Tag Archives: Nepali rituals

Musings on Death

I got a call from my aunt last night. She invited P and I to my maternal grandmother’s birthday party at the end of October.

Aunt: “Grandma doesn’t really want to have anything special, but you know, she is getting up there in age, so we should all get together to celebrate. Grandma’s not going to be around forever.”

Later on my Grandmother called, “Did you hear this nonsense? They want to have a birthday party for me. I’m getting too old for this. Anyway, maybe if I was turning a ‘special year’ like 90 or something, but I think this is all very silly. But, your aunt said that we should all get together as a family during happy times, and not just for funerals.”

Maybe my family is just weird, I don’t know, but we’ve always been  candid about this kind of stuff. Death has never been a taboo topic to talk about. In 2007/8 my paternal grandparents passed away within a few months of each other and I feel like most of us knew my Grandmother wasn’t going to be around much longer after Grandpa passed away. She even spoke like she wasn’t going to be around. We didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, wish death on her, but I think we were all realistic about it… however I think P found this a bit appalling.

Even when I got off the phone last night he had a comment, “I don’t know why you guys have to talk like that. It’s disturbing.” I don’t think we were being morbid, it is a bit lighthearted and harmless, but also acknowledging reality. Grandma isn’t going to be around forever, so why not celebrate now?

This is a cultural difference I’ve noticed between (at least) my family and P’s. I have to be careful sometimes, because I’ve learned over the years that talk about death, even as a joke, bothers him.

For instance, when discussing getting married sooner rather than later, I’d love to say, “My grandmother and your grandfather [Kakabua] are getting quite old. Wouldn’t it be nice to get married earlier so that they can attend?”  but I know he wouldn’t appreciate my point, no matter how valid, because it insinuates that they might die in the next few years. Meanwhile I was excited to go to Nepal and see Kakabua again. I met him four years ago, and at the time he was already in his 80s, I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance to meet him again and was really happy to do so in June. I don’t think I should mention that to P either. Any talk about or around death seems to be off topic.

I was mentioning this to AS today:

Me: “Is this a common thing among Nepalis, having it be a bit taboo to talk about death, or do you think it is just a P thing?”

AS: “Talking about death is taboo, and more so if you are talking about your grandparents or old age people. It is thought to bring ill luck to the person. There is a saying—sometimes people say something and it happens for real, so death is unspoken. Even if someone is in the hospital bed, no one will utter the word death. It is out of respect, love or maybe superstition.”

I can respect that. Talking casually about death in front of P bothers him like people talking about weight in front of my family bothers them.

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

Actually this reminds me of when my paternal grandparents passed away. My grandfather died in early December. The Nepalis in the neighborhood had found out shortly afterwards, and they came by to see how I was doing. That night I didn’t feel like making dinner, so I ordered a pizza, and I got a few “looks” while I was eating. I then remembered that in Nepali culture it is common to refrain from certain foods—meats, garlic, onions, salt, etc for a mourning period (usually 13+ days depending). Here I was eating a pizza, the day I found out about his death, which probably had all sorts of taboo elements for someone who just lost a paternal grandparent.

Then when we traveled back to New York for the funeral, the night before my father’s family did what they called an “Irish wake,” meaning we all went out for drinks, and reminisced about my grandfather over glasses of wine and bottles of beer. It was therapeutic, particularly for my father and his siblings, and it was nice for us cousins to hear different stories from our parents’ childhood.

When I was asked about the funeral when I got home, there was again a bit of a shocked reaction–alcohol is another taboo during the mourning period in Nepali culture. They were also surprised that we celebrated Christmas that year… usually Nepali families refrain from celebrating major holidays for a year after a family member’s death. Here we were, three weeks later, although our holiday was “toned down” everyone’s feeling on the matter was, “Grandpa would have wanted it this way” since Christmas was always kind of special for him–his birthday was on Christmas day.

My grandmother passed away during the “epic family visit” in June of 2008. P’s family was both very respectful, but also very curious about my family’s customs associated with death—wearing black, burying the dead, the wake and the funeral, the “Irish wake” that happened again (hmm, maybe we didn’t tell them about that), and probably most shocking of all… P and I brought home a cooler full of meat from the funeral. I know this probably sounds weird even by American standards, but my grandmother loved the caribou and antelope that my dad would hunt, and had quite a bit of it in her freezer when she passed, so my dad took some back and gave us some because he knew P liked it. J Phupu took one look in the cooler and said, “yes, our cultures are very different” since many people abstain from meat for a duration of time after a close family member’s passing.

Anyway, I hate to sound morbid on a Friday afternoon, but I was thinking about these things after the conversation with my aunt last night and P’s reaction, and I thought some of you might find it interesting. We don’t talk about death all the time (I swear!), but it definitely comes up in conversation occasionally.

Which reminds me, speaking of death, I read an interesting blog post a while back about a tourist at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. She basically wrote about how she felt uncomfortable as a tourist at the cremation grounds. You might find it interesting, as I did.

Happy Dashain Part II

Happy “Dashami” or the 10th day of Dashain. The day when the goddess Durga triumphed over the demon Mahishasur and again “good” prevailed over “evil.”

Always up for a good story, I’m happy to share:

Powerful Durga slays Mahishasur on Dashami

Powerful Durga slays Mahishasur on Dashami

Mahishasur’s father was king of the “asuruas” (sometimes described as “demons” although I guess the translation is debatable) and once fell in love with a water buffalo. Mahishasur was born of this union, and could thus change between buffalo and man. Mahishasur happened to be fairly pious, or was at least a great devotee in meditation to the god Brahma. In turn Brahma granted Mahishasur a “boon” (I love how in Hindu mythological stories there is always a “boon” granted to the wrong person, and then all hell breaks loose) in which he could not be defeated by any man or any god.

Given this power Mahishasur started terrorizing heaven and earth, and none of the gods had the power to stop him. Something had to be done, so the gods conspired to beat the boon by creating a powerful young woman who could channel the power of the gods in the form of Durga. After nine days of vicious fighting, Durga prevailed and killed the human/buffalo demon. The days that followed were joyous days of celebration.

The jamara planted at S's house 10 days ago... has already grown so much!

The jamara planted at S's house 10 days ago... its already grown and ready to go...

Much like Dashain, when friends and family get together, neighbors visit neighbors, everyone calls home to say hello and send holiday wishes, and the jamara grass is harvested to use for blessing along with red tikkas which are given out to those who are important to you.

Unfortunately R-dai has gone back to Nepal, and M-dai and S-di both lost in-laws during the past year and were thus unable to give tikkas, so hopefully P will give me one later tonight (although I guess that means he doesn’t get one…). Yet even with the lack of communal tikka-giving (like in past years) at least our neighborhood was ready to celebrate!

Pre-"taas" dinner at S-di's and M-dai's

Pre-"taas" dinner at S-di's and M-dai's

On Friday night we had an evening of “taas” or card playing and gambling, which is a common feature of the Dashain and Tihar holidays. Even though I grew up in a card playing household, I am forever forgetting the rules to Nepali games like “kitty”

Preparing to play, although, wait a second, this isn't call break...

Preparing to play, although, wait a second, this isn't call break...

and “marriage” (or until I get a refresher before the game) but at least I can hold my own in “call break” which is similar to one of my favorite American card games “spades.” The card game playing usually includes gambling, although my call break group just played for fun. I can’t say the same for P’s marriage game or the kitty game going on in the other card circle that evening.

Picnic outside

Picnic outside, this was only a small portion of the food!

Even though Dashami–the tikka day–is today (Monday), we decided to take advantage of the weekend (and sunshine!) and have a big party on Saturday.

The day started pretty early with lots of cooking and preparations at S-di and M-dai’s house. By mid-afternoon there were bowls upon bowls of food set up picnic style outside—spiced meat kabobs grilled on the barbeque; mattar paneer; different chanas and aloo curries and yogurt salads; fermented pickles made from tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers; roasted chicken, goat and pork—certainly enough to feed the entire neighborhood twice over (well… come to think of it, we did all go back for lunch on Sunday, and brought tupperware boxes of food home!)

M-dai plays his drum in beat with the singing...

M-dai plays his drum in beat with the singing...

The girls dressed in kurtas and saris, we had a campfire going against the encroaching autumn chill, and we danced to Nepali and Bollywood songs by the firelight until nearly midnight. And then, of course, came singing and M-dai playing his drum.

It wasn’t necessarily “traditional” but I think it is important to mark these holidays and not let them pass unnoticed. If P (and friends) can’t be at home (in Nepal) for the festive atmosphere with family then its important for us to recreate that atmosphere here!

Ladies, dressed and ready, although the chilly weather necessitated a sweater over my new sari :(

Ladies, dressed and ready, although the chilly weather necessitated a sweater over my new sari :(

The holiday was also nice because P’s brother U came for the weekend as well as my youngest sister M, so that she could experience Dashain for the first time.

Hurray for sharing different cultural experiences!

So Happy Dashain and Happy Dashami to everyone!

And a quick update: There was no goat sacrificing this year, although the conversation briefly resurfaced during the week. Ultimately time and cost were prohibitive, but there’s always next year. On Sunday P’s dad called and let us know that they spent the better part of the day preparing their goat (I guess the shortage wasn’t so bad?), so at least there was some goat action somewhere in the family :)

To see Happy Dashain Part I click HERE

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.