Category Archives: Customs and Rituals

Happy Dashain Part I

P: “Dashain started on Saturday.”

Red tikka paste and jamara (barley grass) pictured in a Dashain e-card

Red tikka paste and jamara (barley grass) pictured in a Dashain e-card

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.”

R-dai gives me tikka during my first Dashain

R-dai gives me tikka during my first Dashain

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.

P and I get tikka the second year

P and I receiving tikka from R-dai and M-dai the second year

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.

Showing off our tikkas after S-di's Dashain gathering

Showing off our tikkas after M-dai and S-di's Dashain gathering

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.

S's Dad plants the jamara in the aluminum pans and starts the puja

S's Dad plants the jamara seeds in the aluminum pans and starts the puja

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).

Offering eggs as prashad to the gods

Offering eggs, bananas and apples as prashad to the gods

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.

Dashain breakfast

Dashain breakfast

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.

American Kantipur 1: Goats and Missing Krishna

Kantipur” is one of the main news agencies in Nepal. It’s a printed and online newspaper as well as a nightly news broadcast.

Krishna in Queens

Krishna in Queens, New York

In lieu of a proper post this evening, I decided to pass along two interesting news articles that P found. The first article was from the BBC, and amused P, “only Nepal would have an article highlighting a goat crisis,” and the second was an article from New York Magazine.

Apparently an older Nepali woman was visiting her daughter in Queens. It was her first trip to the US, and she become disoriented while taking an early morning walk. She wound up lost for three days while her family feared the worst. Well written and interesting, I recommend checking it out:
Krishna Gone Missing: A Nepalese woman’s 53 hours lost on the streets of Queens.”

The BBC goat article talks about Dashain, a Nepali festival that just started. Apparently Nepal is experiencing a goat shortage, and there are not enough goats for ritual sacrifice. I’ll write about Dasain later in the week.

goatOf course, that reminds me of a story. Two years ago we were going to have a party around the time of Dasain. Some of the neighborhood guys were interested in driving to a goat farm somewhere nearby and bringing back a goat for the festival.

Me: “So you want to drive 2 hours away, buy a live goat and bring it back in our car?”

P: “Don’t worry, they will kill it first.”

Me: “Wait, so you want to drive 2 hours away and put a dead goat in the trunk of our car?”

P: “Don’t worry, they will cut it up into little pieces first.”

Me: “Your story is not getting any better…”

Bratabandha Part II

Luckily we have two Hindu temples within a 40 minute drive of our apartment. The one that we usually attend for Teej, Tihar, Dashain and other festivals is a larger South Indian temple that is a little farther away. You can usually pick out the Nepalis in the crowd of other South Asians, but most if not all the priests are Indian. However Bratabandha (correct me if I’m wrong) is more of a Nepali tradition that isn’t necessarily practiced by (many) Indian groups, so I figured I had to track down a Nepali priest. Voila… that’s how I discovered the second smaller Hindu temple… complete with a Nepali priest, born and raised in Kathmandu! Also, lucky for us, he was willing to get all of the materials needed for the ceremony—phew, I wasn’t sure how I was going to find janai thread, and all of the other items necessary for the event, particularly since this was the first Bratabandha I had ever attended.

P and the priest start the Bratabandha ceremony

P and the priest start the Bratabandha ceremony

We also didn’t have a lot of time to get everything organized, so it wasn’t going to be a very fancy Bratabandha. I felt a bit guilty for P, since Bratabandha is suppose to be this big deal in your life, but P didn’t seem to mind much, he just wanted to do it and “check it off the list.”

A friend of ours accompanied us to the temple to meet with the priest to help set up everything a few days before the event. The priest did not speak English, and was probably a bit confused as to why I was hanging around these two Nepali guys. He showed us around the temple, explained how the ceremony would proceed, and told P that since he didn’t have the bright yellow tunics (see Bratabandha Part I), that P would most likely be in his underwear but could bring a shawl if he wanted. The priest indicated that the ceremony was suppose to take place in the morning, but P explained that his younger brother was coming from several hours bus-ride away, and wouldn’t be in town until the afternoon. The priest gazed intensely into his astrology book and declared, “aha! I have just found one additional time for the ceremony… after sunset but before dark.” I guess everything is negotiable.

P's brother U symbolically cuts his hair instead of shaving...

P's brother U symbolically cuts his hair instead of shaving...

The priest asked if our friend, D, was going to be P’s “guru” since our friend was from the Brahmin caste. The priest explained that he couldn’t be the guru of someone that he did not know well and couldn’t verify how “pure” of a lifestyle they lead and would lead in the future (did I catch him suspiciously looking over at me, or was I just being paranoid?) D agreed to be the guru, we paid the priest to get the rest of the materials, and upon returning home we sent emails out to some of our close friends to come and attend the ceremony.

Over the next few days there was a big debate about whether or not P should shave his head. His parents said that he was in America, things were less strict in America, and it probably wouldn’t be a big deal if he didn’t shave his head. However some of our friends declared that P absolutely had to shave his head… it was one of the centerpieces of the ceremony… how could you not? Ultimately the decision came down to the priest. He said that he would not shave P’s head unless P brought a barber to the temple to do this. I volunteered to shave it, but that was vetoed, and finally it was decided that we wouldn’t worry about the head shaving and hope that we weren’t worse for wear.

The "Guru" whispering secret mantras, amidst giggles

The "Guru" whispering secret mantras, amidst giggles

At the temple, the day of the ceremony, P was draped in a big white blanket that he was calling a shawl because he was embarrassed to sit in front of all his friends in his underwear. Normally a Bratabandha can last most of the day, but we did an abbreviated ceremony that lasted only about two hours. The priest read out quite a few mantras and had P touch various objects to his forehead. Ironically, the priest decided to help out the foreigners in the room by translating everything from Nepali into Hindi (even though 60% of the room was Nepali, there was one Indian, and the rest were American, European, Canadian or Thai). At the point where P was suppose to shave his head, his brother, U, donned a pair of scissors and symbolically cut off some hair.

Next our friend D, P’s new “guru,” came forward and the two hid under a shawl so that the priest could whisper secret mantras to D, who in turn would teach them to P. Unfortunately the two were overcome by giggles sitting under the shawl together, P in his underwear, D having an older Nepali priest whispering Vedic verses in his ear, that eventually the priest had to scold them to get them to stop.

P circles the fire near the end of his ceremony

P circles the fire near the end of his ceremony

For the next piece of the ceremony, we had to get another volunteer from the crowd to pretend to be P’s paternal uncle (or “mama”). Our friend N stood up for the job… and had to help P symbolically go around the room and beg for money. This is suppose to symbolize the ascetic lifestyle. Then the mama is suppose to chase the Bratabandha candidate… as little kids this is usually quite fun… if the kid can outrun the mama then the mama has to give the kid a prize. Although we tried to urge them on, P decided not to run, and N quickly caught him.

At this point, the priest presented P with his janai thread, and P was able to change, but had to wear different clothes then when he arrived (he wore a

Final puja

Final puja

fashionable kurta to the event, but afterwards changed into his regular American clothes). P finished up with a puja and we all headed back to our apartment for a post-Bratabandha party.

So now P is set to go for whenever we finally get married. My hope is that by summer 2011 we will be ready to go.

Check out Bratabhanda Part I HERE.

Bratabandha Part I

Up until March of last year, the bane of my existence was a Nepali ritual called Bratabandha. What, pray-tell, is a Bratabandha? Well it is a special ceremony that many young Nepali boys have to go through before they are considered “men” and are able to marry—something like a coming-of-age Hindu Bar Mitzvah of sorts.

Little boys line up for a Bratabandha procession

Little boys line up for a Bratabandha procession

Many of our male friends had this ceremony done as little boys—usually around thirteen years old. It is one of those things that (most people) just want to get out of the way. The older you are, it can be more embarrassing as well, because part of the ceremony involves wearing a thin tunic of fabric that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It is also tougher as you get older, and your interest in marriage becomes more imminent, because the timing of this particular event is quite tricky.

The timing of the ceremony is based on your star chart, and I’ve been told that picking an auspicious time for your Bratabandha is astrologically even more important than picking the correct time for your wedding! In addition you cannot undergo a Bratabandha if a close member of your family has died in the past year, if it is during the month of your birth, if the month or year isn’t particularly auspicious, or—as I like to joke, if your next-door neighbor’s dog sneezes. Sometimes these blocks of inauspicious timing stretch for very long periods—weeks, months, even years!

I had heard a bit about this ceremony when I first started dating P, and after being together for only a few months he went home during a January break from school. I encouraged him to do it while he was home, not because I thought he needed the ceremony done immediately, but because I figured it would be nice to do it with his family, and get it over with. That’s when I learned about the “no Bratabandha during your birth month” rule. Okay, cool, no big deal, it’s not like we were planning to run down the aisle anytime soon.

The next time P went home was during the summer a few years later- and my persistence in completing the ceremony had kicked up a notch. That’s when I learned the “no Bratabandha during inauspicious months” rule. I remember reading his email about that in an internet café in South Africa and letting out a mournful, “nooooooo” much to the shock of one of my colleagues… and I couldn’t really articulate why I was upset about this, since the average person doesn’t really know what Bratabandha is anyway. Sigh, “okay, no big deal,” I thought, “he’ll go home again sometime soon.” Then while preparing for the epic family visit of 2008 we decided to conduct the ceremony while they were in town. Grrr… the “no Bratabandha when a family member passes away” rule.

Boy after his head is shaved at the ceremony

Boy after his head is shaved at the ceremony

As time continued to tick away, I started bugging P more frequently about getting this pesky ritual done and over with. Two of my elder-but-close-in-age cousins got engaged, and then married, and questions started to fly in my family about when our turn would come. “Well…” I’d try to explain, “you see, P has to do this thing, where he ritualistically shaves his head, and a Hindu priests does some special prayers… but it has to be during an auspicious month…” by that time I would see the glazed over look on my relatives face, and I’d have to conclude with, “at some point in the future, don’t worry.”

Eventually his parents informed us (after a visit to the family astrologer) that if he didn’t complete his Bratabandha by a certain date in March of 2009 he would enter a 2 year inauspicious period. 2 years! That is a long time to wait, especially after dating for six! It became a running joke amongst our friends, “C will be more relieved than P once the Bratabandha is complete!”

Boy receives his sacred janai thread, the most important part of the ceremony, a thread he is suppose to wear everyday for the rest of his life

Boy receives his sacred janai thread, something he is suppose to wear everyday for the rest of his life

Alas, I think P’s dad set a bad example. He didn’t do his Bratabandha until the day before his wedding… and since Bratabandha includes shaving your head he was bald for the wedding. I started listing off the reasons why we had to get the ceremony over and done with, and why it was ridiculous to wait… a) I don’t want a bald husband in my wedding photos, b) what if the next-door neighbor’s dog sneezes the night before? I am not rescheduling a wedding someday! and c) do you want to be the only 30+ year old at a Bratabandha ceremony sitting around with all the little boys??

P acquiesced and  “Operation Bratabandha” was officially in full swing.

Pictures for this blog are from DayLife, more can be seen here.

Teej

Two Sundays ago (Aug 23rd) our household celebrated Teej, a Nepali festival where women traditionally fast for twenty-four hours for the long life of their husbands, wear red, usually gather with other women and female relatives, and worship Shiva. I didn’t know much about Teej until I moved, two years ago, to a place with a larger Nepali community, and one with significantly more Nepali women.

Women celebrate Teej in Kathmandu with red saris and green/yellow pote (Photo credit)

Women celebrate Teej in Kathmandu with red saris and red/green/yellow pote

Teej (in a nutshell) is a three day festival. It is not celebrated by all ethnic and caste groups in Nepal, but by some, including the Chhetri caste which P belongs to. The first day is the feast called Daar, when women come together to dance, sing and eat, sometimes staying up well past midnight when the fast begins. The second day constitutes the fast, although people interpret “fast” in different ways- some will not eat or drink anything for the full 24 hours, while some will take tea, fruits and yogurt. If celebrating in Kathmandu women will dress in one of their nicest red saris and go to the Pushupatinath Temple, devoted to Shiva as one of the holiest Hindu shrines in Nepal.  Women break their fast after midnight on the second night, and on the third day engage in various pujas and rituals to purify their souls.

That first year after moving, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the festival, although I was excited to learn about this new piece of Nepali culture I knew nothing about. I was also intrigued by the feminine solidarity of the event. It reminded me of my time in Kenya, where division of labor in the rural farming community I lived in left women in the evening sitting around the dimly lit cooking house, singing and joking and making food for the entire extended family. I remember liking the community feel and the safe “women’s only” space, but it brought up lingering feelings of conflict between wanting to connect with something traditional and almost ancestral  which seemed to clash with my (western) feminist views.

Women at Pushpatinath

Women at Pushupatinath

So I talked to P about it. I thought it would be interesting to participate in the festival, however I thought it was reasonable that if I was fasting for his long life, that he should fast for mine. I think that the idea was relatively radical. Teej was a woman’s festival not a man’s, why would a man fast for Teej? It didn’t make any sense. I explained that I thought fasting- devoid of its religious significance- was in general a good process of centering yourself. You purge the body for a day, you learn self-restraint and self-control, and it forces you to reflect on your desires and needs, and think about excess. In addition, fasting for each other could also be an act of solidarity for our family unit. We would be supporting each other, and hoping for the long, healthy and happy life of each other and our partnership. P agreed that it sounded fair, and decided to also participate, even if some of the Nepali men in our community thought it was absolutely ridiculous.

Teej ladies ready to go to the temple near my home...

Teej ladies ready to go to the temple near my home...

That first year, several of our female neighbors came over to eat, and relax. On the following day we fasted and dressed (in some variation of red) to go to the local temple, where we could immediately pick out the other Nepali women who were dressed in bright red sari—many with shiny green, red or yellow wedding pote necklaces. Afterwards we returned home, relaxed and lamented our hunger before breaking our fast. From that point forward I decided that we would make it an annual event- fasting for Teej.

However Teej seems to be a very “charged” even political festival. Many westerns look at it as an oppressive holiday which forces women to worship men (for more information you could check out this posting). When on Facebook I wished everyone a “Happy Teej” I got a sarcastic reply from one person that I must be such a “good little Nepali buhari” (daughter-in-law) to subject myself to that, while another person said they wouldn’t celebrate the festival because they were a “a modern, revolution-loving biatch.” Perhaps I would feel very different if I grew up in Nepali culture, but I think that the approach P and I have taken on the festival is one generated by a lot of thought. I truly appreciate P’s willingness to support my participation, and to participate himself, and I feel very loved that he is willing to take the fast for me and our partnership.

This year was the first American Teej for a very political male Nepali friend of ours. His partner fasted with me in previous years (even though he was in Nepal and she was in the US), and when I asked him if he was going to fast with her this year he said no… that the festival was oppressive and silly, and he didn’t want any part. His partner said she would not fast for him unless he fasted for her, to which he replied “fine, no one will fast.” Then she said it was important to her to keep cultural traditions alive while living outside of Nepal, but that she wanted to fast in support of each other. We had a group discussion about it which eventually led to the couple fasting two Sundays ago.

I know that we are taking the festival out of its original context, but I am still happy we participate, and I look forward to many more Teej’s in the future

Other links about Teej