On the surface, Raksha Bandhan seems like a quintessential North Indian Hindu festival. And while this claim is true to a large extent, the festival's history shows how it has also been used to promote communal harmony on a pan-Indian level.
When Alexander’s wife offered a rakhi to Porus: In local folklore and oral histories, the tradition of tying a rakhi can go beyond just the relationship of a brother and sister. It can also be used as a diplomatic tool to build peaceful relations between warring kingdoms.
One of the oldest examples of this comes from the time Alexander invaded portions of Pakistan and India, and defeated the ancient Indian king Porus. In a legend popularised further by the 1941 film Sikandar, it is claimed that Alexander’s wife Roxana offered a rakhi to Porus, who gladly accepted it. The king also went on to send her lavish gifts in return with Roxana asking him to promise to spare Alexander’s life in case Porus gained the upper hand.
According to the film, both kings engaged in a hand-to-hand combat duel that ended with Porus sparing Alexander’s life, upholding the promise he made as a Roxana’s ‘brother’. Of course, as many other sources suggest it was Alexander who eventually overpowered Porus’s forces and even imprisoned him for some time.
German film historian Anja Wieber in her 2017 book A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen touches upon this legend and adds that this might be “very early historical evidence for the origin of the authentic Hindu festival called Raksha Bandhan”.
When Humayun was ready to go to war for a rakhi: In Satish Chandra’s Medieval India, the veteran Indian historian mentions that a 17th century Rajasthani book states that the second Mughal emperor Humayun received a bracelet as a rakhi from Rani Karnavati, the widow of the king of Chittor.
Around 1535, the Gujarati Sultan Bahadur Shah was intent on invading Chittor. With the widowed queen unable to hold her ground, she decided to call on her ‘rakhi brother’ for aid. While Humayun did go to war against Bahadur Shah in this year, it is unclear if it was at Karnavati’s insistence.
As for his rakhi, Chandra reiterates, “Since none of the contemporary sources mention this, little credit can be given to this story…”
Whatever be the reasons or veracity of these claims, legends such as Roxana-Porus and Karnavati-Humayun show how the rakhi could create the bond of siblings beyond religion and ethnicity, at least on the royal level.
It is this unifying aspect of rakhis that would later be incorporated in the freedom movement.
Rakhi as a tool of anti-British protests: In August, 1905, the British decided to partition the Bengal Presidency into Hindu and Muslim majority provinces respectively. The festival of Raksha Bandhan was falling around the same time, with August coinciding with the Hindu month of Shravan.
As an attempt to unify people against the imperialist forces, Rabindranath Tagore called upon Hindus and Muslims to tie rakhis on each other’s wrists as a symbolic gesture.
Hundreds showed up with rakhis following Tagore’s call, in towns and cities like Kolkata, Chittagong, Dhaka and Rangpur.
Present-day relevance: The efforts of 1905 initially failed to prevent the partition of Bengal (even though the British withdrew it six years later). This effectively established the rakhi as a peaceful symbol of political protests, traces of which can be seen even today.
In recent times, attempts at secularising the festival include Hindu women tying rakhis to Muslim men (or vice versa) particularly in regions of North India. For instance, in Gorakhpur, this tradition has been an annual phenomenon since 2009, started by students intent on fostering peace in the town.
Coming back to Bengal, the state’s Basirhat district bore witness to communal tensions in 2017, following which the local Hindus and Muslims similarly celebrated Raksha Bandhan together to reduce tensions.