Saturday, October 09, 2010

Meanwhile, back in the Valley

Harvest Home
Body in NYC, mind in Nepal

I'm sitting in an East Village cafe, watching the corner grocery try to array produce in an attempt at a "harvest season" display.  Somewhere, outside of Manhattan's concrete canyons, leaves are changing colour, chrysanthemums are blooming and roadside stands are setting out sheaves of Indian corn and piles of pumpkins.  And all over Nepal, it's Dasain time - the nine-day festival dedicated to goddess Durga, in her local Nepali incarnation as Taleju Bhavani.  
The narrow streets of Kathmandu's old town are crammed with shoppers buying holiday gifts, and all the accoutrement required for a Nepali Hindu holiday (special food, sweets, and lots and lots of marigolds).  All this under a blazingly blue sky - weatherwise, it's the perfect season to be in Nepal.

This nine-day goddess festival ("Navratri") is celebrated throughout the Hindu world, taking on local characteristics in each region.  In Maharashtra (India), the holiday is called Dussehra, marked by  glowing paper lanterns.  Mysore (in Karnataka, near Bangalore) has its famous Dasara procession complete with elephants, a palace glowing with oil lamps and fairy lights, and the descendant of the former Maharajahs presiding.  On most every street corner in Calcutta, you will find pandals (platforms with decorated deity statues) for Durga, with ceremonies and devotional music ongoing throughout the holiday, till the clay statues are submerged in the Hooghly river on the tenth and final day.  In the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh, the local goddesses are brought down from their respective temples and paraded on palanquins through the town. 

Dasain is the uniquely Nepali form of Navratri. Nepali festivals are tied to the seasonal agricultural cycle, reflecting the centrality of farming in many Nepali communities.  Each of the nine days is full of significance and traditional observances.  On Ghatasthapana, sprouted wheat grains are planted in a pot, and kept in a dark place in the household.  On the tenth day of Dashami, the beautiful spring-green sprouts (called "jamara") are plucked and worn, as a sign of new growth and regeneration, along with "tikka" (the red kumkum powder) on the forehead.

Nepalis having a genius for time-warping, the nine days and nights of Dasain magically extend to two weeks, even a month in some cases. Workers who have migrated from their remote villages to larger towns to find employment are packed onto rickety buses, crossing dusty and bumpy roads to make the pilgrimage home for the festival.  For many, is their one chance in the year to see their family and the old home place.   When a Nepali waiter, for instance, takes leave from his job to go home for Dasain, he returns whenever he returns - between over-capacity buses, unreliable vehicles, transport strikes and poor road conditions, he can't guarantee a definite date of return.  Most Nepali businesses are bound (by tradition as well as the powerful Maoist-led labour unions) to give each employee a full month's salary as Dasain bonus.

Most Nepalis don't consider their Dasain complete without the sacrifice of a goat.  In a traditional Hindu town like Bhaktapur, every house will have blood on the doorstep from the sacrifice, usually done on the ninth day of Navami.

As a visitor to Nepal, Dasain can be frustrating - transportation is crammed full, shops open and close erratically, most government offices (including those for trekking permits) are closed, and tourist restaurants and many hotels are running on a skeleton crew.  The best way to spend Dasain is to relax, forget your goals and travel checklist, befriend some Nepalis and get invited to their home.  You will enjoy  the traditional foods, and receive the blessings of  tikka and jamara from the family elders. 

Don't forget to bring a present (almost anything is appreciated, but sweets are always appropriate), visibly relish the food that is served, and demonstrate real interest in the holiday and its traditions.  For all the breathtaking mountain vistas, everyday life in Nepal is marked by simple pleasures and of course, the ever-present Nepali smile.