As the monsoon wasn’t over yet, I postponed my trek into the Himalayas and headed to the villages of the Kathmandu Valley, making my base camp in Dhulikel during the Festival of Lights, Tihar. I had booked accommodation there, but on the bus from Panauti to Dhulikel, a young local girl, Leeza, approached me and insisted I stay at her place in Bashgari village during the festival. She explained that it was very important for her and her family to have guests in their home to take care of during Tihar.
Tihar, also known as Deepawali among Madhesis and Swanti among Newars, is a very important festival in Nepal. It is the second-largest Hindu festival after Dashain and lasts five days. It’s called the Festival of Lights because it’s marked by lighting candles, diyas, inside and outside of homes. Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Luck, is worshipped, as well as crows, dogs, cows, and oxen.
At first, I turned down Leeza’s invitation as I had a reservation in Dhulikel. She didn’t give up though. She came with me and talked to the owner of the guesthouse where I was staying. She was determined to do whatever necessary just to have me as a guest during Tihar.
Happy that she finally convinced me to be her guest during Tihar, she took good care of me for the entire festival. She gave me her room, and at 7 a.m. every morning she knocked on my door and brought me breakfast. For lunch and dinner, she invited me to eat with her grandma and herself on the top floor terrace. Leeza was 17 years old and taught English classes in a local school. She always smiled and woke to feed the household animals early in the morning. I learned about the significance of Tihar and the local lifestyle by staying with Leeza’s family and witnessing their customs.
On the first day of Tihar, crows and ravens are worshipped as they are believed to carry messages from Yama, the Death God. I could see offerings of grains, seeds, and sweets placed on roofs and out on the streets. On the second day, dogs are worshipped by placing a tika on their forehead and marigold garlands around their necks. They are celebrated for their loyal companionship and as messengers of Yama and incarnations of the god Bhairava. Leeza didn’t have any dogs, but visiting some temples in Dhulikel, I could see garlands placed on dog statues in the temple compounds.
On the third evening, Leeza told me we would go out to visit the neighbors as it was the most important day of the festival. On that day, people show gratitude to cows by feeding and worshipping them with tikas and garlands. Cows are considered sacred animals in Hinduism and are also associated with prosperity. On this same day, Lakshmi, the patron goddess of the festival, is believed to come into the clean homes with doorways and windows decorated with marigold garlands.
Together with her cousin, Epanzelina, Leeza cleaned the house and made rangoli in front of the entrance using materials such as colored rice, dries flour, colored sand (red, orange, yellow, blue, and white), and flower petals. A rangoli defines a sacred welcoming area for the gods and goddesses, particularly Lakshmi. Leeza and Epanzelina lit candles, diyas, all around the home in the belief that the goddess won’t visit dark homes.
Leeza also offered me a traditional red sari to wear that evening and made me up with nice makeup. She weaved beads into my hair and put bracelets on my wrists and ankles. I looked like a real Nepali woman, and learning how to dress up and wear a sari was a unique experience.
After that, Leeza and Epanzelina went with me to all their friends in Bashgari to celebrate the third evening of the festival. Everybody had different kinds of rangoli in front of their homes with lit candles. People sang and danced around the rangoli in the tradition called bhailo, and to the host made marigold offerings accompanied by money. They got a red tika in return on their forehead, meaning blessings and good luck.
The fourth day of Tihar is dedicated to the ox, which is worshipped and celebrated as an analog to the cow, being very important in agriculture. I just stayed with Leeza and Epanzelina at home and enjoyed a sunny day. Leeza helped me recharge my local SIM card as I didn’t understand Nepali, and asked me a lot of questions about Europe.
During my whole stay in Bashgari, Leeza didn’t let me pay for anything, even though they lived modestly. She repeated that she had to host me because it was part of the tradition. Her parents (in India at the time) would have been proud of her. She was the perfect proof of Nepali hospitality and the country’s strong traditions.
On the last day of the festival, brothers and sisters celebrate their special bond. I moved back to Patan and witnessed how the landlords worshipped sisters and brothers and made tikas on each other’s foreheads. It was a special celebration on the top floor terrace of the guesthouse where I stayed.
I highly appreciated people’s hospitality during Tihar and the experience I had staying at Leeza’s place was very authentic. Only reading about local traditions, not experiencing them, wouldn’t have been the same and I certainly wouldn’t have learned so much.
Traditions and hospitality are very important in Nepal, especially during festivals that have a significant meaning. Tihar is a major Hindu festival celebrated for five days in October or early November every year, and taking part in it gives a deeper insight into Nepali culture.