7 November 2015

The Festival of lights

The Indians know it as Deepavali or Diwali.

Here in Nepal it is the Tihar.

It is a happy time.

It is a party time.

With all the lights – it is also a very bright time.

I am back in Nepal and all is good in my world.

Not so much for the Nepalese.

A blockade of all petrol that arrives by land from India has crippled the country for the past month. I saw a queue of motorbikes and cars waiting for their weekly ten litres ration that had more than 6000 vehicles.

My friend Babu says he waits three days for his ration and he has also bought petrol on the black market. Fuel prices fluctuate wildly in Nepal but about one hundred and eighty rupees a litre is about the norm. The black market rate in Kathmandu is six hundred rupees.

The gangsters are really cashing in.

Driving is Babu’s sole business.

He is suffering badly.

So too are the post-earthquake re-construction projects which commenced with earnest last month when the monsoons subsided but most have now all ground to a halt because of the fuel crisis.

Tens of thousands of Nepali still live in tents in their villages and throughout the Kathmandu valley.

More than one hundred Nepalese villages were completely destroyed in the two earthquakes and only a handful has commenced rebuilding.

Hundreds of schools and health centres and public buildings need to be constructed.

With winter fast approaching the situation is becoming direr.

The situation in Nepal is often dire. As is always the case, it is the disadvantaged that suffer the most.

The young and the elderly.

The resilience of the Nepali people is astounding.

It really is.

As far as I can ascertain, the reason for the fuel blockade by the Indians is political.

They don’t like the new constitution.

Nearly everything in Nepal comes from India and much of what little is produced here goes to India.

Particularly the electricity that is generated by the large hydro dams in the Himalaya.

Very little – if any of that seems to stay in Nepal.

Black outs and load shedding are the norm.

The price of kerosene and cooking gas has also trebled in the last month and many people have reverted to cooking using wood fuel.

It is much cheaper.

Cylinders of gas that would normally cost 1500 rupee now cost 6500.

Few households can afford it.

Regardless - next week in the mountain villages and across the Kathmandu Valley clay lamps the Nepali call diyas will be lit in households and businesses. These lamps will often burn gee. These are known locally and appropriately as butter lamps and the smell permeates in Kathmandu and all throughout Nepal.

The smell of gee lamps always reminds me of the Tihar festival in Nepal.

It is nice.

Brass diyas burn in all the Temples.

In those that are still standing after the earthquakes.

In Patan – where I am right now - beautiful Rangoli are now appearing in courtyards and in building foyers. These are gorgeous and intricate patterns made from coloured rice and flower petals as homage to the Hindu gods and Goddesses.

On the weekend families will start their own Rangoli on the floors of their living rooms of their homes.

It is a welcoming invitation to the Hindu deity.

It is a come-on-in.

There are five days in the Tihar festival.

The first is called Kaag Tihar or Kwah Puja and it is the worship of both crows and ravens. The craws of these birds symbolize sadness and grief in Hinduism so devotees make offerings to keep such emotions away from their homes.

Offerings of sweets are placed on the roofs of houses.

The second day is called Kukur Tihar or Khicha Puja – and sometimes Narka Chaturdashi - and it is the day of the dog. In Nepali Hinduism dogs are the messengers of the God of Death, Lord Yamaraj. On this day the pooches of Nepal are given great treats and are treated with much reverence.

The night noises of Kathmandu for me are the barking of the street dogs and the crawing of the crows.

When I arrive back as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to take me I always know I am here by these sounds.

Like the pre-dawn morning chants of monks they are comforting to me.

They bring me peace.

The morning of the third day of the Tihar festival is called Gai Tihar – and it is worship of the cow time.

Cows are symbols of prosperity and wealth and the Nepali Hindus make garlands of marigolds that the locals call Sayapatri – and they glam up all of the cows.

The evening of the third day of the festival the Goddess of Wealth – whose name is Laxmi, is thanked for her gift of prosperity and this is where all the lights are lit up in thanks and the partying starts.

There is much singing and dancing.

On the fourth day of Tihar, there are a couple of varieties of pujas depending on the people's specific cultural background. It is mostly observed as Goru Tihar or Goru Puja – which is the worship of the oxen. However people who follow Vaishnavism Hinduism perform something called Govardhan Puja, which is the worship of the holy Goverdhan Mountain.

Cow dung is taken as representative of the mountain and it is bowed to and worshiped.

I shit you not.

On this day the majority of the Newar community perform something called Mha Puja – which is basically a worship of one’s self.

Think self contemplation.

This day is also seen as the beginning of the new Nepal Sambat calendar year.

In the Nepal calendar it is currently the year 2072.

There is a reason why and I have written about it before.

Look it up if you want.

I am not Wikipedia.

The fifth and last day of Tihar is called Bhai Tika or Kija Puja and it commences with sisters applying tika to the foreheads of their brothers.

This is to ensure a long life and to thank them for the protection that they provide.

Being a big brother is serious stuff in Nepal.

Hindus believe that Yamraj, the God of Death, visited his sister, the Goddess Yamuna, on this day and she applied the tika on his forehead and she garlanded him and fed him special dishes.

Together, they ate sweets, talked and enjoyed themselves to their hearts' content.

Upon departing, Yamraj gave Yamuna a special gift as a token of his affection and, in return, Yamuna gave him a lovely gift that she had made with her own hands.

That day Yamraj announced that anyone who receives tilak from his sister would never die on that day.

So - sisters make a special garland for their brothers from a flower that takes months to wilt, symbolizing the sister's prayer for her brother's long life.

Brothers sit on the floor while their sisters perform their puja.

The puja follows a traditional ritual in which sisters circle their brothers, dripping oil on the floor from a copper pitcher and applying oil to their brother's hair. They then apply a seven-colour tika on the brother's foreheads. Next, brothers give tikas to their sisters in the same fashion along with an exchange of gifts.

This ritual is practiced regardless of whether the brother is younger or older than the sister.

Those without a sister or brother join relatives or friends for tika.

This festival strengthens the close relationship between brothers and sisters. In addition to these, the Newar people make colourful Ashtamangala mandalas and recite chants in accordance with ancient Tantric rituals. Along with the seven-coloured tika, sisters provide brothers with sweets and a special Makhamali garland, as well as a sacred cotton thread that is similar to Janai thread. It is worn on the wrist and is meant to protect their bodies.

The Tihar festival is very much a family affair.

Many of the Hindu festivals involve a reunion with families and they are wonderfully colorful and particularly nice.

Family stuff normally is.

The five nights of the light festival of the Tihar in Nepal and Deepavali across India are as spectacular as they are beautiful.

I can’t think of any other place I would rather be.

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