Tag Archives: Nepali rituals

Panchami and the Bhutanese Refugees

Back from New York, Teej and fasting.

I fasted from about 9pm on Friday night until about 9pm on Saturday so that when we were in the South Asian section of the city (Jackson Heights, Queens) I could eat at the Nepali restaurant with our friends. I found fasting a bit easier this year, I think because we were so busy walking around and doing things in the city that it made the day pass more quickly and kept my mind off of it. Although when someone sitting next to me at the tennis match ate a delicious smelling panini it made my mouth water.

Me at the US Open, Roger Federer in the background, wearing my red Teej clothing

On Sunday P and I woke up early and drove back to Massachusetts so that I could meet up with AS and S-di at the Bhutanese refugee gathering. By the time I arrived one of the pujas had already taken place, but I was quickly ushered to the newly forming ring of women preparing for the second puja.

AS and S-di were dressed in beautiful red saris, AS wearing the same clothes as she wore several months prior for her wedding including potes, bangles, dori and tikka. Since I was walking in straight from the highway, I was only wearing a red shirt and sweater and P’s mother’s red Teej necklace, but at least I had the right colors on.

AS explained that the women had organized a puja for Panchami, which is technically the fifth day (panch= five) but was actually the third day of Teej (Day 1—Daar feast, Day 2—Teej fast)– sometimes I really don’t get the Nepali calendar. The puja is in honor of seven gods represented by seven stars in the sky that are in the shape of a question mark (I’m assuming she was referring to the “seven sisters,” or Pleiades, in Orion’s belt, but maybe she meant a different constellation?). Again, the women generally fast until after the puja, and the puja is supposed to cleanse them of any sins they committed during the year (particularly sins they may have committed breaking menstrual taboos such as touching food, etc).

I enjoy pujas, especially larger chaotic ones. I don’t ever really understand anything that is going on, but there is always a lot of activity and confusion. Yesterday the large cluster of women sat in a circle with the priest (the only man in the group), who had spread before him an assortment of puja paraphernalia such as flowers and flower petals, fruits, rice, water, and incense. As the priest chanted prayers the women would pass around paper plates/bowls with flowers, water, or rice. I’d periodically be prompted to take a small handful of flower petals or water, hold it between my hands (in the namaste gesture), drip the water on my head, or touch the petals to my forehead, and then throw the petals into the middle of the circle.

At one point I was given a small plate on which  I  had to place a banana, apple, rice, flowers, water dyed with red tikka powder, and coins, and I offered it to the priest as a blessing. Even if I’m unsure of what to do, the other participants are usually willing to share or help me out, passing me handfuls of rice or miming the hand gestures I should follow.

Near the end of the puja the women stood, and started shuffling clockwise around the pile of puja material while the priest chanted, and plates with apples stuffed with handfuls of incense were lit as an arti and burned like candles. We were supposed to circle the altar seven times (but I might have only made it around three), and after the priest circulated through the crowd giving post-puja red tikkas.

Here are a few pictures from the event—

women sitting in the circle near the priest

AS (left) explains a few nuances of the puja as I'm passed a bowl of water. The priest's peach-pink-gray topi hat is seen to the left.

Listening to the priest for the next step. S-di is in the red sari with green pote to the left

Center of the puja activity-- bananas, flowers, yogurt, incense, apples, oranges, money, rice, nuts, even glass bangles

Giving offerings to the priest

Apple arti

Circling the puja area. You can tell the married women from the unmarried women by their necklaces (or lack there of).

Puja aftermath

And apparently a Nepali website (Sajha.com) captured me in action too-- chatting with AS and S-di

And posing for pics! AS, me, S-di, and an acquaintance of S-di's

For more views of Teej you can check out Nepal News video clip on celebrating in KTM this year.

It’s Time Again for Teej

It is time again for Teej, the Nepali festival where women (from some of the ethnic groups in Nepal) fast for the long healthy lives of their husbands.

One of my first blog postings last year was about Teej– what the festival was about and my own personal feelings about participating in the festival.

This year I was quite excited. A few weeks ago several women in the community started planning a gathering so we  (with significant others) could be together during this female centric holiday. S-di was planning a big Daar dinner (the feast before the fast), with lots of music, dancing and merriment (as usual).

Next the plan was to be together for the fast on Saturday– relaxing, dressing in red, and going to the temple to meet with other Nepali women for the puja. Lastly, after breaking the fast at midnight on Saturday, we would gather on Sunday morning at a community center where the local Bhutanese refugees were planning a special puja to close the festival celebration.

Women in Kathmandu celebrating Teej

Until… I realized that months and months ago I bought tickets and agreed to go with P and some of our male friends to the US Open Semi Finals in New York on the same day as the Teej fast. If the tickets were less expensive, or the plan more spur of the moment, I would definitely drop it, but I feel kind of locked in. Needless to say I’m really disappointed.

That’s the problem with Nepali festivals. I never know when they are going to happen. I generally know when to start asking about them—Teej is usually in late August or early September. Dashain is in early to mid October (I think this year it’s Oct 8-23rd, but I’m not sure when the main day is yet) and Tihar is in early to mid November (this year Nov 4-7th), but festivals never seem to be on anyone’s radar until they start talking about festival dates and celebrations during conversations with parents back home.

So I think the fast this year will be hard. Waking up early, walking around New York all day, sitting out in the sun, pretending to watch tennis while day dreaming about food. As I’ve mentioned to some of my Muslim friends and students, I have a lot of respect for those who participate in the Ramadan fast. It takes a lot of dedication and will power not to cheat, and for those who come from whole cultures and communities that celebrate, it must be truly challenging to move to a place where there are very few people who commemorate such an important festival. (And by the way, today is Eid-al-Fitr—Mubarak!)

Thus Saturday won’t be as enjoyable participating in the fast essentially on my own instead of with a community, but I’m still going to do it. It’s my last Teej before marriage, and next year will be particularly special as my very first married Teej– which I will be able to prove to the wider Nepali community by wearing my very own red wedding pote. No tennis matches next year for sure!

Our friends AS and N who got married this summer ("Nepali Wedding in New England"). AS is wearing her red wedding pote with golden tillary. She will wear this necklace again tomorrow for Teej.

I also still plan to wear red. Last summer when we were in Nepal P’s mother gave me a few red necklaces and red tikkas that she specifically asked me to wear during Teej. I’m wearing one of her necklaces today in honor of Daar (I’m also wearing a reddish-orange kurta top as well).

So happy Teej to those who might be celebrating, and happy fasting. May the lives of you and your partner (and family) be long, happy and healthy!

Gai Jatra

September-November is prime festival season in Nepal… even though we are at the end of August, the festivals are already starting.

Today is another  such festival, one I hadn’t heard of until we talked about it yesterday evening while P was showing off his rakhi.

Gai Jatra basically means “festival” (jatra) of the “cows” (gai) and is most commonly celebrated by people of the Newar community in the Kathmandu Valley. The festival commemorates those who have passed away during the previous  year.

Supposedly the festival has roots with the royal family—one of the Malla kings lost his son and the queen was so grief stricken throughout the year that her husband desperately wanted to relieve his wife of her sorrow. He announced that anyone who could make her laugh would be rewarded—so the local people paraded through the streets with cows (a sacred animal in Hinduism), and afterward there was a giant party with costumes, music, and jokes, particularly satirical jokes which made fun of important people in society. Eventually they were able to make the queen laugh, and the festival became an annual occurrence.

As part of the tradition, every family who has lost a relative during the past year participates in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu leading a cow. If a cow is unavailable then a young boy dressed as a cow can be substituted. After the procession the atmosphere is light and jovial—people dress up, wear masks, sing songs and tell jokes. Humor and mockery continue until late in the evening.

According to Wikipedia: “Gaijatra is a healthy festival which enables the people to accept the reality of death and to prepare themselves for life after death.”

Photos from this year's Gai Jatra celebration posted by Nepal News

Nepali Wedding in New England

I don’t want to scare people away with excessive wedding talk, but as I mentioned in “Wedding Season” our house was the wedding house for our dear friends AS and N last week and there was too much interesting blogging material to ignore.

Not only did they have a beautiful wedding ceremony, and an informal fun reception for 70 guests, they planned and executed the event in approximately two and a half weeks! They were even able to coordinate having some of their wedding necessities sent from Nepal through various travelers making their way to New England. For someone who has a year to organize, their feat was quite amazing!

So rather than go through round two of lengthy explanations of the event, I just wanted to share my highlights:

Unlike our friends R and S, AS and N had a one day ceremony/reception. Our Nepali wedding will be relatively similar, perhaps even in the same temple. Rather than go to the Nepali priest who performed P’s Brathabandha, they opted to go to a South Indian temple in another nearby city. Thus the rituals were a hybrid between Nepali and South Indian traditions.

The bride and groom looked great. The groom wore a traditional Daura Suruwal made from Nepali dhaka fabric. This outfit differentiates the Nepali groom from an Indian groom whose clothing style has a completely different fabric, cut and color combination:

N (in pink colored daura suruwal and traditional topi hat) stands with several of his relatives including a few cousins wearing red and gold Indian inspired wedding clothes

AS wore a sari sent by N’s mother in Nepal. Along with the sari the couple had wedding pote, wedding bangles, grass garlands, and sindoor sent from Kathmandu.

AS in bridal attire

As promised, I made flower wedding garlands (called “mallas”) for the ceremony. It was much easier than I thought. I purchased a yarn needle and some green yarn to string the flowers, and I cut the stems off the carnation heads before making the necklaces. I kept the mallas covered in a damp towel in the refrigerator overnight to keep the garlands fresh for the morning ceremony. The mallas turned out well, and added a colorful fragrant touch to the ceremony—I was quite proud of myself.

Red carnation garlands that I made on a platter after being blessed in the temple with grass mallas and wedding pote sent from Kathmandu

The hour and a half long ceremony was filled with many rituals, but my favorite part is when the bride and groom start to exchange all the wedding goodies—pote, rings, garlands—

Red pote, yellow pote, green pote, then exchange of rings, grass mallas and flower garlands

and of course the important moment when the groom applies the bridal sindoor and the couple becomes officially married.

White cloth is stretched from a representation of god to AS's forehead. N sprinkles sindoor starting at the base of the cloth up to AS's hair. On the third sprinkle the couple is officially considered married. As a gesture of tradition and respect AS bows to touch N's feet but N tries to stop her and get her to stand.

At the end of the ceremony some of the younger neighbors played the role of AS’s sisters and (as per tradition) stole N’s shoes– he had to pay some cold hard cash before the girls would return them. AS’s brother carried AS on his back around the wedding car as a way of saying goodbye to her as a member of their family and the couple drove to our house where N’s extended relatives officially welcomed AS to the family by performing several simple Mukh Herne rituals. Afterward the couple arrived at their reception which was set up in a neighbor’s backyard and catered by a new Nepali restaurant (the Yak and Yeti) in Boston.

Once AS removed her red sequined veil at the reception, we could appreciate her beautiful wedding hair style complete with traditional red dori hair decoration.

So congratulations and a long happy life to the new married couple!

Wedding Season

Wedding season is upon us! It feels that way at least, with a wedding happening in our house tomorrow. No—I didn’t decide to jump the gun, our summer roommates and good friends AS and N are getting married tomorrow.

Our whole household has been very busy helping them organize, and I’m excited to see it all come together tomorrow morning. I’m also excited to help make flower garlands for the wedding ceremony tonight. I found a bucket full of red carnations at the store yesterday, and bought some green yarn and large needles to string the flowers. I’m getting all sorts of ideas.

Last night we had a sangeet/bachelorette party for AS—a sangeet is an Indian tradition not Nepali, but we thought it would be a fun way to have a ladies night anyway. We ate lots of great food, including one of my favorites– pani puri, listened to Bollywood music, rubbed turmeric on the bride’s face and arms to give her a “golden glow” (which she certainly still has this morning… even I do, my fingers have been stained yellow from painting her face),  had lots of drinks (well, it was a bachelorette party), and then made henna designs (which could have been a lot more interesting considering the drinking, but my hands look descent enough this morning ;)).

I don't know why I always wear this shirt when I have henna done... now its kinda like my official henna application outfit.

So get ready for the  return of my green wedding sari (from the R & S affair), it’s wedding time in the American-Nepali Household!!

Did I mention there is another wedding on Friday?

Monsoon Wedding V- Groom’s Celebrations

After the Swayambar, it is time for the wedding ceremonies to shift from the bride’s side to the groom’s side. This shift starts with the “pita biee” (in Newari) or Bidaai– saying goodbye to the bride. This is quite an emotional ceremony (especially when everyone is exhausted because they had two hours sleep after a nearly all night wedding program), because traditionally this is the last time the bride is at her house as a regular member of the household and not as a wife visiting from another home.

R still manages to be beautiful despite her undoubted exhaustion. I guess it makes it easier to look sad and serious.

The bride and groom are ritually fed (Sagun) before their journey (which is usually not so long since many people in the Kathmandu Valley marry others in KTM, but R had to travel 4 hours away by car to Chitwan!)

Near the end of the Bidaai the bride is led by her family to the groom's awaiting entourage. Tears flow freely. Here R is hugging her brother good bye, while her tearful mother leads her to the car's open door.

Tucking her into the car

I jumped in the car with the bride and groom and was given the job of protecting the bride’s new wedding jewelry in a little case from “bandits” we might encounter on the winding road between Kathmandu and Chitwan. S laughed it off, saying that Kathmandu-ites don’t know what life outside the valley is like, but I made sure to keep the wedding bling close at hand along the route.

A little more than halfway through our journey the wedding entourage stopped for refreshments. Even though the monsoon rains had started right before the wedding began (bringing a bit of relief from the sweltering heat of the pre-monsoon summer), Chitwan is known for its heat (hence my shorter dress, rather than longer sari–poor mzungu).

P and I are to the far left. R and S are in the middle, surrounded by other friends

Once we arrived in Chitwan the janthi (return of the janthi!) started to gather at S’s old elementary school on the outskirts of town. Those of us who participated in the original janthi were joined by legions of S’s relatives, neighbors and family friends who couldn’t make the trip to KTM. As the janthi time approached we swelled to quite the crowd.

S triumphantly returned to his home city atop a regal horse, while R was loaded into the flower draped basket from which S originally departed the city, and was carried along the janthi procession. The marching band (with the long round horns) led the way.

R peeks out from her veiled basket at the janthi procession

R and S in the janthi crowd

S assured us that Chitwan was much cooler since the rain had come than it had been before (during his own wedding prep time), but it was still unbearably hot and humid. As part of a massive, dancing, pulsing crowd, our sweaty bodies squeezed together in the celebratory chaos, the temperature was suffocating– but it didn’t stop the revelry. Some of S’s uncles bought cold beers to pass along the janthi procession to refresh the crowd while the city seemed to stop and watch the entertainment of our entourage.

Crazy dancing... yep, the pale one is me

Wedding processions-- a spectator sport

One of the most interesting aspects of the procession was the ingenuity of the lighting. Since there wasn’t proper street lighting, the procession was lit by electric tube lights strung together and held atop people’s heads in wooden boxes, and powered by a wagon drawn generator.

I was told that the procession wasn’t so far… only a kilometer or two, but if that was the case, it was one of the longest kilometers of my life. The entourage processed slowly. Every time one of us tried to break to the front of the janthi for a breath of fresh air one of S’s uncles would tell us to walk slower, dance more, so that the janthi had more time to celebrate and clog the streets before arriving at S’s family home.

As we approached, S’s mother (seeing the wedding procession for the first time) meet the janthi party outside the front door holding a lantern and a metal platter with welcoming prasad. R’s basket was placed on the ground and S’s mother waved the platter in front of R in a gesture of welcoming, helped R out of the basket, and gestured for her to go inside. It was all pretty remarkable. It struck me how nerve wracking the experience could be. R had the advantage of knowing S’s immediate family quite well, and she had friends (us!) along for the ride, but everything else was new– new city (she had never been to Chitwan before), a sea of new faces, new relatives, new family traditions. Not to mention she was probably utterly (utterly!) exhausted by this point. I couldn’t help but think, wow, how brave.

Anmaune-- welcoming the new bride to the groom's home. I blocked out R's face for privacy reasons, but if you could see her eyes you would know how tired she looked

We were such good friends, that we abandoned the couple for the next 12 hours. The group of us (from the picture above) headed to Chitwan National Park to go on an early morning elephant safari and see some wild rhinos.

Views from the top of an elephant... two wild rhinos

While we were gone on safari, the wedding rituals for the new couple continued with early morning pujas at the temple. Remember… it’s ungodly hot, but as per tradition, the new bride has to wear the groom’s family’s clothing (that they purchased for her), and new brides are supposed to be kept covered–meaning long sleeves and shawls. Poor R was boiling.

At his family temple, S again ritually applies sindoor to R's scalp, this time in S's family's style... one end of the white cloth is touching a god, the other end touching R's forehead. S sprinkled sindoor powder from the god, across the white cloth up to R's forehead. S's mom, pointing at the cloth, explains the procedure.

At last, the groom’s reception. Being the chivalrous guy that he is, S spoke up to his family about R wearing the heavy long sleeved wedding sari in the heat. The family compromised, R could wear her family’s lighter weight sari if she wore a shawl with it.

Friends

and Family. The groom's family gifts matching saris to all the women in the janthi-- so all the family members have the same look. Even though I was part of the janthi, I cheated, and S bought me a sari of my choosing (the green one).

After three days in Chitwan, it was time to leave. R had to settle into her new “home” (although, in name only since she lives in the US) and get to know her new extended relatives. P, myself and the others journeyed back on the four hour long winding road up into the hills and into the KTM valley.

Only one major wedding ritual left… Mukh Herne.

Monsoon Wedding Part I

Yesterday R and S celebrated their one year wedding anniversary. That means a year ago today I was deep into a weeklong procession of activities (in sticky hot pre-monsoon, then monsoon, Kathmandu and Chitwan weather)  to honor our good friends and their union with each other. Since summer is wedding season, I figured it was about time to write about what a traditional Nepali wedding looks like. Our friends are Newari, so some of the wedding details are specific to Newari culture, but it gives a good idea of how big of an event a wedding in Nepal can be.

I plan to break the discussion of R and S’s wedding into six blog posts with lots of pictures. Here was the basic schedule of events:

Supari- engagement ceremony (“supari” is the Newari version, Chetris do one that is a little different called “sai pata”)
Bride’s Reception
Janthi- groom’s procession (can happen before or after wedding ceremony… for R and S it happened both times)
Swayambar- “actual” wedding after this ceremony they are considered married
Bidaai (in Newari, “pita biee”) bride’s family says goodbye to bride
Janthi (reprise)
Anmaune-groom’s family welcomes the bride
Sagun- (Newari) more bride welcoming
Groom’s reception
Mukh Herne- (Newari) “Face Looking” ceremony, welcoming groom to bride’s home and conclusion

All of this happened over the course of 7 days. So stay tuned, you’re invited to the story.

I look at R and S's wedding invitation. Most were in Nepali but luckily they had a small number of English language invites!