Dashain : The Time of Our Lives

Features Issue 107 Sep, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

W   hen we were little kids, our main priority during Dashain was to buy new clothes and a new pair of shoes. Why, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I remember sleeping the night before Dashain began with my new clothes on a hanger near my bed and with my brand new pair of shoes beside my pillow. That was how much our Dashain clothes meant to us in those days! As I became a teenager, I remember having a dark yellow double-breasted suit made for Dashain. I wore this suit for the next 10 days!

Traditional swings are erected in almost all parts of the country for everyone, especially children, to enjoy and are an integral part of the Dashain festival

However, as I grew older, I began noticing something else about Dashain. I saw how seriously my mother took this greatest of Hindu festivals. Her preparations began much ahead of time by procuring the best quality chiura (beaten rice), scores of leaf plates in different sizes, fresh paint on her puja ghar (prayer room) walls, tiny red velvet dresses for her dozen or so gods, packets of brand new ten-rupee notes from the bank, and so on. She also pre-arranged for half a sack of fresh moist sand to be brought home at dawn from the river bank nearest to our town on the first day of Dashain, that is, on Ghatasthapna. Here, I must mention that our neighbors had always, from the time I can remember, a tethered goat in their yard a week before Dashain. It was meant for sacrifice on the eighth day, that is, on Maha Asthami. My family, not too keen on sacrifices, used a khukuri to slice a large gourd instead as a symbolic sacrificial offering on that day.

The Beginning
But, back to Ghatasthapna. My mother used to make a rectangular sand bed at the center of which she placed a sanctified earthen pot (kalash). It had cow dung inside on top of which she kept a small lamp. The thick wick of the lamp burned bright in its bed of mustard oil that she replenished daily. She then covered this pot with another clay pot. On the sand bed, she sprinkled a handful of barley seeds (rest assured that she made sure they too were of the best quality). The pot on its sand bed was kept away from sunlight (in the puja ghar) for the next nine days and water sprinkled on it every day. A point to note here is that a male member of the family, a son or a husband, would be the one to do the daily puja (worship) here for the rest of Dashain. I did the honors in my family, of course, under my mother’s strict supervision.

The Nine Manifestations of Goddess Durga
1. Durga – The warrior Goddess with three lotus-like eyes and 10 hands. She sits on a lion.
2. Bhadrakali – The gentle form of Durga who symbolizes the auspicious power of time.
3. Amba or Jagadamba – She is the Mother of the Universe.
4. Annapurna – She is the Goddess of Food and Plenty.
5. Sarvamangala – She is the Goddess of Joy (sarva: all, mangala: joy).
6. Bhairavi – She is the destructive manifestation of Durga.
7. Chandika or Chandi – She is the violent, wrathful and furious form of Durga.
8. Lalita – She is also called ‘Tripura Sundari’. She is very attractive, beautiful, playful and erotically inclined.
9. Bhawani – Bhawani means the ‘giver of life’. Her eight arms hold various weapons as well as the head of Mahishasura the demon.

Religion is an integral part of the everyday lives of all Nepalis and this aspect is even more evident during important festivals like Dashain

On the final day of Dashain, on Tika that is, the yellow leaves known as jamara would be reaped and would form an integral part of the blessings, to be hooked into the hair or tucked behind the ears by those receiving them. What about the lamp though? Well, there’s something pretty interesting about its role. On the last day when my mother would remove the clay pot on top, she would look at the accumulated soot on its underside with great anticipation. Invariably, every year, she would be excited by the design formed, which to her eyes, were auspiciously symbolic in some way. She then collected this soot in a small shallow brass vessel. On the day of Tika, she would dip a tiny stick into the soot and use it to put a black mark (tika) below the red one on the foreheads of immediate family members and relatives. I am glad to say that my mother’s efforts were almost always rewarded with luscious looking yellow-green leaves year after year (besides the auspicious soot symbol), and no one could have looked happier than her when visiting relatives commented on the high quality of her jamara.

Oh yes, my mother took Dashain very seriously indeed. Keeping in mind that she was the matriarch of a very large extended family, it was a given that she would be having many relatives from near and far come visit to receive her blessings. And she certainly wasn’t going to give anybody any reason to doubt that she was losing her touch! Well, she is in America now. And the last time I was there, we did have a Dashain dinner at my sister’s place, but that was it. No fresh sand from the beach, no leaf plates either and certainly no jamara! But we did have chiura and mutton curry.

Ghatasthapna is the day (this year, on 8 October) that Dashain begins. Dashain is a 10-day festival that is celebrated by rich and poor, the low and the mighty, with great enthusiasm.

The Nine Nights
Anyway, Ghatasthapna is the day (this year, on 8 October) that Dashain begins. Dashain is a 10-day festival that is celebrated by rich and poor, the low and the mighty, with great enthusiasm. The first nine days of Dashain are called Navaratri (nava: nine and ratri: night). These nine days (and nights) are often the beginning of many love affairs! How? Well, early every morning, often as early as 3:00 am on all nine days, throngs of people can be seen on the streets going from temple to temple to pay obeisance to the nine manifestations of Goddess Durga. You will find many young damsels and plenty of youthful bucks, all in their Dashain finery, among the crowds. If a buck is keen on a particular lass or vice versa, he/she has plenty of time (nine days to be exact) and opportunity enough, to meet and exchange looks, notes, whatever. This romantic angle most definitely adds spice to an already spicy festival.

Every household worship the tools of their trade on the ninth day of Dashain, something especially practiced by the Newar community

Spicy? You bet. And this includes the feasts families have throughout the 10-day celebrations. A wide variety of meat dishes is the order of the day (or rather days). Many households refrain from eating boiled rice but rather go for chiura and meat dishes with mula ko achar on the side (a pickle made of radish, potatoes and green peas – a tasty spicy delicacy sure to enliven any meal). What’s for dessert you may ask – well, what else but dahi (yoghurt)? Writing all this has already started me salivating.

Continuing with the other pujas of Dashain, the 7th day is celebrated as Fulpati. This is a celebration fraught with royal symbolism. On this day, jamara sowed and reaped in Gorkha – the ancestral home of the erstwhile Shah kings – is brought to Kathmandu in an old-fashioned stately procession. It involves bare-chested, white-dhotied (loin-clothed) Brahmins carrying a covered palanquin escorted by a retinue of soldiers in the original uniform of the first Shah king’s (Prithvi Narayan) Gorkha army who carry bayoneted muskets of a bygone era. This procession makes its way to the former royal palace where the jamara will be used on the day of Tika.

Kite-flying is another common practice during Dashain

Black Night
The 8th day is known as Maha Asthami. It is very easy to describe – it’s ‘slaughter day’. This is the day when the most demonic of Goddess Durga’s manifestations, the blood-thirsty Kali, is appeased through the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of buffaloes, goats, pigeons and ducks in temples throughout the length and breadth of the nation. Appropriately enough, the night of this day is called Kal Ratri (Black Night). It is also the norm for buffaloes to be sacrificed in the courtyards of all the land revenue offices in the country on this day. In the capital, Basantpur’s Hanuman Dhoka is the place to go to if you are a Stephanie Meyer fan. Here, this writer would like to put in a personal opinion, one that is being echoed by many others – the slaughter must be toned down if not completely stopped altogether. It does not reflect well on a country’s reputation in today’s more civilized and humane world. As mentioned before, my family made do by slicing a gourd with a khukuri in front of Goddess Kali’s figure in our prayer room.

Every Hindu family worships a God unique to their household (that has been passed from generation to generation). The idol of this God is placed inside a special container in the ‘puja’ room and worshipped throughout Dashain

The 9th day is Maha Nawami. On this day, the renowned Taleju temple at Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu is opened, the only time it so done in the year, to the public. On this day, too, the army conducts its official sacrifices in the kot (courtyard) at Hanuman Dhoka, one-time palace of the erstwhile kings of Nepal. Many poor buffaloes’ heads are chopped up neatly with a single stroke of long-bladed khukuris while the military bands play war tunes, big guns are fired and officers in full uniform (with decorations galore) stand in attendance. On this day, Vishwakarma, the God of Architecture and Engineering, is also worshiped, too. Many are by now familiar with the widely publicized sacrifice of a goat near one of the planes at the Tribhuvan International Airport. Less publicized (at least globally) are scenes of rows of taxis with their bonnets open in garages where similar sacrifices are made. Well, these are all part of the festivities on this day, and it is a very important day for all establishments that use machinery. These could include everything from big machineries in factories to a shoe smith or silver smith’s anvil.

Long Lost Relatives and All That
The 10th and final day of Dashain is Vijaya Dashami, also the day of Tika. Now, coming back to my mother, she used to get up early as on all the preceding nine days, make me perform the puja and then get busy preparing for the big day. Of course, as a wise manager, she would have already arranged for a couple of kilos of fresh mutton to be brought in and marinated by dawn, the mula achar would already have been prepared the evening before, a couple of earthen vessels holding creamy curd would be on the dining table and the leaf plates would have been washed and dried much before. Similarly, it was the rule that there would be new curtains in the living room (where relatives would be given tika), comfortable cushions spread out on the floor which was covered by a freshly rolled out carpet, and by the time of the auspicious hour, a large silver plate with small silver vessels holding the red tika, the black tika and the jamaras would be at hand. The plate would also contain apples and bananas to be given as offerings along with the tika and jamara as well as some envelopes containing 100 and 50-rupee notes meant for the senior relatives. For the junior members, my mother would have crisp 5, 10 and 20-rupee notes in a purse hanging from her waist.

Tika is really a fantastic opportunity to meet some relatives that you had no idea even existed!

With money coming into the picture, Tika is obviously a great day for children. As a child, I used the money so collected to buy patakas (firecrackers), which specially provides children with a source of great enjoyment during the Tihar festival a few weeks following Dashain. Anyway, come the auspicious hour (a previously announced hour by the royal Brahmin), my father would first put tika on my mother’s forehead. Then we, the immediate family members, would line up to receive our tikas and blessings. Invariably, the younger kids would beg for more money, especially from elder siblings and uncles and aunts. Then soon, relatives would start to come and once the parade began it went on continuously for a few hours at least! Tika is really a fantastic opportunity to meet some relatives that you had no idea even existed! They come from far and wide and that’s the beauty of this great festival. Even if the world is moving at a breakneck pace and people are far too busy to even consider where their other relatives are let alone how to find them, at least on this day of Tika, you get to meet quite a few of them. And, that, too, in the best of spirits! All rancor and simmering inter-family hostilities are put aside and it is joviality and good will all the way while they receive their blessings and partake in the feasting and merry making.

Tika is especially more enjoyable for kids

On this day, a visit by married daughters, who mostly come in the evening (having finished with their duties in their own homes) with their husband and children in tow, is the most anticipated. Usually, the daughters slump down on the cushions with an air of resignation and exhaustion, complaining to their mother about how tiring their day has been. They do not exaggerate – Dashain, and particularly Tika, are quite a backbreaker for all daughters-in-law since they are expected to carry out the duties of the host besides doing most of the cooking as well. So, does Dashain end here on this exhausting yet joyous day? Actually, no. The next four days will see people go from one relative’s house to another’s to receive tika and blessings from elders. So in reality, Dashain ends on the full moon day, the 15th day known as Kojagrata Purnima. This last day is for taking a much needed rest. Goddess Kali knows we need it!

Amar B Shrestha is the author of The Dark Mermaid