World Festivals
3:14 pm
Tue December 10, 2013

The 47 Ronin Remembered

Each week on World Music, we not only hear great sounds and songs from around the world, but I share a little news about the many interesting festivals that are taking place this week as well. Read on to learn about an one of Japan's most celebrated stories, "pole dancing" in Guatemala, and a controversial practice in India.

GISHI-SAI: The 47 Ronin

Ronin were wandering samurai warriors without a leader, and Gishi–sai is a Japanese festival which remembers forty-seven such warriors.

In 1703, dark political circumstances were involved when the master of these warriors, Asano Naganori, who after assaulting a court official, did the honorable thing by committing seppuku. The warriors in turn plotted to assassinate Kira, the court official in question, by waiting two years before invading his palace and killing him. But one killing begat more killings, and the warriors were condemned to die by ritual suicide. Death in this fashion was considered to be noble and justified, as a means of making amends for wrong doing. To this day, the mass suicide of the 47 Ronin is revered and honored at the Sengakuji Temple.

A re-enactment of the warrior seppuku is carried out on the temple grounds. This historical episode is the fodder for a plethora of artistic endeavors, be it in paintings, on wood blocks, in numerous plays, stories, at least six movies (including a forthcoming film starring Keanu Reeves), a whole set of television series even an opera.

In 2001 the CEO of the Tokai Kensetsu company in Tokyo committed suicide by this ghastly method, seppuku, because of financial losses suffered by his company. Death by suicide is still tolerated by many Japanese and the country ranks 10th in world statistics. Incidentally, number one is Greenland, with Nepal reporting zero.

FEAST OF SANTO TOMAS: Pole Dancing Taken To A New Level

High up in the rugged mountains of Western Guatemala, in the city of Chichicastenango, the local people are ready to party. The Feast of Santo Tomas is just around the corner and the festivities start on December 13th, which allows for a week of merry making before the actual feast day, December 21st.

Santo Tomás Church, Chichicastenango
Santo Tomás Church, Chichicastenango
Credit Wikimedia Commons

There are colorful parades, a whole bunch of different dances, including a fertility dance called the “dance of the snake.” The religious authorities strongly disapproved of that one, so they changed it to “The Dance of the Mexicans.” Why the Mexicans? Perhaps it’s because there's a snake in the middle of the Mexican flag. The highlight of the Saint Thomas Day activities takes place on the final day--the flying pole dancers. The huge pole has to my eyes the flimsiest of mechanisms at the top. A delicately balanced construction which allows the 'flyers' to whirl around on ropes as they descend to the ground. Described by The Lonely Planet site as bungee jumping for adults, my description would be those devoid of any sense of impending death! St. Thomas is the patron saint of Chichi, as its known, so perhaps he's also keeping an eye out for the pole dancers. 

MADE SNANA

The practice of lower class Indians rolling over banana leaves, which have been used as plates by upper classes, is highly controversial in India today. The practice is known as Made Snana and has been used by Dalits for over a hundred years. The Dalits were at one point in history referred to as the “untouchables,” but modern Indian governments have strenuously attempted to eliminate all classification of social ranking. Nevertheless, these poorer people have entrenched ideas pertaining to their customs, and certain segments have been vociferous in their objection with regards to the curtailment of long held beliefs. Spit Bath, as it is known in English, will take place from December 16th through 18th at various temples, particularly at the Kukke Subramanya Temple on the coast of Mangalore. In Hinduism, all humans are bound by the law of karma, that is they are born with past baggage and by performing Made Snana, or rolling in the remains of someone's dinner, will remove some of that burden. Most Indians abhor the ritual but when there was a  governmental effort to outlaw it, there were howls of protest, including accusations of  religious discrimination. So this year, on the Festival of Subramanya Shasti, more than 25,000 willing participants will enthusiastically roll around on the ground and over those banana leaves with their food residue. 

Learn more about these and other celebrations happening around the world this week on World Music with Deirdre Saravia, Saturday nights at 8:00 on KSTX 89.1 FM.