Till a couple of decades ago, Westerners were surprised that Indians hardly understood their passion for their ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ syndrome and their trooping out of workplaces sharp at 5 pm for the weekend. Neither wild horses nor unfinished work could stop them. In the recent decades, however, Indians have also picked up this weekend craziness. But advanced countries continue to take a dim view of the liberties that Indians take with punctuality. It may appear odd, but the two phenomena are actually connected—since both weekend off-days and clock-struck punctuality are imports from the West.
Visram or rest was surely embedded in our culture and Hindus, Jains and Buddhists certainly took a few days off each month for festivals. That is why our important festivals run into several days at a time, and they come approximately once a month. Most mark the end of particular agricultural seasons when crops were already in the granaries or ripe in the fields—after weeks of continuous labour, often without a break. We need to understand that while our solar calendar determined the months and named each day of the week, it was actually the lunar pakshas or fortnightly cycles that prevailed. Each day was numerically marked after the last new moon or full moon and these decided religious festivals, life cycle events and even project work. Commoners could, after all, see and “read the moon” on the sky, since there were no other clocks. The science of calculating the exact muhurtha or auspicious moment also thrived and provided gainful employment to certain skilled people.
Urban, Westernised Indians may now understand why almost all Indic festivals and observances are called by their lunar dates—like Ram Navami, Dussehra, Holi Purnima, Akshaya Tritiya, and so on. Hinduism was always a massive, ongoing exercise in the reconciliation of diversity and its ideology, and rituals were held together by a cadre of Brahmans. The latter usually agreed on the core essentials and heartily disagreed on everything else. Their loyalty was essentially to their local clientele who provided their economic support and, of course, to their own school of philosophy, pan-Indian or regional. Ritual practitioners among them were as professional as, say, doctors or lawyers, who tended directly to their clients. Local societies were split by caste and did not require ‘pastors’ or rabbis to lead the whole flock.
This amorphous, non-egalitarian religion felt no need to assemble all believers every Friday for Jumas like Muslims do or for Saturday Sabbaths like Jews or at Sunday Church like Christians. The weekly rest day of each Abrahamic creed was determined by its own religious necessity. Since Buddhism was also an organised community-based religion, Gautama Buddha introduced Uposatha (Upavasatha) as a day for meditation and cleansing the mind and it continues. While some countries like Sri Lanka observe it only on full moon and new moon days, Theravada Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia do it once a week. They have ingeniously split the lunar fortnight into two ‘quarter moons’, but even so, Uposatha did not dominate their life. Sunday holidays were enforced later by their colonial masters.
Though Buddhists of India also observed Uposatha, there were no compulsory weekly holidays for other Indic systems. The Hindu-Jain fortnightly lunar pakshas had their own fixed days like Ekadasi for person-centric observances, not community-based ones. Certain cults or regional variations within Hinduism could always dedicate a particular day, like Guruvar or Thursday for Gurus, without disturbing the all-India principle. It was left to the British to impose the Sunday off-day in their offices, military and commercial establishments. After the post-Macaulay educational system expanded in the 1840s, institutions governed by British rules adopted the Sunday holiday. The vast majority of Indians were, however, not affected by imported norms till late into the 19th century. This is when mining and industrialisation became quite visible and the Crown was duty-bound to ensure at least minimal justice to workers, especially to women and small children. The first Factory Act of 1881 introduced four days off a month, but the Royal Commission of 1890 wanted to ensure mid-day work-intervals and fix weekly off days. Thus, the second Factory Act of 1891 enforced one day a week off, but demanded full working hours, quite rigorously. Since Indians were not familiar with exact hours, the British set up bell towers or ghanta-ghars in several towns, whose gongs reminded Indians of each hour. The term “kitna baja” or “how many times did it ring” entered our lexicon and continues to mean “what is the time”.
Nevertheless, a general vagueness still prevails among many Indians and our casual attitude to punctuality is proverbial. In fact, many Indians still cannot figure out why Westerners are so terribly obsessed with Sundays and weekends, which is now moving towards three days. In the West, when doctors were required to work over weekends, many Indians stepped forward as earnings were more important than weekends. We need to understand that our millennia-old cultural genes were imbedded by the needs of the majority’s religion and culture, and these neither commanded the strict cognisance of the hours nor punished the lack of punctuality.
(Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati)
(firstname.lastname@example.org, Tweets @jawharsircar)