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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


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.

Vijaya Dashami (Happy Dashain)

17 10 2010


Tika puja accoutrements, including the jamara barley sprouts

Tika puja accoutrements, including the jamara barley sprouts


Today is the 10th day and culmination of the Dashain festival, or what I like to call “Nepalese Christmas”. The holiday is also referred to as Durga Puja because people worship the Goddess Durga in her many avatars or manifestations. Dashain is the most auspicious time of the year in Nepal and it’s a much bigger holiday for Nepali Hindus than it is for Indian Hindus for whom Diwali/Dipawali is even bigger. For Nepalis, the last night of tika is most important, whereas in other Hindu cultures other auspicious days within the holiday may be more important. For example, the 9th night of Durga Puja, when animals are sacrificed, is most important for Hindu Bengalis because Durga is an important Goddess to them. One of Durga’s manifestations is the Goddess Kali, and she is quite bloodthirsty. Animal rights activists do not like Dashain because on the 9th day thousands of male animals are sacrificed to appease Kali/Durga, and then eaten that night or the next day during the final celebrations. Hindus only kill and eat male animals because females replenish life through birth. The parade of animals into Kathmandu markets began last week and it’s been a painful week of walking streets lined with cute goats ready for slaughter. Not all the animals are killed in religious  sacrifices. After all, people need to eat, too (especially during big family holidays). For animals that are being religiously sacrificed, a priest conducts the sacrifice at a temple. For those who just want to eat the animal, the eldest male relative, another respected male family member, or whoever is least turned off by killing animals would slit the animal’s neck.

The type of animal you sacrifice in temple depends on which gods are most important to you and your family as well as what you can afford. Non-religious slaughters depend on what you like to eat, as well as what you can afford. Durga/Kali likes water buffaloes, but she’s bloodthirsty so she’ll take what she can get. Other gods might require other animals such as ducks, roosters, pigeons, goats and others. And the gods don’t need the whole sacrificed animal or whatever food you offer them. You get to take the “leftovers” home as prasad because your offerings retain the blessings of the gods. Getting back to animals, the going rate for live roosters from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was 1500 rupees, or about $21. I have no idea how much buffaloes cost, but you can probably take a guess based on the rooster price. By the way, buffalo meat is called “buff” here and when you order a burger in a restaurant, you’re probably getting buff meat since cows are sacred to Nepal’s Hindus. I don’t eat red meat so I stay away from buff and goat meat. However, when I’m traveling and living abroad (or even when I’m at someone’s house for dinner back in the U.S. and don’t want to appear rude) I eat more adventurously. So yes, I’ve tried both buff and goat.

During Dashain, many return to their ancestral homes or wherever their families live for tika (blessing of powdered pigment and rice on forehead), feasts, and gambling to honor Laxmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth. This week, Kathmandu is actually quiet and pollution-free since at least one-third of the population returned to their villages for the final celebrations. My husband arrived in Kathmandu from Iowa last week and he’s been busy conducting the daily puja (worship) of planting and watering the barley seeds that grew, by today, into the sacred sprouts of jamara given by elders to younger family members as a token of Durga’s blessing during the family tika ceremony. There are several important days during Dashain when certain pujas must be performed at astrologically auspicious times determined by Hindu priests.

If I’m not doing the best job of explaining the holiday, I apologize. Dashain’s origins come from different accounts in the Ramayana Hindu holy text. It’s very complicated and you’ll hear a different version from nearly each person you ask. I’ll quote an explanation from Mary Anderson’s 1988 edition of “The Festivals of Nepal”:


Dashain goat

Goat being taken home for Dashain sacrifice and/or meal


The festivities of these two weeks glorify the ultimate and inevitable triumph of Virtue over the forces of Evil, commemorating a great victory of the gods over the wicked demons and devils who harassed mankind in ancient times. The Ramayana story is retold of the righteous King Rama, deified in Hindu mythology as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, or again as God himself, who after epic struggles slaughtered Ravana, the fiendish king of the demon hordes from Lanka, a legendary country believed by many to have been Ceylon [modern day Sri Lanka]. Some say Lord Rama was successful in his battle with the demon only when he evoked Shakti, or Supreme Energy vested in Goddess Durga, the Divine Mother of the Universe. Others have it that Rama’s saintly wife Sita, having been kidnapped by the demon Ravana, assumed the form of the Terrible Destructress, Goddess Kali – otherwise known as Durga – and destroyed this thousand-headed King of the Demons.

Greatly celebrated during Dashain, again glorifying the triumph of Good over Evil, is Goddess Durga’s slaying of the terrible demon Mahisasura, who roamed the earth, terrorizing the population in the guise of a ferocious water buffalo. Other accounts reveal how Lord Rama, having sworn to kill the evil Mahisasura of the Underworld, enlisted the Divine Energy of Goddess Taleju – still another of Durga’s many forms – promising to take her to his Indian capital of Ayodhya and erect there a temple in her honor…No matter how the story is told, victory is celebrated during Dashain fortnight with great rejoicing, and Goddess Durga is adored throughout the land as the Divine Mother Goddess who liberated the suffering people from the miseries of Evil.

After reading this excerpt, you can understand why an easy explanation is impossible! And lest you think the holiday season is over, there’s another 5-day holiday in early November: the Diwali/Dipawali festival that I referred to earlier, or Tihar as it’s called in Nepali.

In late-breaking news as I finish this post, I could swear I just felt a small earthquake. It’s 2:00am here. Hopefully there will be something in the news about it tomorrow. If not, it’s my imagination and I’ve had too much cold medicine.



Dashain tika

I decided to have a little fun while giving my nephew tika. The tika paste really belongs on the forehead. Note the jamara sprouts behind his ears.



28 09 2010

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted anything. My internet was down the last week and I’m suddenly working on all these new projects and feeling as though I have very little time left in Nepal since the upcoming Dashain and Tihar holidays will knock out a fair amount of October and some of November. Teaching has also picked up a bit, though it’s still as unpredictable as ever. The awesomely fantastic(!) Indra Jatra holiday officially ended yesterday but there was still a holiday hangover in the air today. I spent as much time as possible in the thick of it and will post video footage just as soon as I have some editing time (not likely in the next week, but I’ll try). You’ll just have to be patient! Your wait time will mimic what we all experienced awaiting the royal Kumari’s appearance. However, there’s no way I can duplicate the mosh pit effect when she finally appeared.

One of this week’s projects was delivering a talk on what I’m doing here in Nepal. But finding out a few days beforehand that you’ll be giving a hour-long talk is, shall we say, very Nepal. Ke garne. I think it went okay but while Nepalis are incredibly friendly, they aren’t overly demonstrative in other ways, so it’s difficult for me to tell what effect the “From Iowa to Nepal (and Vice Versa)” topic had on my audience. And besides that, the monkey walking around on the roof of the building outside the window during my talk (that only I could see since it was behind the audience) was a little distracting. But hey, at least it was an interesting distraction. Stay tuned, Cedar Rapids audiences, for the forthcoming “From Nepal to Iowa (and Vice Versa)” presentation, sans monkeys. More on monkeys later…

Talk about Nothing (and Everything)

20 09 2010

I’ve been busy these days so I’ll lump a few posts into one instead of breaking posts down topically.

Shiva Bhairava sculpture

Shiva Bhairava (The Terrible One); Nepal; ca. 16th century; Gilt copper alloy; Rubin Museum of Art; C2005.16.14 (HAR 65436)

An American colleague at Kathmandu University Centre for Art and Design, Adam Swart, gave a talk on Himalayan art earlier this week. Adam was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal a while back and after returning to the States, began working at the Rubin Museum of (Himalayan) Art in New York City. Now he’s back in Nepal teaching art and working on museum projects. The Rubin was built after I moved away from NYC to Iowa, but it looks spectacular and I’ll have to visit next time I’m in NYC. I checked out their website and I love their current lecture series, a nod to Buddhism, entitled Talk about Nothing. The description states that:

  • “How we perceive and conceive of what is and what isn’t is a universal question. It may, in fact, be the biggest question. It is at the heart of Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And here at the Rubin Museum of Art–itself, a museum of ideas–we have brought together some of the world’s most active minds to talk about…nothing. There will be a lot to say.”  -Tim McHenry, Producer

Adam discussed the Rubin’s collection scope of Himalayan countries, including Mongolia, which isn’t really that close to the Himalayas but whose work is stylistically similar because, historically, Mongolians employed Himalayan (specifically Newar) artists. He showed representations of objects and images from various Himalayan cultures through time and the ways in which influences traveled from place to place through travel and trade (e.g. Silk Road).

I’ve  been teaching much more lately and my schedule is really filled these days between classes, workshops, my own research, and day-to-day life in Kathmandu. Because Kathmandu is the capital city, there’s a lot happening. I also attended a gallery reception and lecture for an exhibit of Nepali and Indian photographers entitled Rivers of Pilgrimage. Since I’m photographing sacred water sites in Nepal, the exhibit timing couldn’t have been more perfect. There are so many festivals and rituals involving water here (and in India) that I feel like I need another grant to even begin tackling the vastness of this topic! Speaking of water, I attended a fundraiser for Pakistani flood victims the other night. In Cedar Rapids, we were all affected by the 2008 floods somehow, which maybe makes the devastating images from Pakistan hit home for Iowans. The area impacted by the Pakistan floods is larger than the entire country of Nepal. I’ll just let that fact stand on its own.

Kumari on IndraJatra

Kathmandu's Kumari on the eve of the 2007 Indra Jatra (Photo credit: Manjari Shrestha)

There’s a little interruption in life this week because guess what? Another holiday is here! This 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. You can read more about Kumaris here but briefly, the Kumari is revered and worshipped by Nepali Hindus and some Nepali Buddhists. Kumaris are chosen when they are quite young and their goddess role ends when they reach puberty. The autobiography From Goddess to Mortal, written by former Kumari Rashmila Shakya (in conjunction with author Scott Berry) attempts to dispel Kumari myths such as that it’s bad luck to marry a former Kumari (they do marry, but have to deal with this stigma). Fascinating reading if you have the time and interest. Traditionally, Kumaris bless Nepal’s ruler on Indra Jatra but since Nepal’s monarchy was abolished a few years ago and there is currently no prime minister due to political in-fighting, I’m wondering who the Kumari will bless? I’ll let you know when I find out.

Follow-up to “A Holiday for the Modern Woman”

14 09 2010
Teej Dance

This pre-Teej gathering captures the spirit of the holiday.

Though I still feel that Teej is one of the most patriarchal holidays ever, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I can’t comment on all the patriarchal bits without hurting people’s feelings, so you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that Hindu women seem to enjoy less equality than many of the non-Hindu women of Nepal.

The place to be on Teej, if you’re a Kathmandu Hindu woman, is Pashupatinath Temple (more commonly referred to as Pashupati). Foreigners outside of Nepal and India, assumed to be non-Hindu, are not allowed inside Pashupati but can only observe from across the river. Because of this and the fact that my sister-in-law didn’t want to stand in the entrance line for 3 hours on an empty stomach (she fasted), we watched the festivities on TV. Very reminiscent of watching the New Year’s Eve Times Square ball drop on TV. So, it ended up being a very relaxing holiday. No purifying bath in the polluted sacred river required.

My sister-in-law invited me to watch her worship rituals in the family’s special mini-temple, which was very sweet of her. Their temple room is located on their roof and is filled with pictures of the main gods/goddesses and the ones that are dearest to family. There are probably 5,000+ Hindu gods/goddesses – plenty to choose from! Worship (puja in Nepali) requires flowers, fruits, nuts, rice, oil and water libations from special containers, pigmented powders for tika (the colored paste applied to foreheads as a blessing), and various other materials. Listening to the mantras was very soothing, as meant to be, and she was very good about explaining her actions as she went along. The lighting of oil-soaked cottons placed in elaborate copper containers blesses her husband. Application of tika to this fruit or nut honors such-and-such gods. The whole thing was very touching and reinforced the notion that it probably matters more what kind of person you are and how you treat others. What you believe and how you practice your faith are window dressing.

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.

Janai Purnima Festival

28 08 2010

Here are some video highlights of the recent Janai Purnima festival in Patan’s Durbar Square. Patan is one of the three cities within the Kathmandu Valley that have essentially grown into one big city due to urban sprawl. Enjoy!