Last week’s full moon marked the beginning of a new month in the Nepali calendar. One of the rituals of this month is the reading of a book of Hindu mythology called “Swasthani.” As mentioned before—even after 7 years of knowing P, there are always bits of culture that I am picking up along the way—and Swasthani is one such new piece.
I was introduced to Swasthani a few months ago when I saw an English language edition on S-di’s bookshelf. I didn’t know the significance of the book, but asked if I could take it home to read. Inevitably it wound up on my pile of “to read” books, and there it sat.
Then last week P and D were talking about the reading of Swasthani (unusual—since neither ever talk about reading, conversations are more often about soccer, drinking tea, or eating). It piqued my interests.
Apparently in households across Nepal, starting on the full moon during Poush/Magh, families celebrate by sitting together each evening, reading a passage from Swasthani and conducting a puja. P seemed excited about this, recalling memories of sitting with his family reading passages from the book on cold winter evenings. He even found a website where individuals could listen to passages from the book if you don’t have a copy abroad.
As the voracious reader of our family, I was enthusiastically ready to embrace a ritual which involves the family coming together each night to read. I googled Swasthani and realized that the book was the same as the English language book S-di let me borrow months earlier. So I told P, let’s do it.
Each evening for the past few days I’ve been laying a table cloth on the living room floor, lighting a few tea lights, and occasionally an incense stick, gathering a few fruits and a carnation flower. P and I sit on the floor (we even get our dog to sit with us, he is part of the household). P will pass out bits of the carnation flower, open the book and read the first passage (a prayer in Sanskrit), then I’ll take the book, read the story for the day in English, then hand the book back for P to read the closing prayer in Sanskrit. We put the carnation pieces in the book and the petals each day are pressed between the pages. Later on we make smoothies out of the puja fruit to drink with dinner.
I enjoy it, because I like hearing stories, many of which I have not heard before. P enjoys it because it reminds him of reading the stories back home. He even knows the prayers to say at the beginning and end of the readings by heart, something I’ve never seen him do before.
The English copy that I have only has 22 stories, in abbreviated form, whereas the Nepali versions from P’s childhood have 31 readings and are usually much longer and more detailed. If anyone is interested in reading the stories, let me know, I’ve scanned them into a pdf format and can email them out (since the book is not available in the US).
Here is information on the stories from the publisher (Spiny Babbler):
For those interested in Eastern culture, Swasthani is essential reading. There is, perhaps, no other document like it on the entire Indian sub-continent. The Swasthani stories, some of which may be 1,200 years old, will tell you more than the most pedantious text book about how many Nepalese people perceive the universe, their religion, and their deities.
Definitely, the Swasthani scriptures do more to shape the cultural fabric of the Nepal Himalaya than the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. The stories of creation, the stories of the great Lords Brahma, Bishnu, and Shiva created by one God, the way of life in the Himalaya are all in this single slim volume.
For every traveler, every scholar, every person interested in Oriental religions, cultures, and people, the Swasthani scriptures are a must read. Every year, Swasthani is read aloud in thousands of Nepalese homes. This is a simple yet exquisite presentation of Swasthani stories by Pallav Ranjan, a writer, according to one critic, who can capture the “fog’s moisture and the light of a million fireflies” with his words.
Beautifully adapted stories, 25 full-page Swasthani related paintings, a chart outlining God’s creations, and a map of sites that you can visit after reading the scriptures, this may be the most comprehensive and enjoyable guide to Nepalese culture that you will find.