As a first time visitor, Nepal’s festivals are so intriguing. Back in the UK there’s only really one national holiday and even that’s a very short and private affair. In Nepal, on the other hand, it seems like every few weeks there’s some large public display of spirituality, bringing together all ages and groups of society. It is this collective sharing and engagement which makes festivals like Teej so beautiful for me to observe as an outsider.
I’d heard quite a buzz about Teej in the days before. Someone had warned me about potential crowds, another at the market was asking my opinion on what shoes would look best and it seemed as though every boutique in Kathmandu had their finest red outfits on display in the windows.
I woke up early to ensure that I could see as much as I could and I walked down to the Garden of Dreams at seven in the morning to meet a fellow traveller I had met some days earlier. We decided to walk over to Pashupatinath and at first were underwhelmed by the lack of festivities. A few women had gone past on motorbikes in red saris but it didn’t seem as though the day was different to any other. That is, until we began to approach Pashupatinath itself: we were suddenly bombarded by event volunteers guiding us a certain way and it seemed as though half of Kathmandu had gathered all at once.
Unsure what all the signs meant and where we ought to go, we followed the masses down a narrow market and watched as women purchased necklaces on their way through. They all looked so beautiful and it seemed as though there were three generations walking alongside each other at some points, a really lovely family occasion. Two girls approached me, “Happy Teej!” they shouted. Then we were funnelled towards the entrance of Pashupatinath, where we decided to join the long queue of women waiting to enter the gates.
We could hear singing and clapping in the distance and the sadhus lining the side of the street were smiling away at the crowds. Once we got inside the gates we were greeted with the sight of hundreds of women singing and dancing together. Countless women asked us to take photos of them, all dressed head to toe in their finest clothes. Even strangers it seemed, were dancing away side by side for hours on end and a multitude of news agencies had their cameras spanning the crowd. Pesky monkeys were clawing at some of the women’s dresses, probably confused at why such a large volume of people had suddenly arrived at sunlight. After staying a few hours, just watching and admiring the beauty of all the women gathered, I decided to head back out away from the temple, and as I did, more and more women began to arrive.
It wasn’t that the crowds were getting too much, or the sun was too much to bear, but I’d been invited to an event that I simply couldn’t miss - Trans Teej. I thought I’d misheard at first, but indeed The Blue Diamond Society were hosting a Teej event specifically for trans women very close to where I was staying. It’s the kind of event that as a visitor you simply don’t get to hear about, let alone attend. So when a friend I’d made during my stay invited me, I was more than happy to accept the invitation.
At first the building was quite empty, but as the hours passed by it soon became so packed that everyone began to look a bit sweaty. There was an eclectic mix of both trans women and cross dressers, as well as people from the LQBTIQ+ community who had shown up to enjoy the event. One or two of the women in particular didn’t seem to stop moving, dancing well until the end of the event without a break. A couple of children joined in too, moving into the middle, swishing their skirts from side to side. A couple of times I was dragged in to dance too, but felt embarrassed that I had no idea how to pull off all the crazy dance moves everyone was doing.
Then a famous actress, Samragyee RL Shah arrived to give a speech. The noise suddenly stopped and everyone huddled to listen. After that, the fun really began. The president of The Blue Diamond Society announced the start of some competitions, first a dance competition, then a ‘silly’ dance competition, followed by a catwalk and an award for the best dressed trans woman. I don’t think I actually stopped smiling for the next hour or so and I loved watching each woman strut down the catwalk in her own style with a certain air of sassiness. Some, but not all wore red and each and every one had clearly spent hours doing their makeup beautifully.
That’s what I liked the most about experiencing Teej for the first time. Everyone had clearly spent such a long time preparing, putting on their best dress and styling their hair. Even an on-duty police officer at Pashupatinath had packed a red scarf to wrap round her as she entered the temple in the morning.
Tired and hungry, I slept like a baby on the second day of Teej, feeling so blessed that I had the chance to attend such a unique and incredible festival. Just the night before I had read an article on the front page of one of Nepal’s newspapers suggesting some hostility towards the principles behind the festival, a feminist critique if you like. Yet all day I had experienced nothing but joy and celebration. Women of all groups were letting their hair loose and having a bit of fun. Most of all, women were choosing to celebrate the day exactly how they wanted to, some fasting and others not. That’s why of all the festivals I’ve been able to experience, Teej will be the one I remember and enjoyed the most.
If you travel to a new country, then you must be sure to try the most local food...