A Holiday for the Modern Woman

1 09 2010

Today was Krishna Janmastami, or Lord Krishna’s birthday. Last week was Janai Purnima (see posted video) and Gai Jatra, or the Cow Festival (see Nepal Photostream). Next week is Teej, a 3-day festival for women. Later this month is Indra Jatra, when the living child-goddess Kumari makes her yearly appearance. It’s kind of a joke that every day in Nepal is a holiday, but we’re in the midst of festival season that began with the Naga Puja (see earlier post) and runs into January/February. Nepal’s biggest holiday is Dasain in October, followed closely by Tihar in November. The fall festival season is partly why I decided to visit Nepal now.

Shiva lingam

Kathmandu Valley Shiva Lingam (Photo credit: Yosarian)

I experienced Teej from afar during my 2006 trip (it fell in August then) but there’s no avoiding it this time because my sister-in-law is excited to celebrate with me. You might understand my hesitation in a minute. It’s about the only time women take a break from their household duties, mostly because they’re fasting part of the time so aren’t required to cook. Some devout women don’t even swallow their saliva during the fast (I’m really looking forward to this). Women celebrate and hope for a good future, but since a Hindu woman’s position derives from her relationships with male relatives, it’s a time to pray for her husband’s prosperity and happiness and hence, a happy marriage. Unmarried women celebrate in hopes of marrying a good man. (You can imagine what all this means for widows. They aren’t allowed to celebrate and as widows, lose status in society since their primary male relationship is gone). During Teej, women sing and dance all day and try not to pass out from hunger. Alternately, they sit around a giant lingam, the phallic symbol of the god Shiva, and offer him flowers, sweets and coins (Intro to Art students: you’ll be tested on the words phallus/phallic later this semester). As a modern woman, it’s all very cringe-worthy so I’ll just concentrate on the idea of art and life coming together and think of the Shiva lingam as a sculpture instead of a phallus. But of course as an artist, I’m trained to decipher visual symbols, so avoiding the phallic association is difficult. It’s very common for unmarried women to have a small Shiva lingam in their homes, which they rub everyday in the hopes of marrying soon. Again, very cringe-worthy but these are deeply felt religious and cultural beliefs and traditions.

Celebrants all wear red. I couldn’t fit any of my saris or kurta surwals (traditional Nepali clothing for women) in my suitcases so today, my sister-in-law and I went fabric shopping. You can buy ready-made traditional clothing, but it’s more common to buy the fabrics and have them tailored to suit your style and size. I didn’t find anything I liked in red, but bought three sets of fabric, one of which is pinkish-purple. Call it my subtle protest. If I make it to the third day of Teej, that’s when women here publicly “purify” themselves in the holy (and polluted) Bagmati River, rubbing mud on different parts of their bodies to exonerate the previous year’s sins. By the way, the ritual bathing area is right alongside the cremation ghats. Yeah, I can hardly wait.




12 responses

4 10 2010

I am an international student at mount mercy and i have friends from Nepal, i am just so excited to learn more about Nepalese culture.

4 10 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Ndage!

That’s so great! Welcome to MMU! Where are you from? How did you meet your Nepalese friends?


10 10 2010

I am from the Republic democratic of Congo (ex-Zaire). I met my Nepalese friends in high school here. One of them usualy goes to Nepal during summer for internships.

20 09 2010
Talk about Nothing (and Everything) « Kathryn Hagy

[…] Wednesday is Indra Jatra to celebrate the symbolic end of the monsoon when, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Kumari (living child goddess) makes her yearly appearance in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. […]

19 09 2010
william allen

To paraphrase Heinlein, you are a stranger in a strange land. You are imposing an American view on a different country when you make the phallus comments. Shouldn’t you be trying to look through their eyes, as you would want them to look through your eyes at your art?

20 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi William,

Yes, it is important to try to see other cultures through the eyes of that culture. I think if you read the follow-up post, you’ll get a fuller picture of my overall experience with Teej. One of the purposes of my blog is to help promote international experiences and cross-cultural dialogue and odd as it sounds, one way to do that is by being as honest about my experiences as possible in a public forum. It’s very normal, and in fact part of the process of living in another culture, to have strong reactions on some occasions. And sometimes it takes a while to sort out those reactions in order to see where they’re coming from, where the other people are coming from, etcetera. However, that process is life altering-ly wonderful in the long run. But what you say about being a stranger in a strange land is also true. I will never be Nepali nor truly considered a cultural insider (In fact, many immigrants or expatriates within new cultures consider themselves part of a third culture). And there was some tongue-in-cheek in the phallus post. Maybe it didn’t come through strongly enough, but I was having a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously.

Thanks for reading.


17 09 2010
Joshua Tompkins

Sense hindu women work all the time for their husbands, do you feel the same when you are here in the us? Do they look down app-on you when you are out and about with others celebrating if you don’t have a husband? You might have a husband, sorry if I didn’t know. overall it sounds like you had fun when it came.

17 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

My husband is a Nepali Hindu so I do have a glimpse into the culture that other foreigners might not have. In many cultures, not just Asian or Hindu cultures, an unmarried woman beyond let’s say 25 years of age, is pressured into “accepting her fate” by settling down and having children. Men are also pressured into providing an heir (it’s not just women who are pressured), but it’s slightly different for women. American culture was much the same way until the Feminist Movement in the 1970s gave women options for career pursuits and raising families later in life, if at all.

8 09 2010
Jenifer Hanson

Kathryn: Enjoying reading your blog. I now know what I’ve been doing wrong and why I’ve remained husbandless — no Shiva lingam to rub daily! All joking aside, I think reading what you’ve written reminds me that the realities of immersing yourself in another culture are always more real than you anticipate (like bathing in a polluted river — something I wouldn’t do here in Iowa). I agree with Jane, but I would have to constantly remind myself to take her advice and “spit my heart out”! Thanks for the interesting reading! Jenifer

14 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Jenifer and Fellow Blogger!

Believe me, I’ve already had many experiences here that are more “real” (or raw) than my typical American experiences. No matter what those experiences are, they always make me think hard about life as we know it. hat’s one of the reasons I love traveling so much – feeling unsettled every once in a while is a good thing!


3 09 2010

Umm. I used to like going up to Warde fourth floor. Now, I’ll be in fear whenever I see Jane. Is she observing a Nepalese holiday? I hope not …

2 09 2010
jane gilmor

Not swallowing your saliva means you have to spit a lot right? that sort of appeals to me –it’s such “macho” thing to do. Intro students, she’s not kidding
and “phallic” in reference to symbols may be on the first quiz in visual form –so take note! Kathryn spit your heart out –it’s a holiday!! jane G

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