Tihar is a five day festival celebrated by Nepalis in late Autumn. As luck would have it, I arrived in Pokhara on day two of this colourful, noisy and generous celebration. Tihar means the festival of lights, much like Diwali across the border in India, but the five days of this multi-ethnic celebration all account for different celebrations. Whether the locals are Thakali, Sherpa, Newari or of Indian descent it's a real community event.
Day one I was oblivious to as I was crammed into a tiny bus for my eleven hour journey to the city by the lake. Kag Puja, as day one is called is the worship of Crows. The crows are worshipped by offerings of sweets and dishes on the roofs of local houses. The cawing of the crows symbolises sadness and grief in Hindu mythology, so devotees offer the crows food to avert grief and deaths in their homes.
Day two was my first experience of Tihar. Kukur Puja is the worship of dogs, and all over the streets of Pokhara, in tandem with a thousand candles, were beautiful street art displays made of sweets and spices. These were incredibly elaborate and further reinforce the strength felt between humans and animals in Hindu Mythology. I think this may be the only time I have seen Nepalis honour dogs, as at all other times packs of scraggy mongrels wander the streets looking for tasty morsels and mating opportunities; the only attention they get is from drivers and motorbike riders honking their horns to try and avoid them!
Gai Puja follows.
The third day of Tihar honours the most sacred animal of all, the cow. The cow is a sign of prosperity, wealth and success, and in the evening the goddess of wealth Laxmi is honoured by the lighting of lamps and candles in windows and garlands being draped over fresh cleaned doorways. Groups of children also visit every home in their vicinity singing and dancing for small donations. On night two in Pokhara, while dining on ubiquitous Daal Baht, hordes of children serenaded my eating in woolly hats with bright flower garlands draped around their necks.
Day four of Tihar in Nepal coincided with the first day of my trek into the Himalayas. After setting out very early in the morning I arrived in the tiny hill settlement of Ulleri at around three pm, tired and looking forward to a good meal and a peaceful night’s sleep before setting off to continue the trek the following day. On day four of Tihar there are two Pujas – Goru Puja (Worship of Oxen) and also Mha Puja – (Worship of Self). This day is particularly famous for Deusi and Bhailo, two songs which are performed by social/community workers and groups of children going from house to house to perform and receive gifts of sweets, bread, and in the modern age, cash. As I finished yet another plate of Daal Baht, a man, aged by the mountains, and in full Ghurkha regalia appeared on the guest house terrace with a team of children and for the next hour performed the songs of Deusi and Bhailo for the crowd which gathered around them. As the sun set over the hills they could be heard going from house to house until well after dark, repeating the same incantations and having just as much fun in each rendition – it was a wonderful welcome into their mountain world.
Day five was quite special. It was one of those rare travel experiences that make all the slogging through tourist drudgery worth it, a personal welcoming into the festival of Tihar.
Waking early I hiked a short day to the small settlement of Ghorepani as the next day I intended to wake before dawn and see the sun rise over the Himalaya from the high view point of Poon Hill. Arriving in the village all was quiet. Stopping at a closed guesthouse I noticed the words “Happy Tihar” written in flowers on the table outside and two minutes later a smiling, brightly dressed young Nepali woman came bounding down the steps towards me.
Our infectiously happy host informed me, and I understood from broken conversation, that day five of Tihar is Bhai Tika – a festival where sisters put Tikka (a colourful vertical stripe) on their brother’s foreheads and garland them with a ring of flowers. This is done to thank them for their protection and in return, brothers give their sisters money and sweets as gifts.
Explaining that her whole family (four generations) were in her small house on other side of the hill about to start this festival and feast she proceeded to lock up the guesthouse and insist on my attendance. It felt incredibly lucky to be invited to such a special event and I couldn’t wait.
Fifteen minutes later I arrived at a one room mountain house with children running around in the garden outside, all of them garlanded in beautiful flower rings and enjoying fistfuls of nuts and other goodies. Welcomed inside I was sat at one of two tables and offered coke and beer and nuts – it was like Christmas in the UK!
In pride of place in the middle of the room on the floor was an elaborate rug. On it was a large gold dish filled with Nepali donut, nuts, raisins, bananas, and a dish of Tikka paints. My host asked me to remove my shoes, sit in front of her on the mat, and cross my legs. She then proceeded to bless me with a Tikka, garland me with flowers, place a traditional Nepali hat on my head and put in my hands a plate filled with the aforementioned treats. I had been welcomed as a brother for the day and spent the next couple of hours joking with the children and having broken conversations with the adults.
When it came to leaving I tried to give the hat back as they are a prized possession. The brother with the best English explained that the sisters made it a gift to me on the day they honour their brother’s, and that I must keep it as a brother for the day. On that wonderful and warm note, I left my host and her family to enjoy the rest of their special day and I headed back to my guest house feeling more than a little privileged to have been part of such a poignant celebration.
Tihar is an annual event that brings together the community in celebration of life. It also, like no other festival I have experienced, brings together people from across the generations to share in performance, ritual and worship. The day of Bhai Tikka is particularly special as it maintains bonds between siblings throughout their lives; young girls bless their brothers next to their grandmothers doing the same to their brothers. It is this cross-generational sharing that will be my abiding memory of Tihar in The Himalaya.