Much More than just a Festival of Lights
An occasion when relationships are bonded between brothers and sisters, as also between animals and us.
It is certainly one of the most popular festivals of Nepal, and enjoyed by both old and young equally. It is also a very meaningful festival.
The upcoming festival of Tihar is by far one of the most popular festivals of the country. It surpasses geographical and ethnic differences. This five-day festival has something that relates to almost every community dwelling in Nepal. It is both a religious and a cultural festival that reminds us about the importance of human relations and that with nature and its various components. In the Terai, the southern region of Nepal, it is celebrated as Dipawali. Houses are decorated with oil lamps to welcome Lord Rama returning with his wife Sita to his kingdom after fourteen years of exile and after defeating the demon king, Ravana.
Traditionally, this festival is celebrated with lots of fireworks and firecrackers to receive the deities after their extremely toilsome years in exile. In the hilly region, it is celebrated as Tihar with the honoring of Goddess Lakshmi, and sisters bestowing blessings upon their brothers. In Kathmandu Valley, it is known as Swanti among the Newar community and celebrated with much fanfare. Tihar also holds special significance to the farmer community. It marks the end of the harvest season, thus filling the granaries and store houses or rooms with ample agro produces to last for a year.
The five –long-festival, also referred to as Panchak, honors Yama, the lord of death, and is mainly dominated with the worship of Goddess Lakshmi, the giver of wealth, besides appreciating animals that are connected closely to humans. Houses are cleaned and decorated with oil lamps and marigold garlands in preparation for the festival. Nowadays, one gets to see colorful flashy electric light streamers replacing traditional oil lamps.
Honoring Crows and Dogs
The festival commences with Kaag Tihar, which is the worship of the crow. According to the Hindu mythology, Ramayana, the crow was cursed as well as blessed by Lord Rama during his exiled years. The curse was that it could use only one eye at a time, and the blessing was that it could see what other eyes cannot see, such as spirits and departed souls. In this regard, the crow is seen as the connector between the living and the dead, thus appeased with good food placed in an open area outside the house or on rooftops. The food consumed by the crow is an indication that it is being passed to our dead ancestors. The crow is also considered an intelligent bird and collectively known for their unity. When food is offered, they do not consume it alone, they instead ‘caw caw’ and call other crows for a group feast. Traditional Hindus still offer food on a daily basis to the crow, before consuming their own meal. Another reason to appease the crow is also because it is the messenger of Yama, the deity of death.
The second day honors the dog, called Kukur Tihar. For thousands of years, humans and dogs have shared a very special bond, and the dog has often been referred to as ‘man’s best friend’. Recent studies in the west have proved that dogs are also able to recognize human faces, both in photographs and in person. They have the ability to process images in the part of the brain that deals with communication, emotional expression, and storing memories. This makes them understand and communicate better with man. Besides these traits, the dog is specially venerated on this day as an appreciation for its loyalty and for guarding our homes.
Red tika is applied on their forehead, and a pretty garland placed around their neck. Special treats are fed to them, and the best part is that, besides domestic pets, street dogs are also treated with equal reverence. The dog has been referred to in many instances in Hindu scriptures with Lord Bhairava and Yama. They are believed to link the world of the dead with that of the living. In the epic Mahabharata, Yama is known to take the form of a dog and follow the Pandavas during their final journey.
Days of the Cow and the Oxen
The third day begins with the worship of the cow in the morning and Goddess Lakshmi in the evening, with the hope she will bless and bring fortune. Block-printed posters, and nowadays, machine-printed posters of the deity, are pasted on safes, lockers, or wherever monetary transactions take place. The ritual is then performed in the evenings, beginning by lighting butter lamps, chanting mantras, and making offerings to the goddess of wealth.
The fourth day celebrates the ox (Govardhan Puja), another faithful and very useful animal in Nepali culture. Nepal, since its prehistoric phases, is known to be an agrarian state, depending heavily on agriculture for sustenance, where the ox played a major role to plough the fields. He also served another very important function, as the puller of the cart, one of the most important means of group transport. This day has another important significance to the Newar community. It is the ‘Maha Puja’, or the day to cleanse and worship oneself. The elaborate ritual starts in the evening with the making of a mandala and lighting an oil lamp on it. All the family members sit in front of their own mandalas cleansing the sins of the past year and enriching themselves both physically and spiritually for the coming year. Coincidentally, the Newari New Year (Nepal Smavat) is also celebrated the same day with much fanfare, bike rallies, and traditional music.
The fifth day is Bhai Tika, a much-awaited day for both brothers and sisters. Although different communities all over Nepal celebrate it in their own style, the aim is to ask god for long life, good health, and prosperity of the brother by the sister. She applies the tika on her brother’s forehead, and decorates him with garlands of flowers that retain their form and color even when dry, suggesting longevity. Traditionally, she would have prepared an array of edible goodies for her brother. This tradition is much replaced with attractive packaged imported treats nowadays. In return, the brother blesses his sister and gifts her cash and sometimes various other gifts. For those without a sibling, there is a tradition of going to Rani Pokhari and worshiping the Martikeshwor Mahadev. However, this year it may be different, with the Rani Pokhari complex being sealed as a result of public protest about its inappropriate reconstruction.
Summing it up, Tihar is a celebration of relations. It also celebrates the relation of humans with animals, thus emphasizing the importance of a harmonious ecology for a better spiritual and social life, a tradition that we should persevere to continue and hand down to the newer generations.