Today was Raksha Bandhan, one of the (many) Hindu festivals held each year. Hindus celebrate the day by attending an early morning Puja (worship), wearing a protective band around their wrists and feasting on special (tasty!) beans. I joined in with the IRC staff in Surkhet.
What follows are raw, immediate impressions from the morning:
Bells – simultaneous, offbeat.
Kids laughing, babies crying, Nepalis talking. Nepali public voices are more hushed than Americans. A sea of hushes. Murmur murmur, pray pray, talk talk.
Next to me, Keshav narrates the event: “Now the priest will give you a band to protect you.” Keshav, Yamuna, Dev ask periodically, “Rosie, what do you think of our religion? Are you having fun?”
Incense. Close to the temples, strong enough to make my eyes water, my nose twitch. Women hold the burning sticks, wave them around the temple then leave it for the gods before they leave.
Toilet smells ring circumference of temples. Raw human waste, undiluted, not covered up by sprays or air fresheners or flushing.
A few steps outside the complex, fried samosas, roti, hot oil with garlic, onions. Calories to feed the empty bellies leaving the temple. (Nepali tradition to worship on an empty stomach.)
A layer of small shops lines the dirt road leading to the temple. Rice paddies sit, soggy, behind the shops. Cows, goats and scrawny dogs mull in road. No cars.
Streams of people move in both directions – young children bounce and chase each other with reeds; grey-haired men in colorful fabric walk with stiff gaits, steady themselves on a nearby shoulder; the generations in between amble, chat, support elders, nag. The foreheads of people coming towards have red dots in the center - tikkas. Made of yogurt, rice and red dye, tikkas symbolize prosperity; you mustn't leave the temple without one.
The scene reminds me of driving down a freeway at night – the red backlights in one line of cars, the white headlights in the other. On this Saturday, its red tikkas in one direction. Blank foreheads in another.
Dozens of small tables line the entrance to the temples. Beads, glitter sashes, incense and coconut sit on display, items for the Gods. I see a hunched over women hand precious rupees to the vendor in exchange for some coconut and incense.
Through the gate, a mass of people prevents smooth walking. Stop-go, stop-go. The first temple we come to is the size of a large doghouse. A flock of people hover by the entrance, incense smoke billows out. I stay outside the flock, watching.
Inside the temple is how I imagine the inside of a womb– tight, steamy, red, hot. A wooden statue of a God at the center(I forget which one – there are so many) and at its feet a pile of offerings –beads, photos, incense, candles, dripping and crumpling on each other.
The other two temples (there are three) are similar – the crowds hovering outside, people (mostly women) nudging inside, the womb-like room, the incense, the pile of offerings.
Between temples people mingle – neighbors exchange “namastes,” kids chase each other around trees, families take pictures.
I remove my shoes and enter the main temple. (Heavy, cumbersome hiking boots, my shoes look funny and oversized next to all the sandals). I join the crowd that buzzes around a statue of a four-armed God. Yamuna, who I observe nudging and elbowing to get closer, instructs me to bow my head, say a simple prayer in my head. I bow, then exit the temple to join the ‘boys,’ whose worship is much more ‘in-and-out.’
Keshav places a tikka on my forehead, saying, “May all the gods protect you.” We hover outside while Yamuna continues to buzz, place her offerings, touch the statue, murmur, nudge.
After we visit the big temple, we take a slough of photographs. I’m conscious of the tikka on my forehead but I don’t feel weird about it. As Keshav says, “Aren’t we Hindus flexible? We are happy to have a Christian worship with us.” I explain I’m not a Christian but he’s right, I feel welcome and comfortable at the event – no stares, jeers. Just a few smiles, hellos, namastes.
Tummies grumbling, we plop ourselves at the first samosa stand cum restaurant on the road. We enjoy an elaborate meal of fried roti, sweet tea, beans.
As we order, I see the grimy clock behind the counter – 8:55 am. It’s before I’d normally be awake on a Saturday and my day already feels complete.