“Sao Joao, Sao Joao, Viva Sao Joao!”
The shouts were followed by unbelievably loud splashes in a red laterite well. The well itself was decked up like a bride. All along the way to Siolim in North Goa, on the banks of river Chapora, the road blossomed with people wearing big smiles and bigger floral wreaths, ‘Kopels’.
At Siolim, flows a tiny river called Anjuna. The ivory white church of St. Anthony overlooks a small bridge across Anjuna which was festooned extravagantly with ribbons, balloons and flowers. On the grassy riverbank, hundreds of chairs were laid out and a makeshift stage creaked under the weight of musicians, dancers, announcers, and impromptu performers jumping up from the audience.
This was the San Joao Festival, celebrated on the 24th June of every year, to mark St. John the Baptist’s Nativity. Bible (Gospel of Luke) says that St. John baptised Jesus in the waters of River Jordan. No wonder St. John is the patron saint of waters. I tried talking with several merrymakers about the festival, but soon realized that it is more important to join in rather than asking questions. The venue started filling up with locals in shorts with the most outlandish wreaths of fruits, flowers, ferns, and, in keeping with the spirit of Goa, beer cans. Women were dancing in abandon, laughing and drinking beer. There were no lewd remarks or furtive glances to be wary of. On the stage, famous folk singer Lorna was singing the favorites and audience joined in.
Along the leafy lanes of Siolim, young men and women were jumping into wells making resounding splashes. This year (2019), the monsoon was delayed and not all wells were full. Groups of friends moved from home to home, singing bawdy songs, only to be hosed down with water from the homes. Gates of small villas were thrown open and as I curiously wandered into a garden, a sprightly old lady rushed from the verandah with an earthen pot, and drenched me in seconds.
This was a carnival like no other.
As the sky started to show a promise of an evening, beautifully decked boats sailed in the tiny Anjuna River with performers in sequinned dresses. “San Joao San Joao, Viva San Joao” was everywhere. I was made to wear a fern wreath and clambered on to one of the boats and fell in the Anjuna River, with people cheering. It is an experience which will stay close to me for a long time to come: A private Goa where locals in wildflower wreaths jump in the river and decorate wells like brides. You could touch the Joie de vivre floating on the river.
Wells are cleaned before Sao Joao, riverbanks are cleaned and spruced up and water becomes a place where people come together, sing, dance and celebrate. It is also a prayer for a good monsoon. Goa’s Sao Joao is a reminder that festivals around water in India are beyond one single religion or faith. Water infuses joy in communities held together beyond their religious beliefs. In a country where the Ministry of Water Resources added ‘Ganga Rejuvenation’ in its name somehow thinks that piety of only a single river holds the nation together, the reality is that celebration flows from the mighty Ganga to tiny the Anjuna, from Nyamjangchu to Cauvery, from Kali Bein to Chalakudy.
San Joao, its wells and rivers left me spellbound. I thought this was a special festival of Goa with Portuguese roots and that was that. But river tales are seldom short or uncomplicated. What began in Goa went on from Russia to Sweden to Iran-Iraq to Philippines to Peru to North America to Canada and beyond.
St. John the Baptist, the pull of River Jordan and Baptism in several religions
St. John the Baptist (Yahya Ibn Zacchariya in the Quran), whose nativity or birth is celebrated on the 24th of June, predates Jesus Christ. Bible notes that he “Baptised” Christ in the waters of River Jordan. “Baptism”, the rite of admission ceremony in Christianity literally arises from greek root “to immerse” or to “Bathe”.
Purification through immersion or bathing in a sacred body of water, many a times a river, is an integral part of several faiths.
Ablution and immersion for purification and washing away of sins are an important part of Hindu rituals, immortalised in numerous scriptures.
In Judaism, baptism or “purifying” ritual is called as Tevilah and ritual immersion happen at water bodies called the “Mikveh”. Mikveh hold “living waters” and not all rivers or bathing places are Mikveh. The roots of Mikveh go to River Jordan again, as it does in other Gnostic religions that emerged around the fertile crescent.[i]
Mandaeism is a monotheistic religion originally practiced in parts of southern Iraq and Iran, near the lower Karun, Euphrates, Tigris and other rivers surrounding Shatt-al-Arab[ii]. In these traditions, Golden Baptism (Dihwa id Dihana) takes place in flowing body of water, especially Tigris or Jordan.
Like all rivers become Ganga for local Hindu communities for sacred rites, all sacred rivers become “Yardena” or Jordan in Mandaeism. I find this particularly lovely. It is also believed that Mandaeism predates Christianity and one of the apostles of Mandaeans is St. John the Baptist, called Yehyea Yahana[iii].
24th June is an important date for baptizing and immersion in rivers in Mandeism too.
Mandaeans along Tigris River in Baghdad Photo: https://www.phillytrib.com/
Midsummer Rituals and Sacred Waters
Which brings us to the next part of this beautiful puzzle. Dates close to 24th June or St. John’s Nativity are celebrated in several countries of the Northern Hemisphere as the Summer Solstice: longest day of the year marking the peak of summer. Winter solstice falls in one of the same days in the Southern Hemisphere, marking the shortest day of the year and the peak of winter.
Closer to Summer Solstice are the Midsummer festivals (Midsommar or Kupala) are celebrated on the Eve of or on the 24th June in several countries. It is believed that this is an ancient celebration of harvest, fertility and changing seasons. With the rise of Christianity, polytheist nature worship like Midsummer Celebrations or Water and Fire worship was frowned upon, however, the traditions lived on and passed on.
Interestingly, all these traditions lead back to water worship: rainfall, rivers, wells. Here’s a look at some of the intriguing traditions:
In Sweden, official midsummer day or Midsommar which falls on 23 June[iv] is one of the most-loved festivals and a national holiday. It is said that in Sweden this tradition goes back to Paganism[v] and the myth of Freya and Freyr: Norse gods of fertility. It also involves visiting water and wells and this custom supposedly goes back to the Viking times[vi]. In some places, girls wearing beautiful floral wreaths, float them down along the river with a wish. This seems to link with the wreaths worn in Goa.
In Denmark and Norway the name of Midsummer Festival or St. John’s Eve has changed to St. Hans Aften, “Hans” being the diminutive for Johannes, or John[vii].
In Russia, Ivan Kupala is an important celebration which keeps to its slav roots of “Kupala” night, but Ivan was added later, for St John. However, several heathen enchantments linger on at the periphery of this festival. Roots of Kupala go back to ancient Slavic traditions.[viii] The tradition has been immortalised in the works of celebrated authors like Nikolai Gogol. Till date, several small towns celebrate Ivan Kupala through Bon-Fires, Magic Fern Hunt and floating wreaths in rivers and ponds. Floating wreaths in water is said to be a remnant of ancient fertility rituals and unsurprisingly, incantations and love chants abound the night festivities. As a couple enters a river, a chant goes: “As we enter you together, we will go through life together.”[ix]
In Ukraine, Ivan Kupala or Midsummer is strongly linked to the river and water where branches “Kupala” Tree (Willow, a riparian tree) are often offered to the river, a lingering form of sacrifice. In Ukraine too young girls float wreaths into the river and ponds on Kupala night.[x]
In Romania, St. John the Baptist is known as St. Ioan Botezatorul and 24th June is also the Sanziene or Dragaica tradition which goes back to Pagan period.[xi] Sanzienes are gentle fairies of the riverbank. Local girls dress in whites, with wreaths in their hair and float candles and wreaths into the water at closing.
Midsummer in Lithuania is also known as Saint Jonas’ Festival, Rasos (Dew Holiday), Kupolė, Midsummer Day and St. John’s Day. Young girls swim in rivers and float floral wreaths in the river on this day.
In Germany, On St John’s Day 1333, Petrarch recorded watching women at Cologne rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine “so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.”[xii]
In Scotland, St. Johns Eve or Midsummer is a time when holy wells were worshiped with rushes [xiii] (riparian grasses). In Britain and Ireland, bathing in holy wells on Midsummer’s eve is linked with St. Johns Eve as well as pre-Christian water worshipping traditions.[xiv]
England, Scotland and Ireland home thousands of such sacred wells. St. John’s eve or Midsummer’s Eve holds special significance, as recorded by Viator (1825), “‘[a]t the midnight hour, precisely at the point of time which separates midsummer eve from midsummer day, when all is silence, and all expectation, the channel that forms the communication between the wells, becomes insufficient to contain the increasing stream; and its waters burst forth, overflowing the entire plain’.
According to scholars, “The evidence strongly suggests the existence of a pre-Christian midsummer pagan bathing festival associated with the promotion of health. St John’s association with baptism would therefore have made him a fitting choice by the early Church for patronage of midsummer. It might further be suggested that all ‘holy wells’ were originally associated with midsummer but later moved to the feast days of saints, thus removing their pagan midsummer associations. In some instances, however, the mid-summer tradition was so powerful that it proved resistant to change.”[xv]
San Juan Festival is celebrated in several countries far and away from each other. In Peru, the festival combines St John’s Eve with the reverence that local tribes have for water. However, 24th June as a date was established since colonial influence. [i] In Peru, St. John is known as San Juan Bautista, also the Patron Saint of the Amazon. 24th June or the Winter Solstice in southern hemisphere is also celebrated as the ancient Inca festival of Inti Raymi, festival of the Sun God according to the Inca calendar.
In Manila, Philippines and its suburb of San Juan, residents gather along the main street to celebrate the feast of San Juan township’s patron saint of St. John The Baptist. The festival is celebrated by dousing with water unsuspecting passersby and commuters.
Patron Saint of the monsoon
Parts of Mexico and South Western United States are also dependent on monsoon for major water supply. In these places, “Dia de San Juan” is a major celebration and also a prayer for a good monsoon.
Restoration of Santa Cruz River, Tucson Arizona
In Tuscon, Arizona, El Dia de San Juan in 2019 was marked by the release of treated waste-water into the dry Santa Cruz river at its origin as a part of Santa Cruz River Heritage Project. Water flowed in the river on the special day after several years.
St. John’s Nativity or 24th June holds a special significance for Santa Cruz river because as the legend goes, in 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer stood on the banks of a parched Santa Cruz River and prayed for rain on the feast day of St. John the Baptist and the monsoon rains started on 24th June.
In Sonora, Mexico, image of San Juan is taken to the River Mayo and is bathed. This is believed to bless the river. Needless to say, splashing, drenching and pouring are an important part of this day too.
At the confluence
My journey that started as a colourful festival of wells and rivers in Goa flowed and branched out to discovery of so many people and cultures across faiths, ages and geographies. What links them together is a sense of wonder about changing seasons, an optimism about harvest and rain and a reason to celebrate water. Just as the rivers bind the land, connecting mountains to the seas, water traditions bind people, across continents, ages and religious beliefs. It may not be entirely coincidental that June 24 marks half year away from Dec 24-25, the Christmas!
It may be San Joao in Siolim, Ivan Kupala in Ukraine, San Juan Fest in the heart of Amazon or a Dia de San Juan in a parched Arizona, water brings people together and kickstarts celebrations.
For me, a colourful, quirky tradition in Goa opened a window to the world where people of different colour and culture fundamentally yearn to be close to water and each other. Across borders and faiths, water worship is a global phenomenon. Viva San Joao!
~ Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[v] Paganism Surviving in Christianity By Abram Herbert Lewis
[xii] Petrarch, Epistolae familiares, Aachen,21 June 1333, noted by Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory 1995:265.
[xiv] Struell: bathing at midsummer and the origins of holy wells, Finbar McCormick https://pureadmin.qub.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/136229331/Struell_Ruralia.pdf
[xv] Struell: bathing at midsummer and the origins of holy wells, Finbar McCormick https://pureadmin.qub.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/136229331/Struell_Ruralia.pdf