Tag Archives: Puja

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.

Happy Saraswati Puja

P had an image of Saraswati linked to his Google-Chat today, and I wasn’t sure why. Then I noticed our friend had a “Happy Saraswati Puja!” up as her away message.

So, since I work at a university, and P and many of our friends are graduate students, I figured it would be nice to wish you all a Happy Saraswati Puja today.

Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning. So it seems appropriate. May she help you when you need inspiration to learn and finish your school work. If you are like me, you probably need this inspiration all the time to help you focus.

Bhai Tikka in Pictures

“Bhai Tikka” marks the final day of Tihar. I believe you could literally translate the holiday as bhai (brother) tikka (blessing); it is a day where sisters celebrate their brothers to ensure their long life and to thank them for the love and protection they give. As part of the festivities lots of good food is prepared for the brothers, and their sisters give them packages of sweets and nuts. There is a special puja, with a seven colored tikka and flower garlands. In return the sisters receive gifts or money from their brothers, and the whole ceremony acts as a strengthening and renewal of the brother-sister relationship.

A Tibetan dipection of Yama

A Tibetan depiction of Yama (Yamaraj)

I had a less detailed “origin story” for Bhai Tikka here before, but a friend sent me a good link, with a nice explanation: “Legend holds that when the Kirati King Bali Hang fell mortally ill, his sister Jamuna looked after him and guarded him. When Yamaraj, the God of Death, came for Bali Hang’s soul, Jamuna pleaded to wait until she finished worshipping her brother; that is, until Panchami (Bhai Tika). She then conducted a long and elaborate ceremony for her brother, and performed the same for Yamaraj. She also put forth some conditions: that Yamaraj should not take Bali Hang until the tika, which she had smeared on his forehead, fades away; until the water sprinkled on her brother dries; and until the makhmali flowers wilt. Over the years Yamaraj sent his messengers to inspect the flowers, and when the next Bhai Tika puja arrived Yamaraj admitted that he had lost Bali Hang’s soul to his pious sister and granted him long life.”

The article goes on to explain the individual elements of the ritual: “To begin

The elephant-headed god Ganesh-- one of the most famous images in Hindu iconography

The elephant-headed god Ganesh-- one of the most famous figures in Hindu iconography

the ceremony, the sister draws three mandaps or boundaries at a designated place. The mandaps are made for Lord Ganesh, Janmaraj (the God of Birth), and Yamaraj. The sister then performs the puja of the deities after which the brother is requested to sit on the mat for the tika ceremony. Special offerings are placed in front of him. While intoning a protective spell, the sister pours a circle of oil and holy water from a copper pitcher around his body as a boundary over which death and evil spirits cannot pass. Then, kneeling before him, she worships him with the offerings of flowers, nuts, fruits, and rice amidst flaming wicks and incense. She then breaks walnuts before applying the actual tika. The most important act is applying the special bhai tika—called saat rangi tika (seven colored tika), consisting of the colors of the rainbow. This is applied on top of a white base on the brother’s forehead. Creating the tika begins… [when the sister] applies the tika base (made from rice paste). The seven colors are dabbed on top of the base with her fingers… [or with a little stick.] Then, a flower garland is put around brother’s neck as the sister prays for his long life, happiness and continued prosperity.”

This year AS organized a small gathering for people who wanted to participate in Bhai Tikka. Usually one would tikka their “own” (biological) brothers as well as male cousins (cousin-brothers). AS’s “own” brother and cousin-brother live nearby, but for many their “own” sisters and brothers are far away. Being the tight-knit community that we are, long lasting friendships can grow into a brotherly/sisterly relationship anyway, and so we expanded the definition of “sister” and “brother” for this event.

We didn’t have garlands, but we made do with what we did have. Below are some pictures of the event:

The "puja platter"...with the seven different colors for the tikka

The "puja thaal"...with seven different colors for the tikka

AS rubs oil on P's head

AS rubs oil on P's head with a banana leaf

AS sprinkles water three times in a clockwise motion around P's head

AS sprinkles water three times in a clockwise motion around P's head

"Old Neighbor" puts tikka on P as other "sisters" get ready to put tikka

"Old Neighbor" puts tikka on P as other "sisters" get ready to put tikka

"Sisters" do an aarti for P's long life...

"Sisters" do an aarti for P's long life...

Two "brothers" with colorful tikkas

Two "brothers" with colorful tikkas

"Sisters" and "brothers"

"Sisters" and "brothers" post-tikka

Kukur Puja

The past few days have been busy, and will finish off tonight with a celebration of “Bhai Tikka”… no wonder my masters thesis isn’t finished yet! There is something new every week. However, every time I participate in these festivals I learn something new… I swear, it’s educational!

Garlanded "kukurs" in Kathmandu

Garlanded "kukurs" in Kathmandu

Anyway… as part of Tihar (as you guys all now know… what Nepalis call Diwali, the “festival of lights”) there are several days, where each day is “special” for a specific thing. One day it is crows, another day cows, another dogs, then yourself, and finally brothers. As part of the festivities you are suppose to do a special “puja,” or ceremony/prayer, for each thing on their specific day and (I guess the word is) “spoil” them with treats and attention. This is hard… P and I don’t have a bunch of crows and cows wandering around, but this year we were in luck… because in January P and I adopted a dog–a cute little rescue mutt from Puerto Rico. So this year we had a chance to celebrate “Kukur Puja”—kukur meaning “dog” in Nepali.

Our little "kukur" Sampson wiggled a bit and got tikka powder on his face :)

Our little "kukur" Sampson wiggled a bit and got tikka powder on his face :)

Thus Sampson had a special Saturday, filled with treats (especially his favorite- cheese!), puja and lots of love! The holiday essentially celebrates the old adage “dog is man’s best friend” or as Wikipedia so eloquently explained, the holiday “acknowledge[s] the cherished relationship between humans and the oldest ever tamed animal.” It was the first time P and I celebrated, so we invited our friends AS and N over to help. We lit some incense, and made a flower garland for Sampson and gave him a red powder tikka for good measure. I must say, he looked awfully cute (although the flower garland didn’t last long).

C lighting candles in hopes of Lakshmi giving us wealth and prosperty for the next year...

C lighting candles in hopes of Lakshmi giving us wealth and prosperity for the next year...

Other then that, we spent a large part of the weekend driving back and forth to central New York for a Diwali party at a friend’s house. As part of the party we all dressed up South Asian style (of course, I’ll jump at any excuse to do so!) and lit lots of little tea lights to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Supposedly, on Lakshmi Puja she visits houses that are clean, adorned with lights and where the people are hardworking (not lazy!) and she brings wealth and good fortune for the upcoming year.

Luckily we finished the dishes and made the bed before running off to the party… because in these tough economic times, who doesn’t need a little Lakshmi in their life? ;)

Tonight is “Bhai Tikka” when “sisters” celebrate their “brothers” and the brothers give their sisters gifts in return. AS is planning a puja and gathering, so I’ll write more about that later.

Phew, between American and Nepali holidays… autumn can be exhausting!

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.