Breaking Fast with the Shahs

Photos by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Additional reporting by Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

For Jains, every meal is a chance to strengthen and practice their religious beliefs.  Foods are carefully chosen in accordance with the Jain principles of nonviolence, and many Jains fast as a way to become closer with God.  

The Shah family--Taral, Kalgi and their daughter Manya, plus an assortment of parents, aunts and uncles--welcomed us into their home one Friday evening in March to share their dinner.

The whole family had gathered to share a meal with Mita Sanghvi, one of the family’s aunts. She was reaching the end of a year-long fast and eating one of her few designated meals that night.  

The Shah family’s living room where they greet guests. Though it looks like a tapestry from a distance, the artwork pictured is actually carved (about ¼ inch deep) onto the wall itself.

Every part of the Jain meal is carefully prepared in accordance with the specific requirements of the concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence.  Jains are strict vegetarians and take additional precautions to minimize harm to all life forms, including microorganisms, during their meals. Jains do not use root or bulb vegetables since they believe that growing these vegetables causes harms to insects and organisms. Dinner that evening consisted of (clockwise from top) pao bhaji, dal, fruit salad with pomegranate seed, lentil, vegetable pancake, roti, and athana, a home-made mango pickle dish which the Shahs gifted for us to take home.  

The Shah family sits down for an early dinner together around 5 P.M. They eat before sunset because the family members practicing the strictest form of Jainism do not eat after sundown. This is another practice against violence toward living organisms – Jains believe that the period after sundown is when bacteria grows most rapidly in food.

Mita Sanghvi (in pink salwar kameez) is participating in Vashitap, a year-long fast during which adherents eat only two meals on alternating days and drink water on the remaining days. Her fast is the reason for the family’s gathering today.

Traditional Jain artifacts adorn the Shah home. Aside from religious (Jain) artwork or statues, their home is decorated mostly in beige / muted colors and objects that serve practical purposes.

Everyone is expected to clean his or her plate at the end of the meal. Wasting even a morsel of food goes against Jain principles.

Jains fast to purify themselves, but also to feel closer to god. Five of Mita’s family members will be completing the same fast this year.

In order to not waste food, the strictest Jains will pour a bit of water onto their plate and wash it with their fingers.  They then drink the liquid to clean their plate in a practice called pani dhoine pivu

Clean cups and bowls after the Shahs have finished their dinner.  

This is Mita Sanghvi’s second time undergoing a Varshitap fast; her last Varshitap was three years ago.  After fasting she feels stronger, she says, as the fast reminds one that “every sense is in your control.”

Many Jains use water boiled in the home as drinking water. Jain scholar Dr. John Cort writes in his book, Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India, “According to Jain biology, by boiling water, one prevents the birth of infinite invisible organisms, and actually prevents much himsa [violence]. The small amount of himsa that one causes from boiling water is much less than that which results from drinking unboiled water with all its microorganisms.”

Manya Shah, 10, is the only Jain in her class. Her mother, Kalgi Shah, packs Manya a strict Jain lunch each day.

All the food in the meal was prepared on that day. Stored food accrues microorganisms over time and therefore is excluded from the strictest Jain diet.

Hemendra Sanghvi explains the science of the Jain diet. Everything, including the types of fasts one performs and time of day one eats, is formulated to avoid harming, animals, insects, and the tiniest microbes. “No one should be hurt because of your own choice, or your own taste,” he says.  

The women in the family discuss the Jain diet after dinner.

Pankaj, Mahesh and Taral Shah [L-R] discuss the merits of fasting. Jains fast on different days, called tithis. They avoid certain foods or do not eat at all on the fifth, eighth, and 14th days of the lunar month.

Manya sits on her mother’s lap as the family listens to Pankaj speak.  

Mita Sanghvi touches Pina Shah’s feet in a gesture of humility. Many Indians, not only Jains, perform this gesture to elders or teachers as a sign of respect.

Mita receives a gift upon completing her fast. It is typical for women who are fasting to receive some type of token to celebrate their accomplishment.

Manya poses for a photo with her family’s live-in domestic help. It’s not unusual for wealthier Jain families to have servants of a different religion--the Shah’s domestic help is Hindu.

Taral shows a drawing of Arjun from the family’s shrine. Taral and his family have a small, private shrine for home worship, while Pankaj, his uncle, has a larger outdoor shrine that is open to the whole community.

The Shahs have built a Jain temple upstairs in a room in their house. Here, Manya dusts the god with a peacock duster, which is used to clear away any insects or microbes.   

Manya stands inside the the family’s temple.  

A family photo. Back row, from left to right, Hemendra Sanghvi, Mahesh Shah, Pankaj Shah, Darshna Shah, Jyotika Sanghvi, Mita Sanghvi, Pina Shah

Front row, left to right, Kalgi Shah, Manya Shah, Taral Shah.

The authors (Andrea Januta, Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, and Ellen Ioanes, L-R)  join the family for a photo.