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How this bracelet shows the importance of sibling bonds

To mark this year's festival of Raksha Bandhan, Something Understood has been looking at the significance of the rite in which sisters tie rakhi threads round their brothers' wrists for protection. We contemplate the power of this symbolic binding and consider the strength of sibling bonds and wider ties of friendship between people of all faiths.

What is Raksha Bandhan?

Raksha Bandhan is a significant festival in the Hindu calendar that is celebrated on the full moon in the lunar month of Sravana, which typically falls in August.

Sisters perform a rite in which they tie sacred threads, or rakhi, around their brothers' wrists.

What does the rakhi bracelet look like?

The rakhi is traditionally made from interwoven red and gold threads, and today the bands are often decorated with stones and beads and embellished with other colourful silk strands.

A rakhi: traditional Indian wrist band which is a symbol of love between brothers and sisters.

What does the rakhi symbolise?

A sister ties the band for protection: the word Raksha means protection whilst Bandhan means tying together or fastening. The rakhi, or thread, also symbolises the commitment that a brother and a sister are making to be loyal to one another and love each other. It is a symbol of a promise and a celebration of a relationship and bond. For Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, the granddaughter of Mahatma Ghandi, the band represents a “profound unspoken pledge.” “It is”, she says, “from heart to heart.”

A garland how frail of design,
Our spirits to clasp and entwine
In devotion unstained and unbroken,
How slender a circle and sign
Of secret deep pledges unspoken!

- The poet Sarojini Naidu, a colleague of Mahatma Ghandi, describing what a rakhi means to her.

Is it just brothers and sisters who tie the rakhi?

Actually, no. The festival is about more than celebrating sibling bonds. Rakhi are often shared between close friends. Priests tie rakhi around the wrists of their congregation, and women also tie the threads to men who are close to them but who are not actual members of their family. They then become “rakhi brothers” and “rakhi sisters”.

Sacred threads at a roadside stall ahead of the festival Raksha Bandhan in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Why is the rakhi bracelet so important?

As Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee explains, tying the rakhi is a way to say I am “close to you.” It is hard to describe a friendship, she says: “there are certain sentiments where words fail to describe.” But the tying of the bracelet physically brings two people together and does what words cannot. As the great Gandhi’s granddaughter says, there is nothing “that can take the place of this human relationship, of reaching out with your heart, and another person reaching out.”

In Tara’s mind the rakhi bracelet holds “a cosmic power.” The rakhi are a daily, visual, tangible reminder of the love and protection a sibling or friend has to offer.

To learn more about this year's festival of Raksha Bandhan, listen to Something Understood: The Ties That Bind.