Diksha, in India, refers to the ceremony of formal initiation into a tradition. In Jainism, diksha is the ceremony through which a lay person becomes an ascetic, and adopts several vows which they are expected to follow throughout the course of their subsequent lives.
Amar Shah, his wife Bina and their two children, Romal and Binal all took diksha together in Andheri West, Bombay in early May. The event transpired with immense fanfare, over a week, during which the family were shuttled between Pujas at different venues, wore extravagant clothes that were changed for every ceremony and had an audience of thousands while they gave up everything they owned. We followed the Shah family through some of the tender, tired and ecstatic moments of their journey towards renunciation.
Amar and Bina prepare to dissolve their family and to adopt the ascetic tradition within Jainism. We were unfamiliar with such proceedings, and, being granted access to such a private gathering, We watched on curiously.
Amar Shah helps his daughter Binal put on her ornamental crown. This is their last week together, as a family, after which they renounce all ties and barely see each other again.
Romal and Binal, who are twenty and eighteen years old respectively, share a calm moment at home, between functions. Binal listens to her brother practicing for his stage performance. This is the last time he will be playing.
Binal sits with her close friends and cousins as she has her mehendi done. The atmosphere around her is jovial as the teenagers discuss the latest Bollywood films. She stays quiet, a bit withdrawn, listening to the chatter and gently smiling the entire time.
In a room downstairs, Romal’s cousins bring him chocolate cake which they try to feed him. Expecting him to relish a large last indulgence, we watch as he takes a tiny nibble and then no more. He tells us that he no longer desires to do things to merely appease his senses.
Amar and Bina get ready for a mid-day ceremony. Tensions run high for their immediate family, who are under a lot of pressure to make sure that all the events run smoothly. However they, the diksharthis, remain islands of calmness in that storm.
During the four kilometer long procession, the varghoda, musicians in colourful costumes set the tone with vigorous drumbeats. Close to thirty bullock carts, carrying the diksharthis and their family, follow.
Romal Shah throwing his wealth, symbolized by bundles of rice, into the crowd. There is a tussle to grab the little packages being thrown off the procession. The parade brings traffic in Andheri to a near-standstill.
Binal listens to her best friend, Anjali, just before walking to the stage. Through the week, Anjali has been right by Binal’s side. She seems to know what Binal is going to ask for even before it is said out loud.
Binal and Bina bow towards Muni Tirthabhadra who is on stage.
Amar Shah dances with ecstatic abandon on stage just before his mundan which is a ceremonial tonsuring. He needs to be held by a muni, so that he doesn’t lose balance.
Bina Shah pays her respects to one of the elderly sadhvis. Bina will leave for her mundan ceremony, where her head will tonsured and he will be given her white robes.
In their finery, Amar and Bina Shah greet the audience. The strength of the community is evident; to participate in the event, Jains from all over Bombay have gathered for the week, braving the merciless Bombay summer. The time has finally come for the diksharthis to formally join the faith and start their new lives as ascetics.
Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju