Monday, August 13, 2007

Nepal. The Hindu Festival of Dashain.

Image of of the Hindu goddess, Durga, shown riding her tiger and attacking the demon Mahishasura

I'll start by saying that I don't know anything about Hinduism except that it embraces more gods and goddesses than I can remember the names of!

Perhaps it's fate because I most certainly did not plan it but when I return to Nepal from Tibet, it will be in the middle of Dashain - a 15 day festival that is the single longest and the most auspicious religious festival in the Nepalese annual calendar. 

Dashain commemorates the triumph of good over evil and is symbolized by the goddess Durga slaying the terrible demon Mahishasura.

According to Hindu mythology, the form of the goddess Durga was created as a warrior goddess to fight a demon. The demon's father Rambha, king of the demons, once fell in love with a water buffalo, and Mahishasur was born out of this union. Mahishasura was fated so that he could not be defeated by any man or god - only a woman could kill him. He unleashed a reign of terror on earth, heaven and the nether worlds in the guise of a brutal water buffalo.

The first nine days of Dashain signify the nine days of ferrous battle between the goddess Durga and the demon Mahisasur. The tenth day is the day when Mahishasura was slain and the last five days symbolise the celebration of the victory of Durga over Mahishasura. Dashain is celebrated with great rejoice, and Durga is worshiped throughout the kingdom as the divine mother goddess.

The fifteen days of Dashain occur during the bright lunar fortnight ending on the day of the full moon. This year, Dasain starts on October 12th and the main days of the 15 day festival fall on the following days - each is named.


October 12, 2007 Friday -- Ghatasthapana
October 18, 2007 Thursday -- Phulpati
October 19, 2007 Friday -- Maha Asthami
October 20, 2007 Saturday -- Nawami

Day 1, Ghatasthapana, literally means pot establishing. On this day the kalash, (holy water vessel) which symbolises the goddess Durga, is placed in the prayer room of the house. The kalash is filled with holy water and covered with cowdung on to seeds are sown. A small rectangular sand block is made and the kalash is put in the centre. The surrounding bed of sand is also seeded with grains. Women are not allowed into the prayer room so a priest or a household man worships the kalash everyday once in the morning and then in the evening. The kalash and the sand are sprinkled with holy water everyday and it is shielded from direct sunlight. By the tenth day, the seed will have sprouted into long yellow grass. This sacred yellow grass, which is called 'Jamara', symbolizes a good harvest. The jamara will be decoratively placed on the heads of family members later on in the festival as a blessing.
The seventh day is known as Phulpati and refers to the procession bearing the jamara, which to be used by the royal household, fromtheir ancestral royal house in Gorkha to the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace in Kathmandu. A military parade will accompany the Phulpati as it makes its way through Kathmandu to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. Once the royal jamara is inside the palace, Dashain feasting starts.
The eighth day is known as Maha Asthami. As night falls, hundreds of animals ranging from chickens and ducks to goats, sheep and buffaloes will sacrificed as offerings at Durga temples. Only the males of these five species of animals can be sacrificed. The sacrifice continues till dawn. On this day, great feasts are held in the homes of common people where large amount of meat are consumed. I'm not sure how I will handle the sight and smell of hundreds of animals being slaughtered.
The ninth day is called 'Nawami'. This is how Nawami was described on a website that I came across while researching Dashain.
"The Taleju temple at Hanuman Dhoka is opened for the public only once a year on this day. Thousands of people go and pay their respect to the goddess day. Temples of mother goddess are filled with people from dawn till dusk. On this day the official military sacrifices are held in the 'Kot' courtyard at Hanuman Dhoka. The government allows foreigners to witness this function so hundreds of tourists and diplomats eagerly gather here. Animals mostly black buffaloes are slaughtered by hundreds to honour Durga the goddess of victory and might and to seek her blessing. Military bands play war tunes, guns boom and officers with beautifully decorated medals in full uniform stand there. When the function ends the courtyard is filled ankle deep with blood. On this very day the god Vishwas Karma, the God of creativity is also worshiped. All factories, vehicles, any machinery instruments and anything from which we make a living are worshiped. We also give sacrifices to all moving machinery like cars, aeroplanes, trucks etc. to get the blessing from goddess Durga for protection for vehicles and their occupants against accidents during the year. The entire day is colourful."
My return to Nepal just happens to coincide with days 7,8 and 9 of Dashain. To the Nepalese Hindus, blood symbolises fertility and animals are slaughtered as a means to offer blood to the temple goddesses. I must admit that I have mixed feelings about being in Kathmandu during this period. On the one hand, I've never experienced a Hindu festival in a country that is predominantly Hindu so this will indeed be an experience of a lifetime for me. On the other hand, I've not experienced animal slaughter on the large scale that I've been reading about so I'm not sure how I will react. At the moment, I shiver at what I imagine it will be like.