Here in the dusty streets of Kathmandu, young lads are letting off their remaining fire crackers as the festival of Tihar draws to a close. Lasting five days, it incorporates the Hindu festival of Diwali and the New Year of one of Nepal’s calendars. (There are several.) A little like our Christmas, it is a time of family gatherings, gifts, feasting, lights, decorations and a fair bit of excess. Unlike our Christmas, it involves the worship of various animals. (Although, I grant you, the cult of Rudolph is getting close…)
On the first day, Kag Puja, crows are worshipped by leaving sweets for them on rooftops. In Hindu mythology, their cawing speaks of grief and death, and the offerings are intended to avert such misery from one’s home. Alas, the crows in our street got a little over-excited and ransacked the neighbour’s rubbish bags, strewing the contents over our front yard. (Not a lot of crow worship happening in this house!)
Day two is Kukur Puja, the day for worshipping dogs. There is no small irony in seeing the poor mutts bedecked with garlands, as they are amongst the most neglected and abused creatures in the city. The majority are strays, mangy and scrawny, some covered with scabs, some wounded, some with rabies. Those that are owned are generally kept as guard dogs and rarely, if ever taken for a walk, spending most of their lives in a tiny yard or even a cage. Little wonder they wreak their collective revenge by barking through the night. I’m not convinced a string of marigolds and a plate of goodies once a year appeases them.
Gai Puja is day three, when cows are worshipped and homes are decorated and lit to welcome Laxmi, goddess of wealth, who visits at midnight. People make rangoli patterns in colourful powder on the ground outside their doors, with a line leading into the home to guide the goddess. Traditionally her way was lit by tiny clay lamps, but these are giving way to electric versions, just as the old music groups that went door to door singing are being run off the road by rock bands in their vans. One lot were practising next door and I rather hope for their sakes that the goddess is more tolerant than me. On day four, depending on your ethnic group or caste, you might worship oxen, cow dung or yourself. I can’t say I’ve tried the first two, but the third is very popular in the West.
The fifth and final day is Bhai Tika when women place garlands and tikas on their brothers in thanks for protection, and they, in turn, are supposed to give gifts. But one old woman we met that day told another side of the story. Of her four brothers, three have died of alcohol abuse and the fourth is going the same way. “All he has to offer me is beating,” she says, “so no, I’m not worshipping him.” Quite. Tellingly, she is also unmarried.
We spend that day walking through villages of the Newar community on the edge of the Kathmandu valley. Despite the festival, most of the women are hard at work winnowing and drying rice. The men, on the other hand, are sitting around playing cards, though this is deemed a legitimate privilege on Bhai Tika. Whilst I am taken by the old courtyards and the intricately carved windows and the beautiful rangoli designs, young Chappals is primarily interested in the motorbikes. How many horse-power is it? Is this leather or vinyl? Does it run on diesel or petrol, or could it run on magnetic force-fields? Any minute now he’s going to sling a garland of marigolds round some handle-bars and declare today Honda Puja.
PS I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no way of getting a game of cricket into Tihar so I didn’t even try. And as for India’s Payback Tour – well, that was pretty spectacular wasn’t it? Or embarrassing, depending on your perspective. I noticed the males of the household got very focused on rugby for a while… (Well done, Kiwis.) And well done India! Jai Hind!
PPS My radio play “Immaculate” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 2 November at 2.15pm. It lasts 45 minutes and you can listen to it on-line from then and for seven days. Here’s the link: