Festival of Lights

7 11 2010

This week is, believe it or not, another Nepal holiday – the festival of lights – known as Tihar, Diwali or Dipawali here. I’ll quote/paraphrase from Mary Anderson’s The Festivals of Nepal in order to somewhat explain Tihar. Anderson states that “Tihar literally means ‘a row of lamps’ and lighting displays are traditional, but this festival is actually a succession of significant holidays celebrated for a variety of reasons.” Whereas Dashain ushered in the beginning of harvest season, Tihar ends it and an ancient New Year begins again. Laxmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune,  is Tihar’s primary deity. “Nepalese adore this beautiful goddess, make gifts and offerings to her, worship her idols and propitiate her, especially at Tihar festival, when she circles the earth on an owl, inspecting the homes to see that they have been scrupulously cleansed and a light left burning in her honour. For if she is pleased she will protect the money box and grain stores of each family, and grant prosperity throughout the coming year.” Laxmi sounds a little like Santa Claus, don’t you think?

The 5 days of Tihar begin with crow worship and people set out small bowls made from sewn green leaves filled with food for the crows. Actually, in my walks around Kathmandu, I’ve noticed these small offerings here and there so people leave offerings for crows on other days as well. In the Hindu pantheon, crows foretell of death and disaster. However, I read a recent article that crows rank in intelligence with dolphins and primates so maybe regular crow offerings to avoid ill omens aren’t such a bad idea?

Tihar’s 2nd day is dog puja (dog worship). There are so many stray and ill-treated dogs in Kathmandu that I wish everyday was dog puja. On this day, dogs are garlanded with flowers, given a tika mark (blessing) on their foreheads, and fed special treats. Dogs mythically guard the gates of death and honoring dogs on this day might help your soul pass lightly into the next world. I typically carry around a bag of doggy biscuits but even the stray dogs won’t eat them so they must taste horrible. Or, the street dogs are so suspicious from their harsh life that they won’t eat food from human hands. My last theory, after seeing many dogs kindly receiving butcher scraps is that, after a life of fresh raw meat, dog biscuits just don’t cut it.

The third day is Laxmi puja and the day that cows are worshipped in the same way dogs are (tika, flower garlands, favorite food). Laxmi puja is one of the biggest days and it seems everyone was out lighting firecrackers, singing and dancing, and preparing light displays to guide Laxmi to their front doors. I walked around and took pictures of all the great displays in my neighborhood and you can see in the rangoli designs below how the cow dung mixed with red ochre and holy water and covered with powdered pigments, flowers and candles decorate the entryways of people’s homes. I love all the different democratic artworks to attract Laxmi, and the swastika you’ll see below originates in Hinduism (and is utilized in Buddhism/Jainism as well) as a sign of good luck or well-being. Swastikas were only later corrupted by the Nazis, but are still everywhere in Nepal and some other Asian countries. Note the ‘tika’ in ‘swastika’ bestowed as a blessing mark of colored powder/paste on the forehead of Hindus during worship or on auspicious days.

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Yesterday was Mha puja, or worship of one’s body or self. I know a few people who act like everyday is Mha puja, but that’s beside the point! “Mha puja purifies the heart and soul for the coming New Year and asks for enlightenment in sacred, ancient rites which strengthen the perpetual bonds of kinship in families.” The head of the house makes a mandala (Intro to Art students: you should know what a mandala is by now) for each family member. The mandalas can be made of pigments and food such as rice and small beans. A series of tika blessings are bestowed upon each family member, oldest to youngest, and the family feasts afterwards. My husband says Mha puja is mostly celebrated by Nepal’s Newar ethnic group (indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley), some of whom are Hindu and some of whom are Buddhist.

Today is Bhai tika, which, for my husband’s family and many Hindus, is the most important day besides Laxmi puja. The word ‘bhai’ (pronounced ‘bye’) literally means younger brother but all brothers, younger or older, are worshipped by their sisters, “…thus being assured of increased prosperity for the coming year, and a long and healthy life. So important is Bhai tika that if a man has no sisters a close female relative or friend is honoured to bestow this benediction.”  I hope my brothers aren’t reading my blog. However, brothers are supposed to buy gifts for their sisters or give them money, so if my brothers are reading this, God bless you and send me a check! 😉 This whole bhai tika thing is so culturally entrenched that I’ve been confused when introduced to female friend’s brothers (after thinking they had no blood brothers)  only to be told that these are ‘bhai tika’ brothers. A couple Bhai tika oddities are that menstruating women aren’t allowed to participate in tika because they’re considered impure during their cycle. Actually, menstruating women are forbidden from doing many things in Hinduism because of this bogus impurity belief, which is one aspect of Hinduism I detest. The second Bhai tika oddity is that the extended family of a woman who has just given birth aren’t allowed to give or receive tika if the birth occurred within the past 9 days. I asked my husband’s family why and they had no firm answer except that they believed a family should be doubly blessed after a birth. I agree. My mother-in-law sarcastically mentioned that the “recent birth” excuse is followed by people who don’t want to spend the money on Tihar decorations and gifts. Who knows. I’ll have to ask a Brahmin priest for the religious root of this tradition.

Throughout Tihar and especially during these great feasts that culminate in Bhai tika, people eat sweets. A Nepalese favorite during Tihar is sel roti, a type of donut-like sweetbread made of rice flour and flavored with sugar and light spices such as cardamon. I’ve eaten far too many today but part of Nepalese kindness is forcing food onto guests so no matter how much I ate, it never seemed to satisfy anyone. Here’s a short video of a street vendor cooking sel roti.

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU2rcfGzv2w]

As I write this, Kathmandu citizens are sucking as much life out of this holiday as they can and I suspect that the firecrackers, loud music and dancing, gambling (as the Goddess of wealth, Laxmi loves gambling) and drunken revelry will continue into the night. But by being here in Nepal instead of the U.S. at this time of year, I’m saved from the post-Halloween Christmas frenzy, and I’m thinking in particular of a local Iowa radio station that plays Christmas carols from the day after Halloween (way too soon) through Christmas. I was thinking all this as I walked through my Kathmandu neighborhood the other day, with weather still in the mid to high 70s, when suddenly I heard snippets of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  Someone had musical Tihar lights that were actually musical Christmas lights. So Laxmi and Santa are forcibly  intertwined for me.

P.S. India pics and that Indra Jatra video I promised are coming soon.

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20 responses

29 11 2010
Lindsey McDowell

Kathryn,
The pictures you have taken throughout your trip are wonderful! They are so colorful and some tell more than words can describe. Do you see things in nature or as you are walking around and think, ‘that would make a great picture?’ It seems as if it comes naturally to you. How long have you been doing photography?
Lindsey

29 11 2010
Mallory Singbeil

I have read in previous post on this blog about the Nepal’s food and how safe it is. Referring to the video at the end of the blog, sol roti. Did you feel comfortable eating it off the street or were you precocious when taking the food from the people?

23 11 2010
Anna

Kathryn,

It was interesting to see when they were cooking on the street. I’m wondering about the food though. Since America and Nepal have very different food cultures, isn’t it quite common for tourists to get sick from the Nepalese food? What food would you suggest not to eat? Do you like Asian food better than American?

Anna

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Anna,

Even foreigners coming to the U.S. get sick because the bacteria is different. It’s not always a case of the actual food creating illnesses. As long as food preparers take precautions, the food won’t make you sick. I love Nepali food, especially the achars, which are pickled dishes. I think the pickled dishes that are sour and bitter are harder for Americans to get used to, but I love them. Also, Westerners tend not to eat spicy foods, and many foods here are hot and spicy, but I don’t mind. I love Asian food, but as we get closer to Thanksgiving, I’m also craving American turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes, so I guess I don’t prefer one type of food over the other.

23 11 2010
Michelle Fiester

Kathryn,
I know I asked you this a couple of months ago and you told me to ask you in late November. What will you miss the most when you leave? The art? People? Culture? All of the above? Family? Sights?
Please be safe. I have to say, I am envious. Someday I will get there! 🙂
Michelle

24 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Michelle,

My head is still swimming about the question. New friends might top the list. I’ve met a number of artists here who are doing incredible things against impossible odds. I’m hoping they don’t get too burned out but I’ll be keeping in touch with them and will remain involved in the Nepali art scene in some way. So, I’ll miss being around such energetic and inspired people. The wealth of cultural/natural sites everywhere is something else I’ll miss. I will also miss cows everywhere, I have to say. They’re pretty docile due to constant contact with people, unlike cows back home that aren’t quite so comfortable in crowds. It may be our imagination, but my husband and I think the vegetables here taste better, maybe because most things are grown in family plots and crops aren’t so engineered as they are in the U.S. And of course, I’ll miss family.

I do hope you get to this part of the world someday!

18 11 2010
Kayla

Hi Kathryn,
I love all the pictures and movies you put up, I especially thought it was interesting how they were cooking that food for you. But I have some questions about those. Were they cooking them on the streets? and Did they ever teach you how to cook their food at all?

23 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Kayla,

The video you saw was of a street vendor making food to sell. There are many street vendors here, just as you might see in a larger American city or smaller street fairs during the summer. I started learning how to cook Nepali food many years ago when I got married. I learned through cookbooks, asking lots of questions, and trying to figure out what ingredients people used by looking and tasting. There are so many fruits, vegetables and spices in Nepal that aren’t available in the U.S. that I’m learning new cooking techniques here that, sadly, I won’t be able to duplicate once I return to the USA. However, there are a number of Indian grocery stores in Iowa that may stock some of these harder to find items.

16 11 2010
Amanda Walker

Kathyrn,
You are right, the festival of lights sounds similar to our Christmas, with Santa Claus coming around to our houses, just like Laxmi does! Could the worship day of yourself sort of be related to our New Years? I mean its our cultural tradition to make a resolution, and most often its to make yourself better in some way…just a thought.
I had to read it a few times, but yep, you said that they make their rangoli designs from cow manure! I guess when they worship something, they mean it! You have shown us pictures of stray goats, and stray dogs. Are the cows stray too? or do people own them in herds like we do? Im assuming if you worship something you wouldnt ‘own’ it, but do they starve most of the year like the dogs?
Amanda Walker

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Amanda,

I think your reasoning about New Year’s being similar to Mha puja makes perfect sense!

At some point when I have time, I have a wonderful collection of images (mostly from India) of how cow manure is used in the most creative and artful ways.

Not all cows are strays, but you do see a lot of cows in unexpected places (such as laying the middle of the street) and it’s hard to tell if they’re stray or not. The cows are VERY well fed since it’s a blessing to feed them as the most sacred animals. In fact, I was at a temple this morning and fed a cow some corn kernels and rice. The cow kept following us for more after we walked away!

15 11 2010
Ben Kromminga

Hi Kathyrn!

You mentioned that dogs are only treated well on dog puja. Is it the same for cows? Or are they treated as being sacred even on days other than Laxmi puja?

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Ben,

Well maybe I exaggerated about dogs only being treated well on dog puja day. More and more people own dogs as pets here, so I do see a number of fat and happy dogs here and there. Cows, on the other hand, are treated like kings and queens everyday. I’m sure they are occasionally abused but this is such a taboo here that anyone witnessing this abuse would probably beat the perpetrator senseless. Male bulls are worked a bit, but the females have an easier life. Since cows are seen as mother figures (and especially female cows) killing or hurting one is like, well, killing or hurting your own human mother.

19 11 2010
Ben Kromminga

Wow! If I’m ever in India I will definitely make a point to treat every cow I encounter with great kindness! 😉

8 11 2010
Jim Hagy

Great photograhy Kathryn.

18 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Thanks!

8 11 2010
yer sister

Awww, that dog does look happy.

There is a professor at the UW named John Marzluff who has written a book about crow intelligence that looks pretty good, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. http://is.gd/gQeul

He has also discovered that crows recognize human faces! http://is.gd/gQeAg

8 11 2010
william allen

So i see they have offerings for crows, cattle and dogs. Do they have offerings for other animals on other holidays and what do they represent.

10 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi William,

When I wrote that Hinduism has 5,000 gods, I was wrong. It has 5 million! There are so many manifestations of the gods/goddesses that nearly every living (or inanimate object) is god-like in some way. Some things are holier than other. As you know, cows are very holy because they’re seen as a mother figure, so people will perform “live” sacrifices of cows, for example when an important person dies, by releasing a newly purchased cow to roam freely. After death, family will do whatever they can to ensure moksha for the deceased or at least a swift and painless passing of the soul to the next life.

With such an enormous number of deities, people can cater the religion to their tastes somewhat. Ganesh, the elephant god, is very popular because he symbolizes luck (among other things). Unlucky worshippers may give daily offerings to Ganesh until they feel lucky again and then maybe worship another god to improve some other aspect of their life. This is actually one criticism that some devout Hindus have because they believe the religion is being abused by people just asking for things and not taking it seriously. But then, that might be true of many world religions. If you read my earlier post on Nag puja, you’ll read about the symbolism and significance of snakes.

I hope this gives you a general sense of things. or more info on Hinduism and animals, check out this web page, which goes into more detail than I can in this comment field. http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/essays/animals.asp

7 11 2010
Michelle Fiester

Hi Kathryn,
I love reading your posts. I have never been overseas but hope I get the opportunity. When you and your husband came here to the states, did your husband forget some of the holidays or traditions? Or do you celebrate them here at all?
What was your in-laws reaction to your husband moving to America?

Take care,
Michelle

8 11 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Michelle,

The Hindu holidays all operate on an astrological calendar as opposed to being fixed on certain cays each year. There is such a concern about the exact astrological time that events or certain pujas (worship ceremonies) cannot occur until that time has elapsed. About the only way to know these things is to consult a priest or buy a Nepali calendar where the holidays are marked. In effect, many people (not just my husband) have no idea when holidays are until they read it or until someone tells them. Just yesterday for Bhai tika, we went in search of a newspaper to find out when was the auspicious time to perform the tika ceremony (they publish these times in the newspaper). We do celebrate the Nepali holidays in the U.S. In Iowa, there’s a growing population of Nepalis. At last count, there were 250 people in Eastern Iowa but that number is growing. Every year, people chip in money to rent a big ballroom or hall, hire caterers and celebrate holidays like Dashain. The Indian community does the same thing and will hold dance performances at Johnson School that re-enact stories from the Hindu Ramayana text.

And my husband moved to America about 18 years ago (long before I met him) but his family was all rooting for him at that time because it was such a big deal for someone from a small remote village to go to college in another country, especially the U.S.. His father had only a 7th-grade education and his mother never learned how to read or write, so you can imagine what a big deal it was for their child to attend college in the U.S.

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