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.
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.
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.