riversides. Cemeteries are cleaned and decorated by families.

East India

  • In West Bengal, sweets are donated and tarpan is done by visiting ghats on rivers like Ganga. 
  •  In Odisha, pindas are offered in temples honouring ancestral spirits. Brass lamps are lit near Tulsi plants.

So while the essence remains the same, regional variations exist in the rituals, practices and community experiences associated with Pitru Paksha.   

How long has Pitru Paksha been observed in India?

Pitru Paksha has been observed in India for thousands of years, with references found in ancient Hindu scriptures and Vedic texts. Here are some key points about the history and origins of Pitru Paksha observance in India:

  • The practice of paying homage to ancestors during Pitru Paksha finds mention in the Rigveda, one of the oldest Vedic texts dated to between 1700-1100 BCE. Specific hymns are dedicated to forefathers.
  • The Atharvaveda, estimated to be composed between 1200-1000 BCE, has elaborate rituals and mantras prescribed for honoring ancestors during Pitru Paksha. 
  • The Yajurveda Samhitas like Shukla and Krishna Yajurveda also prescribe customs of tarpana and pinda offerings to be made to ancestors during this fortnight.
  • Dharmashastras like Manusmriti and Yajnavalkya Smriti dating back to between 300 BCE – 300 CE have detailed the 16 day period, its rituals and importance. 
  • Ancient Tamil texts like Tirukkural also refer to the tradition of remembering ancestors during Pitru Paksha.
  • Archaeological evidence from burial sites and inscriptions suggest Pitru Paksha was widely observed in India as early as 300-500 CE during the Gupta period.
  • Medieval Hindu texts like Puranas and Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata reinforce the significance of this fortnight.

In short, references in Vedic scriptures and ancient Dharmic texts indicate the tradition of observing Pitru Paksha for deceased ancestors has been an integral part of Hinduism in India for at least 3000 years, if not more. It remains profoundly dug in strict and social customs.  

All things being equal, the recognition of Pitru Paksha has profound roots in Indian culture, having been drilled for centuries as per Hindu sacred texts and customs. References can be found as far back as the Vedic texts. While rituals and customs may vary regionally, the underlying sentiment of honoring one’s ancestors remains intrinsic to this remembrance period. 

Indeed, even as times change, Pitru Paksha keeps on being a significant otherworldly practice for Hindus giving recognition to the individuals who preceded them. Kaashimukthi is a Funeral service and Cremation service administration organization that means to give empathetic consideration to the departed and their friends and family. They endeavor to maintain social and strict qualities essential to every family while proficiently dealing with the coordinated operations of each assistance.

Also Read: What are Brahmin Death Rituals?

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