Tag Archives: Nepali Culture

Eating With My Hand

Sara at A Little of That Too, as a student of psychology, has been working on a Gori Racial Identity Development Model. Although the exercise is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I think a lot can also ring true in this potential model.

So far her development stages include 1) “Pre-Partnership” (aka “normal”), 2) “Courting South Asia” (aka “omg my eyes are opened to this AMAZING culture!!”), and 3) “Re-immersion” (aka “oh yeah, I used to like that”), with several more steps to follow.

She was looking for some stories, which made me think of something—

When I first started dating P a lot of things were new. Language, food, music, clothing, religion, holidays, points of view. Some of these I embraced right away—curries, spices, cooking—others not so much: have I mentioned my Nepali skills are still pathetic?

One thing that I embraced relatively quickly was eating with my hand– or I should clarify, eating wet foods like curry, rice, daal, etc, with my hand (I guess you can call this phase 2—courting South Asia).

The first summer we were together I was living in an apartment with 3 Nepali guys. We would take turns making dinner, and eat together at the table each night. Not long after moving in one of our Nepali friends took away my fork and insisted that I eat with my hands. “The food tastes much better this way!” he insisted (something I’ve heard again and again). At first it was mostly a joke—pick on C and see if she could eat without making a mess, but eventually it was more about feeling comfortable eating that way, and learning the way that they did it. It wasn’t long before they didn’t have to take the fork away; it was my decision not to use it.

School started and I was back to my old ways of eating at the university cafeteria, but when we would cook in the International House kitchen late at night, I could pull out my “yeah, I’m a white girl, but I can eat with my hand just like you” skill, which felt particularly satisfying when sharing food with other non-Nepalis, like I was “in the club” because I knew the “better way,” the “more authentic way” of eating this type of food. It was the same type of pride I still feel when I get compliments on my momo wrapping skills.

The second summer we were back in an apartment—3 Nepali guys and I, sharing the cooking duties and eating with our hands. That spring P’s dad had come for his graduation and he stayed with us a few nights at the apartment before traveling to visit other relatives. When we all sat together to eat, P’s dad asked one of the boys to get me a spoon, but P explained that I knew how to eat with my hand—again a source of pride, my skill had been unexpected. This would come back to haunt me my first night in Nepal, when nerves made me eat so slowly with my hand that I was demoted to a spoon.

Not such a flattering picture of P, eating daal-bhat with his hand at a Phakding guest house during our Solukhumbu trek in 2009

The semester after that summer I studied in India, and felt like a rockstar when I was able to show off my hand eating skills the first few days we were in Delhi to my American colleagues. They wanted me to show them “the right way” to do it so that they would also look competent and “in the know” when staying with local families and eating dinner. In a silly way it made me feel more “cultured” and more prepared, like I had an extra “in” with South Asia.

At some point after I returned from the trip and after being demoted to a spoon in Nepal, I just stopped doing it. I don’t remember when, or why, it just lost its appeal. I didn’t like that the turmeric tinged my finger nails yellow and that my hands would smell more strongly of onions and garlic even after washing them. It was like all of a sudden I didn’t have to prove that part of my “in-ness” with people any more, and it allowed me to “see” that I didn’t really want to eat with  my hands all the time. Where I once enthusiastically dug in fingers first at home with P, I now grab a fork or spoon.

It’s not that I stopped eating with my hands entirely—I’m still a voracious momo eater with my hands, but I just don’t feel I have to anymore. Even in Nepal, I often ate with a spoon during our visit in 2009, unless I was visiting another family’s house, in which “American eating with her hand” was a surprise revelation.  So I guess that means I’ve transitioned in this regard to phase 3—Re-Integration to my fork using world.

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.

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.

Bitter Gourd Blues

Yesterday we ate karela for dinner. It’s a vegetable eaten by many cultures around the world including China, Japan, India, Nepal, and various parts of Africa and the Caribbean. However, it is not a vegetable I ever encountered until the Nepalese influenced my diet.

But unlike other delicious Nepali foods– karela is not something I will be adding to my menu rotation, at least not when I’m cooking. The vegetable has other names that I think better represent the food’s flavor: Bitter Gourd or Bitter Melon, and the smaller South Asian version is even more bitter than the larger Chinese variation. Unlike sweet or even sour, bitter is not a taste I prefer to savor.

Karela wound up on our plates that night because P’s younger brother U had been visiting our house for the week for the Dashain holiday. Last night was his last evening, so he got to decide what we ate for dinner, and he decided on bitter gourd.

The vegetable looks like it is trying to impersonate a warty toad. Nepalese like to slice it into thin slivers along with onions and potatoes and fry with spices to make tarkari or achar.

While helping AS slice the vegetables I thought… hmmm, I better grab my camera and document, especially since this isn’t a vegetable that regularly graces my refrigerator.

Whole karela and sliced karela

Sliced Nepali style

I'm showing my love for karela while cooking dinner

Bitter gourd also apparently has many medicinal properties such as curing stomach ailments, purifying blood and circulation, I even read somewhere that laboratory tests suggest that compounds in bitter gourd could be effective for treating HIV!

So even though I’ve already decided which side of the karela divide I am on, I suggest giving it a go. It truly is a Nepalese favorite. If you want to try I found a recipe online that has a technique that supposedly helps to cut a bit of the bitterness. Let me know how it goes :)

Planting the Jamara (in pictures)

So, little did I know that traditionally men are in charge of the jamara planting ritual, but I took charge of our planting tonight, since I seemed to be most excited. Hopefully I didn’t commit some terrible taboo. First I took a shower to “purify” myself and then started the planting.

So what did I do?

Step one: Soaked the jamara seeds. You are supposed to soak them overnight, but I only soaked then for about 20 mins. My housemates said that was okay, hopefully it won’t disturb my jamara growing process…

Step two: Gathered materials… jamara seeds, container for the plants, and sand.

Step three: Filled the bottom of the container with sand

Step four: sprinkled jamara seeds in a single layer on top

Step five: covered with a thin layer of sand

Step six: Watered generously

Step seven: covered and stored in a dark place (the seeds grow better when moist and dark)

Step eight: water when necessary. Jamara should be moist but not swamped.

The plants are supposed to look yellowish green not green-green… so hopefully I start to see shoots soon.

I hope my little seeds grow. I’ll let you know what they look like in ten days!

Dashain Ideas

Dashain is soon to be upon us. The first day of the ten day festival is October 8th and it ends on October 17th.

A reader asked me what she might be able to do for her Nepali partner for Dashain. In her specific situation he is across the country. I brought the topic up at dinner last night to see if my in-house Nepali focus group had any ideas.

AS: “That’s tough… Dashain is all about getting together with family and eating lots of food. So if you are far away? I don’t know.”

P: “Make some goat curry and send it through the mail.”

Hmmm… not the most helpful advice.

So I was googling around during lunch today and found a website that explained the importance of Dashain in Nepali culture and the individual aspects of it quite well. It’s not necessarily specific advice, but it might give some ideas:

Dashain is big in Nepal mainly for the following :

  • Holidays – Rest and Relaxation for nearly 10 days!
    This is the longest festival in Nepal. It allows one to travel and be with family and friends for up to a week or more.
  • Shopping – Clothes for wife, children, dad, mum… In spite of extreme hardship, during the festival season, Nepalese families manage to shop if not for all, but at least for the children. Clothes are the most selling item during the season. Those who could not afford to wear even a single new cloth in the entire year will now attempt!
  • Eating – Meat Products, Sweets, Fruits, and meat products again! Dashain’s most popular cuisine is meat, and in popularity order are goat meat, sheep, buffalo, duck, and chicken. Meat is expensive and poor to middle class families usually cannot afford it. So dashain is the time of eating lots of meat. Usually animals are bought live from the animal market such as Kalanki Bazaar, Bag Bazaar, and sacrificed at home or in temples. At home, the whole family is involved in cutting and preparing the meat which usually lasts for 2 to 3 days of feast. But some family prefer to buy the meat already prepared by Butchers
  • Visiting – Meet your Family and Friends near and far
    Dashain is also about forgiveness, kindness and respect, all of which prevails so broken families come together. Cities suddenly seems to empty itself, more people returning back in villages or terai (lower, flat region of Nepal) than that of people joining families in cities. During this season, city rushes to book tickets, bus or plane!
  • Kites – Children love the season also for flying Kites
    If you visit Kathmandu or any other city during this season, the day-sky is filled with colorful kites like shinning stars in the night!
  • Tika and Love – Receiving and Giving Tika and Respect.
    Getting a tika from an older person in your family or from relatives or from anyone is a blessing. Dashain tika begins from the oldest person in your family giving tika to the youngest then the second youngest in the family and so on. Faith, hope, inspiration and blessings, all come alive in Dashain.
  • Money Notes – stacks of notes to give!
    Receive a tika and offer money notes as an appreciation. Popular Dashain notes are Rupees 2, 5, 10, and Rupees 25. Everybody tries to exchange for smaller and new notes, so banks are usually busy during the season.
  • Cleaning – Clean and decorate homes
    Walls get a new coat of paints, roads are cleaned better than before, temples are decorated with lights, villagers join together to clean and build new trails, paint their homes using red-colored mud. People clean themselves mentally too by visiting various temples and worshiping during the festival.
  • Puja – Worshiping God for Peace and Prosperity. Various pujas are performed from beginning to the end of Dashain.
  • Gambling – although not legal in Nepal, but it’s played! Playing cards are popular during Dashain. Usually family members play cards with each-other or with friends for money.

Perhaps you could send or gift your loved one a new shirt or pair of pants and some playing cards, cook a goat curry meal, and/or send Dashain greetings to Nepali family and friends. If you live in a community with Nepali people, you might visit the homes of elder Nepalis for tikka.

Other ideas out there?

Nepali Restaurants

I mentioned that I ate at a good Nepali restaurant in New York recently, so I thought I would write a little bit about Nepali restaurants and have the comment section be a place where others could suggest Nepali restaurants around the country or abroad.

New York

If anyone has been to New York City with a South Asian friend or significant other then you are probably familiar with Jackson Heights, Queens. As Wikipedia notes, “Stores and restaurants on and near 74th street tend to cater towards the large South Asian population in the neighborhood, with sari and jewelry stores, Bengali and Hindi music and movie retailers and many restaurants.” There are even billboard advertisements featuring Bollywood stars like Abhishek Bachchan.

Although there are a few Nepali places in New York, I hear one of the best (most “authentic”?) is Himalayan Yak on Roosevelt Ave. I’ve been there twice now, and enjoyed it both times. It’s menu is divided into three sections—Tibetan, Nepali and Indian, and the atmosphere definitely has a Nepali/Tibetan feel—with Nepali wood panel art, Buddhist prayer wheels, paintings of mountain scenery (and of course, yaks), and tv screens airing muted and subtitled documentaries about Nepal and Tibet ( the first time I was there they were playing a documentary on the salt caravans in the high mountains). The food is quite tasty, serving crowd pleasing favorites like bhatmas ra chiura (spiced soybeans with beaten rice), gundruk (dry green vegetable very particular to Nepal), aloo tama (potato and bamboo shoot curry), kusi ko masu (goat meat), and of course momo.

In the evening the restaurant is usually packed with a Nepali/Tibetan crowd, who come not only for the food but to hear the live Nepali bands that play Friday-Monday. Inside the restaurant, it’s easy enough to pretend you are sitting in a café in the KTM valley tourist district of Thamel, rather than Queens.

Nepali band playing at the Himalayan Yak Restaurant

The restaurant was even in an episode of the American tv series “Ugly Betty” (Season 3 episode 14 near the middle of the episode). They made it look much more Tibetan for the show than it usually looks (the waiters don’t actually wear Tibetan costumes, although I have seen patrons wearing Tibetan chupas before).

To learn more about the restaurant you can read an interview done by the New York Times with the manager (my favorite question: “Is there seafood in Himalayan cuisine?”—answer: “We don’t have sea in Nepal. Nepal is a landlocked country. We don’t have sushi also over there.”).

So if in town, and looking for a place to try Nepali cuisine, check in to Himalayan Yak.

Boston

Living close to Boston one would think I’d have better recommendations for the city. There are several in town, and I’ve eaten the food at two—Kathmandu Spice in Arlington and the Yak and Yeti in Somerville.

I used to work at Tufts which is close to Somerville/Arlington, so one night after work P and I tried out Katmandu Spice. To be honest I don’t remember anything particularly outstanding– it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t very memorable either. It has Nepali specialties as well—kwatti (9 bean soup), thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup), goat sekuwa (barbequed goat meat), aloo tama, momo. I think I remember P saying the food seemed more Indian inspired, and they had quite a few dishes with fish and shrimp (see Himalayan Yak manger quote above– but in their defense they might be catering to the seafood loving New England palate). It was okay, but I’m not chomping on the bit to go back.

Inside Kathmandu Spice

Yak and Yeti is a new restaurant in the city. They catered our friend’s wedding this summer, and the food was pretty good. Our friends ordered big trays of pakora (which were really tasty), chicken, goat, cauli aloo, daal, and another dish or two (to be honest, I filled up on the tasty pakora so I can’t really remember what else I ate), topped off with a big tray of kheer (rice pudding). The food was good, relatively cheap for a big crowd (they had about seventy people), and worked well in a large quantity. I haven’t eaten at their restaurant in Boston yet, but based on the wedding food they made for AS and N, I’ll keep them in mind for a certain ceremony coming up in July.

Inside Yak and Yeti

Other restaurants…

So now dear readers, do you have Nepali restaurant recommendations? Feel free to comment below! Here is another list (from Desi Grub) to get you thinking…

Kumari and Indra Jatra

Yesterday was Indra Jatra. I know this only because I like to look at BBC’s “in pictures” each day and there was a photo from Kathmandu depicting the ceremony.

From BBC "In Pictures"

I don’t know much about Indra Jatra (so I’ll look up some information to share) but the festival caught my attention because I’ve been reading up on Kumari (or the “living goddesses” from Nepal). I find their stories fascinating and was thinking of writing about them for my writer’s group. Indra Jatra is one of the festivals that kumaris participate in.

Basically Kumari are little girls chosen from a specific Buddhist Newar ethnic group (Shakya) in Nepal who become the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Taleju (which is an avatar of power goddess Durga). Much like the Dalai Lama or Pachen Lama, the girls are a reincarnation of the goddess, and are chosen based on specific attributes such as “a neck like a conch shell,” “a body like a banyan tree”, “eyelashes like a cow,” “chest like a lion” and have to pass a test to prove that she is the goddess. Supposedly one such test comes during Dashain (coming in October), when the young goddess has to spend the night in a temple with 108 sacrificed goats and buffalos. Since Durga is strong and fearless, the Kumari candidate must also show no fear.

Various photos of Kumari in full regalia including headdress, full tikka, and naga (snake) necklace. Kumari are not allowed to touch the ground, so they are carried or ride in chariots when they have to go outside for religious functions

Girls are chosen very young (usually when they are only a few years old) and live out their childhood in a temple away from their families. They are worshiped and often sought for guidance, and I believe the Royal Kumari of Bhaktapur gives a tikka to the king of Nepal during Dashain as a blessing (at least, back when there was a king). Tradition holds that if a king does not receive tikka from the Kumari at this time, something horrible will happen. I remember reading somewhere (although now I can’t find the link) that supposedly when the former King Birendra went to take tikka from the Royal Kumari the Dashain before the Royal Massacre (June 2001), she cried (or something like that) which denotes a bad omen. Less than a year later ten members of the royal family including the King, Queen, two princes and the princess were dead.

The Kumari remains a goddess until her first menstruation, at which point the spirit of the goddess leaves her body to inhabit someone else, and she again becomes a mere mortal. Image the confusion for the poor child—having spent the formative years of her life worshiped and treated to every desire only to reach adolescence and be tossed back to her family (which at this point she hardly knows) and be treated like a regular person again.

BBC "In pictures" from today... girls dressed like Kumari dance in the street (although they are not real Kumari)

Another BBC "In Pictures"... a (real) Kumari peeks outside her temple window at the Indra Jatra festival

If you want to learn more about the Kumari I recommend watching the documentary “The Living Goddess” (watch trailer HERE), it is currently streaming on Netflix. Interestingly, when the documentary came out, the Kumari featured traveled to the US for the premiere, and she was temporarily “fired” from her role as Kumari because she became “unclean” from traveling abroad.  A purification ritual was performed before she could be reinstated.

So back to Indra Jatra—Indra is the god of rain and the festival is celebrated for eight days in the Kathmandu Valley mostly near Hanuman Dhoka. Classical dancers assemble in the square wearing different traditional masks and costumes to celebrate Indra’s visit. On the third day the Kumari is brought to the square in a chariot procession to watch over the ceremonies.

Pictures of Indra Jatra dancers

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!