Alice in Wonderland

This week, I finally got out my camera, well, my iPhone actually.   I had carried a camera and the iPhone to and from Rwanda, without taking a single picture.  My first months in Kathmandu suggested that the same would be true in Nepal.  In a heartbeat, all that changed.

The perception of color is, for me, a sensual experience that affects me physically and emotionally.  That’s one reason why I buy fabric, because I can touch them, feel their texture as my eyes soak in their color.  I don’t know why I am like this, and I don’t know if this is true for everyone.

Blues and purples calm my spirit, teal green and burgundy red do the same.   Pale colors like cantaloupe, sky blue, pale green, petal pink, evoke the sweetness of life.  Red, yellow, and oranges, its fire.  I also like gold and silver threads in fabric, something that I discovered when I lived among the Swahili, many pieces of fabric that I brought back from the Comoros and Rwanda this year attracted me with gold and silver.

Penetratingly bright colors can make me feel edgy, although they fascinate me.  The colored powders here in Nepal used to decorate the sidewalks with rangmul (color flowers) during festivals are as intriguing as they are stimulating.   They are made in the same way that sand mandalas are made although, being amateur sidewalk art, the different petals, outlined with either black or white powder, are filled in with various colors.  I took pictures of these as well.   I am at the same time attracted and repelled.   I can’t buy fabric or wear clothing made from these colors.

The only Christmas tradition that holds any interest for me are the colored lights, and I usually buy several strands to decorate the interior of my house so I can be surrounded by their encouraging glow at night.  I often leave them up for months.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the unassuming tall gray, some say ugly, cement block buildings of Nepali cities and towns had been transformed into cascades of twinkling colors lights for Tihar, the celebration of light, when I was traveling back from a small town  to another slightly larger one in the evening hours after having delivered a teacher training workshop.   I was riveted, I couldn’t take my eyes from them.   I just wanted to find more and more.  I might never have seen them if we had not ended the workshop a bit later than expected.

Once I got back to my hotel, I was out walking the streets of Itahari, an typical Nepali town in the east, near the Indian border.   I followed the the lights, turning every corner and going down every street with the waterfalls of color were the most numerous.    I turned into side street after side street, not knowing if I would ever be able to find my hotel again.   It didn’t matter.  As long there was more light beckoning, I followed like a bee to honey.  Wherever there was light, I was there.  For the life of me, I could not wipe the smile of my face, nor did I want to.   I didn’t care who saw me grinning like a fool, or what they thought.  I was in a world of my own.  A wonderland of swirling color and light.

Three, four, even five, story buildings whose façades were previously unremarkable if not ugly were now divine celebrations of joy, bursting from every  twinkling threads of colored lights from top to bottom.  Some of the strings must be 40, 50, 60 feet long, if not more for the really tall hotels.  I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere, although it may be also true in India where the same ceremony, called Diwali there, is celebrated.   I could not get enough, all I wanted was more, more, more, show me more…

Fill me with light, fill me with joy, fill me with sheer delight in being alive, fill me with all the esctasy that life holds, let me revel in the love of the deities and their avatars who have lived among us since before time began.   Never leave me, never let me go.  It was a spiritual awakening.

I don’t know what I expected, and if I had been in Kathmandu, I would not have seen it, because I would not have been out at night, and I do not live in the business center where  taller buildings.  But I was traveling between small towns in eastern Nepal, where the dark expanses along the road were punctuated by these boisterous brilliant displays of ordered magic.

Tihar is actually not a celebration OF light, so much as it is a celebration with light and color.  Literally, it translates as “festival of light”.   It is a time for renovation and prayer, which explains why the man next door so diligently worked on his property in the weeks proceeding it (subject of another post that I have haven’t yet finished).   In Nepal, it marks the end of the lunar calendar.  It lasts five days.  Each day has different rituals and ceremonies that celebrate a particular sentient being who, like everyone and everything thing else in the world, is considered to be a deity.    This is a time when families come together to show their appreciation for the animals and brothers, and, in some cases, particular deva and devi who are associated with some of their qualities.

Day One — Kaag Tihar — honors crows as messengers from the gods and goddesses who surround us.  They are considered the link between the living and dead.  They are celebrated by putting sweets and savories on the roofs of their houses.   The cawing of crows and ravens symbolizes sadness and grief in Hinduism, so devotees offer crows and ravens food to avert grief and death in their homes.

Day two — Kukur Tihar —  celebrates dogs because it is they who accompany us to our next life when we leave this one.   People place garlands of marigolds — sayapatri mul mala — around the necks of their dogs, apply tikka to the foreheads and feed them delicious food to honor the special bond that exists between dogs and people.   On this day, in the evening, girls and women take to the streets dancing and visiting neighbors.  I was able to get a video of one performance in the evening where the girls were wearing traditional Nepali dress and other the next day in a small village where a girl was performing in jeans, sneakers, and a modern blouse.  A lovely contrast.  Unfortunately, I do not seem to be able to send pics and videos from my camera here; I will have to wait until I get back to the U.S. to share them.

I was glad I had left Lakshmi with her trainer and his family because I knew she would be blessed as she should be, perhaps with a blotch of red tikka on her forehead, a symbol of being blessed, and a mala (necklace) of marigolds around her neck.  As I traveled through the countryside on days following Kukur Tihar,  I saw many dogs sporting red foreheads and wearing sayapatri mul mala like I hoped my Lakshmi had been given.   I wondered if any of the dogs of Kathmandu would be similarly adorned upon my return.  She is, in fact, a kukurni, since she is female.

For a moment, I wished I was in Kathmandu so I could have gone to the shelter to see how my first Lakshmi was doing.   I made a promise to myself that I would go upon my return, and make another donation.   It has already become clear that bringing one dog back to the States is going to be difficult enough in terms of the logistics on this end of the journey; my dream of bringing a few dogs from the shelter will, I am sure, be unfulfilled.  I will have to be happy with escorting only one kukura to find a forever home.  Regrettably perhaps, this will probably be her one and only Kukur Tihar.

Day Three is an extra special day among the five.  On this day — Lakshmi Puja — the cow is the center of attention as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.  Because it is the end of the lunar year, we also celebrate Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, my two Lakshmis name sake.  I had gone out in the evening after the workshop the day before to buy pictures of Lakshmi, seated with Ganesh, God of intelligence, and Saraswati, goddess of learning.  The three are usually found together in pictures.  I got one for 85 cents where all three are dripping tiny dots of silver, and another, for a whopping $2.25, where they were all in gold.   I also bought a string of colored lights and set up my own alter for worshiping these wonderful beings in my hotel room.   The sayapatri mul mala and bouquests that were given to me at my workshops completed the scene.  I went to sleep every night with colored lights flickering in my room, as well as from both the lights falling down the front of my building and those on the building across the street.    Sleep came easily.

Day Four — Govardhan Puja —  celebrates oxen.  They are considered heavenly and the ones who bring news to Shiva, the primordial god of destruction and transformation, supreme destroyer of evil, god of Yoga, meditation and the arts.  This is why cars go carefully around them on the streets of Nepal.  Killing one with your vehicle, in addition to incurring steep fines in this world, would certainly incur negative karma for the driver to work off in this lifetime or another.

As I traveled through the countryside on the day after Gai and Goru Tihar to visit the Tea Gardens of Ilam (subject of another post I have yet to finish), I saw many gai wearing marigold mala and blotches of tikka.  One white one was covered with red hand prints.  I imagined the children dipping their hands in bowls of bright red powder and giggling as they laid their hands upon the cows.   Some people obviously believed in equal opportunity, as their goats were also dancing around with red spots on their sides.

Day Five (today) the fifth and final, and therefore the greatest day of Tiha Bhai Tikka — celebrates the love that sisters have for their brothers.   Sisters everywhere make marigold mala and place them around their brothers’ necks, families gather from far and wide for the day.  All businesses are closed, which is why I am eating out of my freezer today.  I returned too late last night to shop.   Much too my delight, and I had prayed that it would happen, my flight back to Kathmandu was delayed and I was able to see all the rivers of light falling from the buildings both in my origin city and in Kathmandu as we descended into the city.   I was in heaven.

I imagine that George Young had someone else in mind when he wrote this song, but it captures my feelings about Tihar in Nepal perfectly.
Love is in the air, everywhere I look around
Love is in the air, every sight and every sound
And I don’t know if I’m being foolish
Don’t know if I’m being wise
But it’s something that I must believe in
And it’s there when I look in your eyes
Love is in the air, in the whisper of the tree
Love is in the air, in the thunder of the sea
And I don’t know if I’m just dreaming
Don’t know if I feel safe
But it’s something that I must believe in
And it’s there when you call out my name
Love is in the air
Love is in the air
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Love is in the air, in the rising of the sun
Love is in the air, when the day is nearly done
And I don’t know if you’re illusion
Don’t know if I see truth
But you’re something that I must believe in
And you’re