P: “Dashain started on Saturday.”
Non-Nepali friend: “Oh, is that the Diwali festival? With all the lights?”
P: “No, Diwali is a different festival called Tihar in Nepal. Dashain is before Tihar and it’s kind of like a Nepali Thanksgiving. It is supposed to be religious, but now it seems to be more about families getting together, communities reconnecting, and eating lots of food. But our Thanksgiving lasts for 10-15 days.”
Every year I learn something new about these important Nepali festivals. I guess it is the same way a little kid learns about their own culture, they go through the same act year after year, but sometimes they learn different pieces of it, or they understand more of it, or a different part of the ritual is revealed to them. I’m just learning the different pieces of this adopted culture as an adult. I don’t claim to be an expert, its definitely a process…
In college the South Asian community—largely Nepali, but also Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi—organized the Diwali festival for the entire campus each year. They used to deck the campus chapel out in hundreds of tea lights, and spend the weekend cooking large aluminum trays full of food. The students dressed in South Asian attire and spent an hour or so explaining different aspects of the festival to the audience, demonstrating mantras, singing songs and performing dances. The evening ended with a distribution of tikkas and dinner. What I learned later on was that there were several festivals happening within a few months of each other, but I’m sure it was easier for the students to roll all the various holidays into one big party, and choose one of the more widely known festivals to celebrate. It was probably complicated enough to explain one festival anyway.
After college, P and I lived in central New York for a while, but I wasn’t around a lot since my job required me to travel. There was an older Nepali community, and they got together to celebrate Dashain and Tihar, but I didn’t really know what was going on, and wasn’t really around for them.
As you can probably tell as a common theme in these posts, once we moved to New England, I really started to learn more about specific Nepali cultural nuances.
However our first year after the move I was still pretty clueless. In fact, in my mind I was still blurring a lot of the holidays together… Dashain, Tihar, Diwali… they all seemed the same to me.
That year S-di and M-dai were hosting a big neighborhood party involving lots of cooking, dressing up in Nepali clothing, a tikka ceremony, and the inevitable singing and dancing that was to follow. During the tikka ceremony, M-dai and R-dai, the two eldest male Nepalis, settled themselves on the floor and called each person up, one by one, to give a series of blessings in Nepali while sticking the red tikka powder/yogurt/rice mixture to our foreheads. When it was P and my turn, R-dai did my blessing and said something like, “We hope you and P have a long happy life together. We hope that you foster strong and important connections between the US and Nepal. We hope that you learn the Nepali language fast and well.”
The second year, I was excited about Dashain. I really enjoyed the tikka ceremony, including everyone’s individualized blessings the year before, and I liked getting the big group together. It definitely had a Thanksgiving-esque quality to it—close friends, lots of food, holiday togetherness, fun.
Yet as I said earlier, there is always more to learn. All I had previously known about was the final Dashain day of tikka, I didn’t really know what happened during the the rest of the time. So when we were heading to S and R’s house on Friday they mentioned that there would be a “quick Dashain activity on Saturday morning” since it was the first day of the festival. I started asking them my laundry list of questions, “Do we need to bring anything for this? Do we need to dress up? Is there anything I should know?” It was quick, I was assured, don’t worry about it.
So after our Friday night momo party (mmmmm), we woke up relatively early on Saturday to the sound of S’s mom, S’s elder sister, and R cooking breakfast (sukuti or dried meat, spiced potatoes, a soybean mixture, and chiura or beaten rice). S’s dad was preparing the puja, including planting the jamara (barley grass seeds).
This was new… I had seen pictures from back in Nepal of people getting tikka for Dashain and having pieces of grass tucked behind their ears, but I didn’t know part of the ceremony was to grow the barley. Apparently on the first day of Dashain, the family plants the jamara, and within the 10 days of the festival the jamara grows. On the last day you cut the jamara and use the grass as a blessing. Since Dashain is both a religious festival, but also a festival that marks the end of the rice harvest, I’m sure that this part of the ritual has some sort of harvesting significance.
S’s dad made the puja and gave us all small tikkas, we had breakfast (which included beer… S’s brother-in-law says that it is traditional to drink alcohol as part of the celebration), and thus kicked-off the Dashain season of 2009—or should I say 2066, according to the Nepali calendar.
I’ll post more on Dashain in about 10 days.