Nepali Times
Authenticity rules



For the first time, I've joined my father in the ceremonial run-up to Dasain, the festival commemorating the Goddess Durga's defeat of the demon Mahisa. Good over evil and all that jazz, you know. We toast the gods and our extended families, don new clothes, drink and drive, eat and gamble to excess.

Next to my saronged father with our holy threads on parade, we follow in a corner of the attic the lead of the guru as he directs us to offer flowers, rice, this and that to the Bhagawati, a fist-sized brass idol on a lion all but obscured now with garlands, grain and grass. There are coconuts wrapped in red cloth, an oil lamp burning through a leaf plate, and a whole assortment of offerings. There's also an earthenware jar filled with water and coated with dung wherein barley seeds have been planted. The seeds, sprouting vigorously from day three on, will make good jamara to go with the traditional Dasain blessings.

Guru trickles water into our palms, then leads us through soothing, singsong Sanskrit incantations. He lights an oil lamp and hands it to my father, who rotates it slowly. The priest chants, ringing a small brass bell, and I make the best of a damaru. The light from the lamp throws shadows across the room and bathes our faces, warm and calm.
Guru dabs achyataa - rice grains mixed with vermillion and yoghurt - onto our foreheads, spoons out a dubious milky concoction and dried fruit into our waiting palms, and we climb back down to our daily strife. My father demands of me, mock-serious: "So, how does it feel to be a true Hindu?"

What does it mean that I have willingly joined to these rituals when I do not believe they are any more than just that? I have no antagonism towards these gestures, these gods - in fact my renewed, outsider's gaze grants me the curiosity and patience for them. Will I then carry on, and even pass on these rituals, albeit mediated by society and the priesthood, to my children as mere shells of what they are meant to be? Would it not be dishonest for me to tell them well, literally speaking, I don't believe in any of this, but culturally speaking, I think it's all very well?

I visited Kirtipur on Saturday. We zoomed up through the lush grounds of Tribhuvan University, faced the many-windowed concrete skyline for an instant, then headed past Bag Bhairab to the community bhatti of Newa Lahana. The first time around I'd admired the carefully choreographed authenticity of this sprawling purveyor of Newari specialties. This time we were bowled over by the second anniversary celebrations that clogged the streets - the sheer numbers of enthusiastic locals, the intense interplay of percussion and flute mere slips of boys treated us to, and not least the monsoonal cascades of chyang.

The boy band was followed by an Egyptian oud player, who was then joined by an ensemble of tabla and sarangi and guitar. Then came the lakhe, the dancing red demon shaking his black hair in courtly fury. A local attempted to join in and was ushered away. A friend complained: "It's great, but if this whole thing were for real then the lakhe would be game, he wouldn't have to be protected by impeccably costumed organisers."

It made me wonder. Wonderful, but how authentic was this enthusiastic procession of Newari culture, and how authentic is my enthusiasm for the rituals of Dasain? The bottom line, perhaps, lies in the appreciation. If we can maintain our respect for the origins and the continuity of our cultures, then a little admixture here and there probably isn't worth getting the janai in a twist over. As for lakhe protocol, the last word goes to my friend Bhaikaji Maharjan: "Noone would dare to approach an Indra Jatra lakhe, the lakhe would get hold of him. But 'show' lakhes, well, anyone can go and dance with them."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)