Around the country, people have been enjoying Dasain, a fifteen-day celebration which is the country’s biggest festival. People eat special food, spend time visiting each other’s houses and have a little bit of raksi, homemade Nepali wine! I lost count of the amount of invitations I received from people, even those I barely know, asking me to come to their homes and share their food. As I have already said, Nepali generosity goes above and beyond all expectations.
October 23rd and 24th marked the main days of the festival, and the place was buzzing with activity. On Tuesday 23rd, I set off for Sirutar once again to see my family there, as well as the Shrestha family in Sirutar, who invited me to receive tika. This is a mixture of rice, yoghurt and red powder called sindur which is placed on the forehead. Tika represents the all-seeing third eye, and Hindu ceremonies are often marked with this blessing. The more recognisable bindis, or dots worn on women’s foreheads, also represent this third eye, and have become a fashion accessory as well as a representation of divine protection.
Once I finished there, I headed back to Gatthaghar to meet with the headmistress of the Astha Women School, a school for those who were unable to finish their education when they were young. She invited me to her home as well, and I was given a generous meal there.
The following day was spent visiting my host’s extended family and neighbours, and on this day I received tika no less than 5 times! It was a nice feeling to be included in this practice, and on receiving it each time, I was given a handful of beaten rice to eat, as well as a piece of fruit, some flowers in my hair, and some Nepali money. To be honoured this way is something the majority of tourists here in Nepal can’t experience, and I really appreciated being a part of it.
Talking of exclusive access, on Saturday 20th October I took a rather long journey up high in the Kathmandu hills to a Hindu temple called Palanchok Bhagwati. I was able to witness the ringing of temple bells, the huge procession of people through the building, each placing marigolds and gifts down for the gods and goddesses there. To be honest, some practices are completely beyond my comprehension, but I watched with interest. However, when I was inside the temple, I had to make a hasty exit from the place when I realised a little black goat I had watched being blessed earlier was about to be sacrificed. Even as a meat-eater, and someone who has actually eaten goat, this was too grotesque to handle and I had to leave. However, as much as I may hate it, it is seen as an essential part of the religious rites here. Maybe it won’t always be that way, but it’s not for me to turn my nose up at practices I don’t understand. I just couldn’t bear to witness it.
Religion is something from which I have always been separate; merely an observer on the practices and customs of each one I encountered. Faith and worship often confuse and confound me; if you are Christian, looking at Hindu and Buddhist practices must have the same effect. Similarly, explaining Christian beliefs to a Hindu or Buddhist, or any other faith, can often lead to the same bewilderment. However, being separate from religions has its benefits. I can watch a Christian service, take part in a Hindu ritual, visit a Buddhist monastery, and view each as simply a culture’s way of making sense of the inexplicable; the mysteries in life. Some people choose to reject religion altogether, or to refuse to learn about different faiths in case doing so shakes their own belief, but I think this is simply a way to close yourself off to a rich world of views. Where is the capacity for appreciating a culture which is so tightly bound in its faith if one rejects religion altogether?
I’m glad that I’ve learnt to be sensitive to other world views now even if they aren’t compatible with my own, which is definitely something I have noticed more in myself since my first trip to Nepal. Who am I to say who is wrong or right? If someone wants to worship God, or many gods, or goddesses, or spirits, how can I possibly know which is right? We’re all just making sense of the world in the way which suits us best. If faith gives comfort, joy, something to celebrate, or even the motivation to do good for others, then why not embrace it? By opening my mind and allowing myself to learn about various religions and their practices, it has made me more tolerant and accepting of what I see. I know it has made me a better person and I’m sure it would do the same for anyone else who gives it a try.