Category Archives: Society and Culture

Swasthani

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.

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The Differences between White American and South Asian Parents

I know that a lot of readers of this blog probably troll a lot of the same material that I do, so perhaps this is redundant, but I thought it was a nice post and wanted to give it an extra shout out.

Sara at A Little of That, Too was responding to Casey at White Girl in a Sari‘s post about “Being Accepted by Family in an Intercultural Relationship.” Sara had quite a bit to say, and it sparked another post back on her page, and I found her comparison nicely laid out. From what I have gleamed, Sara is also a phd student in psychology– which I think helps with her analysis!

If you have time I recommend checking out the post: “White American and South Asian Parents.”

Notes on the “Red Wedding”

Okay, I couldn’t hold back… hope you don’t mind me double posting today…

And to keep with the musical theme–

The lyrics are actually not that positive about American women, but it has a catchy tune.

Again please, I poll you dear readers, for feedback. Have I added too little, too much? I’m I missing anything glaring? Does it sound okay or weird? Suggestions??

Notes on a “Red Wedding:”

Nepal is a small but diverse country– with a population of just 30 million, there are nearly 40 ethnic languages spoken within its borders–thus it is not surprising that there are many different wedding traditions which can vary by caste and ethnic group. 80% of the population is Hindu, so many common wedding traditions include Hindu rituals.

In Nepal, wedding ceremonies include several rituals and receptions which can sometimes last up to a week. However, these rituals are now often condensed into a shorter ceremony when conducted outside of Nepal.

Before the ceremony

Wearing Red– the bride wears a red sari, traditionally chosen by the groom’s family (hence “red” wedding). The bride’s look for such a wedding is to appear ornate and highly decorated. Jewelry can be very heavy and is often costume, and intricate henna designs, tikkas, and make-up add to the decoration. Clothing and even shoes are often highly intricate and decorated with jewels/embroidery and contrasting colors (most often red, green and yellow/gold). Conversely white wedding brides attempt to have a more minimal, subtle, simplified look.

For the ceremony the groom wears a daura suruwal and Nepali topi hat which is very typical of traditional Nepali male clothing. Whereas saris are more pan-South Asian, daura suruals and the its distinctive dhaka fabric are solely Nepali.

Back in Nepal the groom’s family comes in a procession to the bride’s family in a parade called the “janthi” which often includes music and dancing. Family members of the janthi often wear matching clothes (saris, etc). This isn’t as common with Nepali weddings in the US for logistical reasons.

Ceremony

The ceremony is conducted by a Hindu priest. Often the prayers in the ceremony are in the Sanskrit language (Sanskrit is to Hindi and Nepali what Latin is to French and Spanish). During the course of the ceremony the priest will often break from prayer to ask details about the bride and groom such as their ancestors’ names to include in the ritual blessings.

In addition to the bride and groom, sitting on the altar with the priest are both sets of parents. Each set sits next to their child and contributes to the ceremony by performing tasks as indicated by the priest– this includes touching rice, flowers, water, oil and fruits to their foreheads and various ritual objects on the altar.

The pivotal part of the ceremony comes when the bride and groom exchange flower garlands and the groom gives a wedding pote (beaded necklace) to the bride. A long thin white cloth is then extended from the bride’s forehead to the altar and the groom sprinkles orange sindor powder from the bottom of the cloth up to the part in the bride’s hair. The third time that the sindor is sprinkled from the bottom of the cloth to the bride’s head is the moment the bride and groom officially become married.

After this section of the ceremony the priest lights a fire and the bride and groom make agreements to each other as husband and wife, often throwing rice into the fire as part of the ritual. Depending on the tradition, the bride and groom are sometimes tied together and they circle around the fire 7 times, since in Hindu culture a marriage isn’t just for one lifetime, but for seven.

In Nepali culture feet are often taboo– it is considered rude to point your feet at someone, and offensive to touch someone with your feet. However, when showing great respect, especially to an elder, it is customary to bow and touch their feet. During the ceremony the bride may touch the feet of the groom, and the bride and groom might touch the feet of their parents and vice versa.

Reception

During Nepali receptions the bride and groom often sit on chairs at the front of the room, sometimes with family members, and wedding guests come up to greet and congratulate them. This is often when gifts are given, in person, to the bride and groom. Common gifts include flowers or money in denominations of +1 (21, 51, 101, etc) since the +1 is considered auspicious.

Food is served buffet style at the reception. If the reception is taking place at a Hindu temple alcohol and meat are not allowed.

During the ceremony the altar is considered a temple area, so all the participants on the altar have to take off their shoes. One tradition is for the bride’s sisters to steal the groom’s shoes and demand money for their return. He can’t get them back during the reception until he has satisfied the sisters with an appropriate monetary reward.

Also traditionally the bride might play a few games with her mother-in-law as a way to welcome the new bride to the family. These games might include sifting through a large bowl of uncooked rice to see who can find a coin, nut or fruit first. These games would often be played when the mother-in-law welcomes her new daughter-in-law to the family home for the first time. Sometimes these games are played at the ceremony/reception if the family doesn’t live together in the same house.

Lastly, small wedding favors are usually distributed to the guests. These are often small packages of dried nuts, fruits, spices and chocolate.

Barbapapa

Two things made me think of this post—

1)      P is amazing at finding random amusing things on the internet, which led us to the website wimp.com. We spent the better part of an evening a few nights ago watching videos linked off the page. That’s how we found “28 cartoon theme songs in 7 minutes.” I didn’t know all the theme songs, but I knew a good deal of them, and there is always something comforting about hearing the theme song from a cartoon you used to watch while eating cookies after school, or crunching on cereal in the morning. I busted out with lyrics that I hadn’t sang in 20+ years, and was surprised to find I still knew most of them! As the song progressed P said, “Where is Barbapapa?”

2)      Recently there was a facebook meme where many people were encouraging their friends to change their facebook picture to a cartoon character from their past “to help child abuse.” I noticed several friends of P’s changed their profile picture to characters from Barbapapa.

So if you are like me, perhaps you didn’t have Barbapapa in your childhood, and might have no idea what I am talking about. But Barbapapa seems to be a beloved character from the childhoods of many a Nepali I know.

So what is Barbapapa? According to Wikipedia (my favorite website of all time) it is both a title character and the name of the “species” of said character from a series of French children’s books written in the 1970s by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor. (barbe à papa is French for “cotton candy”).  The books were later translated into 30 languages, and the cartoons became quite popular particularly in many Asian countries.

 

Wikipedia continues…

Barbapapa himself is a generally pear-shaped, pink shapeshifiting blob-like creature who stumbles upon the human world and tries to fit in. The shapeshifiting is usually accompanied by the saying “clickety click—Barba Trick”(or other similar things in a multitude of other languages)… After various amusing adventures, he comes across a female of his species (more shapely, and black-coloured), named Barbamama. They produce seven children, known as the Barbabies, each a different colour:

Barbazoo—yellow, male, lover of animals
Barbalala—green, female, lover of music,
Barbalib—orange, female, lover of books,
Barbabeau—black and furry, male, lover of art,
Barbabelle—purple, female, lover of beauty,
Barbabright—blue, male, lover of science and finally,
Barbabravo—red, male, lover of strength and heroism

P’s brother U in particular has shared the Barbapapa love with me before, so if you want to learn a little bit more about your significant other’s childhood, maybe see if he or she has any Barbapapa memories they might like to share. What is their favorite Barbapapa character?

“Made in China”

D left on Saturday to go to Nepal for a few weeks, and N’s mother (Aunty) has been visiting and thinking about gifts to bring home, so recently shopping trips have been on the rise. Such as two weekends ago when the six of us (Aunty, N, AS, P, me and D) decided to go to an outlet mall near by.

As we rummaged through some shops AS, N and Aunty were telling me that they have to be careful what gifts they buy because people back home are very conscious about where products are made.

In the US a lot of our products are made in China. Most Americans are used to that, we don’t really think a lot about our manufactured goods. Factory made products are so ubiquitous that I really appreciate unique handmade, handcrafted products, and love to bring handicrafts back from my travels.

In Nepal (and many other parts of the developing world) labor is cheap, and handmade products are everywhere. People are more interested in manufactured goods, but they pay attention to the label. If you bring a manufactured good from the US, they want to see something “Made in the USA” or at least from a country far away like Nicaragua.

Bringing products back from the US with “Made in China,” “Made in India,” or “Made in Bangladesh” doesn’t seem to make sense, since these countries are close by, and many of the products in Nepal are also made in these countries. I never really thought about that before.

N’s mother told me a story while at the mall. She was in the US for a conference in 1989 and had a Sri Lankan roommate. The two women went shopping for their kids back in their respective countries, and her Sri Lankan roommate found a cute frilly white dress to bring back for her daughter. She asked N’s mother to hold on to it while she went to search for the cash registers, and while she was gone N’s mother checked the tag. The dress was “Made in Sri Lanka.” When her friend came back N’s mother showed her the tag. “I’m so glad you told me! Imagine if I brought a gift to my daughter from America and it was made in our home country!”

Granted—often times products available in the US are of a different quality than the products available in other countries, even if they were made in the same place. For example, in Kenya, which is a big tea producing country, locals are not able to buy the best quality tea grown by their own countrymen because everything above a certain quality is exported. However I understand the disappointment of getting a gift “from the West” only to find out it was actually “Made in China” when your country borders China.

Food for thought the next time I buy a gift to send to Nepal!

Everyone Really Does Know Everyone…

I know, I know, I have probably beaten this topic to death, but it never ceases to amaze me.

N’s mother is staying with us for a little while, and unfortunately while visiting us her elder brother passed away back in Nepal. There was an article about it in one of the Nepali daily newspapers, and word had filtered out. So a few people have been calling her to make sure she is okay and offer their condolences.

One such person was none other than Jyoti Pathak, the author of the Nepali cookbook I reviewed a while back.

As I walked in the door from work, and came to say hello to Aunty and N in the living room, she shuffled off to the bookcase, handed me the cookbook and said, “She just called me on the phone.”

“Really? The author?” I asked, a bit surprised. Why am I still surprised?

“Yeah, she used to teach at the university where I taught, but she came to the US in the 1970s, and I haven’t spoken to her in 30 years. She called my daughter [niece] in New York to offer condolences, found out I was here, and called me. It was so nice to talk to her!”

So again, the Nepali world is small– (or as P corrected me earlier… “Kathmandu is small…”)

Another such example from the blog– a while ago I posted a documentary on “Birth in Rural Nepal.” While one of the blog readers was watching the video with her boyfriend he looked at the screen and said, “Hey, [the film maker] is my cousin-sister! I remember she said she was working on something for aljazeera”.

Tiny tiny world.

Dashain Articles

A few people (thanks AS and P) sent me articles today from the Nepali online journal Republica that I wanted to share:

The first is called “Nava Durga: Nine incarnations of the Mighty Devi Durga” and discusses the different incarnations of Durga (the power goddess) that are worshiped on different days of Dashain.

The second article was on Dashain tikkas and why some communities use red versus white or black.

(From the Republica article on Tikka): This picture illustrates to those who have never seen or participated in a Dashain tikka giving what it looks like. An older member of your family/community gives tikka and blessing to younger people. Note the jamara grass tucked behind the father's ear.

In the “white tikka” section of the article it discusses how different ethnic communities sometimes choose to use different colored tikkas to differentiate themselves and their practices, since historically red vermillion was not readily available outside of the KTM valley, and tikkas were created with butter (potentially influenced by Tibet), or curd and rice. Also the article gives the example of the Limbu people, whose participation in Dashain can only be traced back to Rana Bahadur Shah’s reign. This reminded me of a story that M-dai told me a while back.

M-dai is from the Sunwar ethnic group traditionally from the mountains in the Solokhumbu region of Nepal. Many of the mountain people were not traditionally (and many still are not) Hindu, but Buddhist or animist/shamanistic. When Nepal became unified under a king, and the country was declared a Hindu kingdom, advisors of the king were sent to the more remote areas of Nepal to enforce Hinduization. M-dai said his grandfather’s grandfathers used to have to show that they sacrificed a goat for Dashain to prove their participation in the Hindu festival and their adherence to the king. For some families celebration of this festival may have stuck, but not for all.

Which leads me into the final article: “Commentary: On Not Celebrating Dashain.” Even though to me Dashain feels more cultural than spiritual, it is important to remember that the festival– much like Christmas (regardless of how secular and commercial it might seem to some) in the US– is not celebrated by everyone. This article is from the perspective of a Nepali who is not Hindu, and thus doesn’t celebrate.

I hope you don’t mind all the posts on Dashain… it’s just on my brain as of late. Thought others might find these interesting….