Praying for Prosperity and Propitiating the God of the Dead in Nepal

The Hindu festival of Diwali is a time of glittering lights, high hopes, and family celebrations throughout Nepal, but the holiday also highlights our mortality and includes offerings to the god of the underworld. Both aspects are appropriate this year for Nepal, teetering on the brink of a better future after a decade of grinding, low-grade civil war. Happily, the festival remains one that almost all Nepalis enjoy.

Even non-Hindu households set up an altar for Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, and put up lights: strings of flickering “Christmas tree” lights now augment traditional butter lamps. Friendly gambling is common during the holiday, even though it is technically illegal. Card games are favored at home, but in local squares, there is often a crowd around a game of dice that have symbols rather than numbers. The hopeful players wager stakes from ten cents to $20 on which symbols will come up. Winners attribute their good luck to the goddess’s blessing, and losers consider their lost money an offering.

While the men and boys are gambling, women scrub the house, paint the floors with a mixture of red mud and cow dung, making a path of it to the front door, and then out to the house gate. They line the path with butter lamps, and then fill the windows of the house with more lamps to welcome Lakshmi into the home to bless the household. In the evening, with lamps all ablaze, each member of the household, from eldest to smallest, will go to the altar, make an offering, and take the goddess’s blessing. And then, it’s everyone outside to celebrate with firecrackers and sparklers technically illegal.

Lakshmi Puja, the goddess’s special day, is only part of a five-day festival. In the days running up Lakshmi Puja, Nepalis worship, in turn, crows, dogs, and cows. These animals are all associated with the god of the dead, Yama. Crows are his harbinger and messenger: on their day special treats of food are left out for them, that they may defer delivery of their summons. Dogs guard the gates of the underworld, and on their day, both pets and strays are fed, daubed with vermillion powder, and given a necklace of marigolds in hope of safe passage later. The cow is holy for many reasons, but on this day Nepalis remember that the best way to pass safely through the obstacles on the way to the underworld is to hold the tail of a cow.

After Lakshmi Puja day, the festival concludes with two special days. Mha Puja falls on the New Year, by one of many calendars in Nepal. Mha Puja is a day to worship the self – the body and, more importantly, the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of us. The elaborate ceremony asks for longevity for the participants and their occupational tools, and purifies them for the coming year.

The close of Diwali is Bhai Tika, a day on which sisters worship their brothers (and brothers give gifts to their sisters). The women pray for their brothers’ health in the year ahead, and paint elaborate tika marks on the men’s’ foreheads, sometimes involving a dozen or more colors applied in lines and dots with straw brushes. The ritual is so important that friends or neighbors often adopt men without sisters for the day. In some cases, the adopted sister and brother vow to become siblings, with all the responsibilities that real brothers and sisters have.

Lessons of Diwali – remembrance of mortality, purification of sins, duty to others, and hope for a better year ahead – and the symbol of Nepalis sharing a common holiday have special meaning this year. As soon as the tika marks are washed away, the brothers (and a few sisters) in parliament and behind the scenes will return to the difficult task of trying to forge political consensus and calm ethnic tensions sufficiently to stage elections. If they take a bit of the spirit of the festival into their talks, it might help.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.