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.