SPECIAL REPORT: Owl Festival of Varanasi

Owl Festival: A time to crack jokes in Varanasi…writes Mohit Dubey

A muslim woman with her kids dressed as Lord Krishna and Radha returning home after a school competition on the eve of Janmastami in Varanasi on Aug. 16, 2014. (Photo: IANS)Hundreds of thousands of people in this Hindu holy city – and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency – in Uttar Pradesh are eagerly looking forward to Sunday, to a time for cracking jokes on anything under the sun and merry making, when the annual “Uloo Mahotsava” (Owl Festival) takes place.

The festival, which has become part of the city folklore, helps people find ways to be happy and laugh at themselves.

The Mahotsava – to be celebrated at the Town Hall – is one such moment when the happy-go-lucky Banarasis get together in the midst of Diwali celebrations to crack jokes on virtually almost everything.
A proper puja called “Kotar Pujan” was held on the eve of Diwali at the Town Hall grounds attended by a huge crowd.
A large cutout of an owl was prepared and prayers were offered to the bird, generally linked to foolishness!
A ‘ullu aahvahan’ was held amid chanting of religious hymns. The owl cutout was then strung to a tree and was followed by an ‘aarti’.
This, old timers say, has been done for “quite some time now”.
Radha Singh from Dahesar, said she thoroughly enjoys the Diwali festivities, which culminate with the ‘Ulook Mahotsava’.
“It is a plain and simple Banarasi style of merry-making, and nobody minds being foolish on the evening,” she told IANS.
On Sunday, the owl will hold a princely durbaar at the Town Hall amid all royal pomp and paegantry. There will be many bands playing music at the Mahotsava.

A white owl, organisers say, will be set free as a symbol of peace.
Rajendra Dwivedi, an organiser, said a ‘Ullu Yatra’ (owl procession) will be held in the evening in which a 2.5-feet tall owl cutout will be placed on an ox cart and taken around the city.
The procession will be accompanied by music bands and shehnai players. People will raise slogans in honour of the owl before the event culminates at the Town Hall.
An evening of jokes will follow where jesters will regale the crowd with their puns on contemporary politics. A recital of the ‘ullu chalisa’ will sign off the day.
The Hindu pantheon is filled with interesting and entertaining stories about the various gods and goddesses and their vehicles.
The owl is a prominent one, considered the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the provider of wealth and prosperity.
The owl is called Ulooka in Sanskrit and its partial blindness is inferred by many as indicative of a seeker’s tendency of going toward the pursuit of the higher goals of spirituality instead of spiritual wealth.
The owl, in the Bhagavad Gita, is likened to an enlightened ‘sthita prajna’ (the one who remains unwavering in any situation, whether happy or sad).
Goddess Lakshmi is also said to be the mistress of spiritual wisdom. By keeping the owl as her vehicle, she teaches us to open our eyes to the light of the wisdom residing within us. This ‘Karunamayi (compassionate one) Mother’, hence, symbolically keeps ignorance under her control, said pandit V.M. Shastri.
Wildlife conservationists, however, feel such practices sound the death knell for this nocturnal creature which is hunted and sold during the festival season.
Ram Lakhan Singh, former chief wildlife conservator of Uttar Pradesh, said people blinded by outdated religious beliefs, black magic practices and fake advice by soothsayers, mistake the owl trade as part of religious rituals. But for the average Banarasis, this Sunday like in the past will be a time to let their hair down and have a blast.