Disclaimer: this post about Dashain is from a non-Hindu, outsider with no first hand knowledge, other than observation, and should not be swiped for term papers or wikipedia entries.
This past week was the festival of Dashain in Nepal. Dashain, is a giant, country wide, 10 day + festival, that basically shuts the place down for a week. Seriously the big holiday in Nepal, the biggest I think. Nepali people, mostly the Hindu ones but you don’t have to be Hindu, celebrate the goddess Durga and her triumph over evil. They also celebrate cars, and things that run on engines and family and ancestors and good food and nice clothes. I do not mean to mock, I’m sure there is a lot about Dashain that I can’t understand and won’t be able to understand. I know each element of what we observed are significant traditions so I will try to explain what I know about Dashain in the most solemn and respectful way possible.
There are 10 official days of Dashain, which are supposed to signify a 10 day battle of good and evil and good wins! Happy Ending! Each day has some significance and some practice that goes along with it. I’m not sure of what each day signify, and neither were some of the Hindus I asked, as each family practices a little differently and has different traditions. Two of the most widely practiced days are the 1st and the 10th. The first day of Dashain a little garden pot of barley grass is planted then watered and worshipped each day and grows till the final day of Dashain. The tenth day of Dashain is the huge family day, you go hang out with family and the eldest male member of the family blesses you with tika, which is the mixture of red coloring and rice, on your forehead. On the tenth day of Dashain it was not abnormal to see people walking around with their foreheads completely covered in tika. On some of the other days depending on your religious background and family traditions puja (worship) will take place too with animal sacrifice and temple visiting.
There is one day during Dashain when people do puja of their cars and vehicles. Hence the lovely car paint and floral decorations. The was one of the most interesting traditions to us. The worship of the power of the goddess extends to the worship of powerful things like weapons and the means of transportation. So people will sacrifice for blessing on their cars, bikes and buses. This was a super interesting tradition to us as westerner to whom cars are simply a means of getting around and machines are only as good as the operator and not a power unto themselves. And the only time we get to decorate our vehicles are parades and getting the bride and groom driving away from the wedding. The buses, cars and even bikes that had puja, were are source of blatant rubbernecking to us as we drove past. Other fun traditions we got to observe and actually partake in were kite flying and playing on giant bamboo swings.
To be honest, it seems a lot like Christmas in America. The roots of the whole shebang is a religious holiday but you don’t necessarily have to be a Hindu to celebrate Dashain. Plus, since the schools and government shut down you can just celebrate getting a break from whatever you normally do anyway. We spoke to a Nepali who doesn’t hold any particular faith and picks and chooses which parts of Dashain he likes. “I don’t have any tikka and I don’t have any sacrifice.” He said. Hmm interesting! This seemed to us like a decision to take out some of the more overtly religious elements of the festival and wondered why he had made those specific decisions. We asked him about it, thinking he might have some profound, enlightening, theological reasoning. “It’s messy” was the non-theological response. Anyway Dashain is totally a big deal in Nepal, lots of shopping, gift giving, feasting and general festivating. So… we decided to get out of town for a few days.
It is always tricky to know how and if you can celebrate with a religion and a culture that isn’t yours. On one had it is hard not to get caught up in the general atmosphere of festivities, shopping and good food. On the other hand we aren’t Hindu and there is just stuff that we are not into and no one would expect us to do, like the animal sacrifice and worshipping the goddess. So we went to see the Himalayas instead! It was good to get a little break but I felt a bit guilty too. We moved here to learn culture and be part of Nepal and we jump ship during one of the biggest holidays around. I think next year we will stick around and sort out a little more about Dashain and really try to learn what makes it important to the people of Nepal.