One may assume that a bideshi Buhari—a foreign wife of a Nepali man—might be given front-door access to Nepali festivals. That there might be an expectation, even, from the family-in-law that she performs rituals just as a Nepali wife would. Many a bideshi Buhari will tell you that the cultural and social expectations that their husband’s family places on them can seem rather overbearing, especially coming from a Western cultural context of having grown and flown the nest upon young adulthood.
So, I’m not sure how I managed to watch the Teej festival come and go in Kathmandu three times without ever joining in. We lived nowhere near my husband’s family in Gorkha District, which gave us the freedom to live very much like a couple would in the Western world. No joint family and no weekend family obligations, but no traditional festivals, either, apart from when we travelled to his village for Dashain or Tihar.
I decided that I needed to take matters into my own hands. If I wanted to better understand Nepali society, and especially Nepali women after having a half-Nepali daughter of my own, I had to seek Teej out for myself.
Haritalika Teej is a three-day festival celebrated by Hindu women across Nepal. It’s usually held sometime in August, although it can also fall in early September. In traditional Nepali society, women move into their husband’s family home upon marriage, but during Teej they are free to return to their own homes (called maitighar in Nepali) to feast, dance, and celebrate. There’s also an important religious aspect to it for devout women: unmarried women and girls pray to Lord Shiva for a good husband, and married women pray for the health and prosperity of their husbands. After a feast, many women fast for 24 hours, and dance with abandon. Kathmandu’s ancient Pashupatinath Temple, as a Shiva temple, is especially lively during Teej.
My search for Teej wasn’t such a hard task, as I lived in the densely populated, richly ornamented lanes of Old Patan, a five-minute walk from the spectacular Patan Durbar Square. In the week or so before the festival, colourful bead stalls set up all around the square. These stalls sell strings of tiny glass beads, mostly in red and green, which married Hindu women use to thread their holy marriage necklace, or mangalsutra. These essential Hindu ornaments are, funnily enough, made by Muslim craftspeople, and the beads are imported from as far afield as Japan. The necklaces are usually made to order, with women bringing the gold centrepiece of the mangalsutra to be threaded afresh around Teej.
I had somehow managed to get married in a Nepali Hindu ceremony without receiving a mangalsutra, opting for a sapphire ring at the time instead. So, I broke with tradition in order to follow it: I bought a mangalsutra for myself. Shopping for the gold for the mangalsutra as a married couple with a year-old baby in tow must have struck most of the local gold merchants around the square as odd, but they were polite about it. After selecting one I liked, I took it to the bead threaders to have it strung up into a wearable necklace with red beads.
I was ready for Teej. Entering the Durbar Square on the morning of the festival in an orange salwar kurta and my mangalsutra, a guard complimented me that I looked like a real Nepali. Women typically wear red, orange, or pink during Teej, either their bridal saris or some other formal clothes in these colours. As much as I loved my red silk bridal sari with its thin gold brocade border, there was no way I could drape it again successfully for this occasion without the help of my sister-in-law, far away in Gorkha.
My friend and I followed the crowds to the Banglamukhi Temple, the multi-tiered pagoda just north of the Patan Durbar Square. Stalls set up along the way sold the items necessary for worship: marigold garlands, butter lamps, tapari leaf plates, coconuts, bananas, incense sticks. At the temple there were crowds of women and girls lining up in a semi-orderly fashion to give their offerings at the temple, as well as for private consultations with the priests that sat on the ground around the perimeter. There was a notable absence of men, except for the priests.
In recent years there have been feminist critiques of some aspects of the religious rituals of Teej—the fact that women deprive themselves of food and water for the apparent sake of their husbands. Nepali men will often laugh at the suggestion that they would fast for the sake of their wives. But there have also been discussions around the empowering aspects of the festival—it’s a time for women to come together and celebrate being women. In a society still very much dominated by men and patriarchal traditions, Nepali women’s lives are often constrained in small and larger ways. During this festival they can let loose, in a culturally sanctioned way.
As the day turned to evening, music started up, women began to sing and to dance. As welcome as I would have been, this was my cue to leave. They all knew the steps, the words, the gestures, but I didn’t.
As is the case at most religious sites in Nepal, we foreigners were welcomed with barely a glance. But being a bideshi Buhari is a delicate balance of knowing when to yield to culturally motivated expectations, and when to politely decline them, when they might significantly go against our own beliefs. It’s also knowing when and where we don’t belong; culture isn’t just a red dress or a gold necklace to be put on once a year. I didn’t fast for Teej—indeed, nobody asked or expected me to—but celebrating the strength, beauty, and resilience of Nepali women is something I would do every day.