On Tuesday, 6 September, the whirling dancers at Pashupati will be dressed in different hues of red: the married will be draped in maroon, burgundy and orange saris and the unwed clad in lavender, pink and peach kurthas. As bangles clink and anklets ring, they will sing as their sisters have for centuries about their personal lives: their devotion to their husbands, their yearning for life in their parents' homes and their nostalgia for childhood days. But recently the songs have become more radical, as befitting the times.
For generations, midhill Hindu women have gathered at temples around the country to worship Shiva and Parbati, the divine couple epitomising the ultimate in conjugal bliss. The festival lasts for three days: the day of the feast (dar khane) when women eat sweet goodies late into the night to gear up for the next day's fast and then there is the tij day itself when they replicate the fast Parbati observed eons ago to obtain Shiva as her lord and husband. The grande finale is that evening when they break their fast with a puja.
On the day of the fast, till late into the night, women collect in groups in front of Shiva temples and sing and dance to shoo hunger and sleep away. The songs provide rare insights into the multiple roles of Nepali women.
Traditionally, the spontaneous, free-form songs have been about women's roles as daughters, sisters, wives and daughters-in-law and about their relationships with their fathers, brothers, husbands and other female in-laws.
The advent of democracy in 1990 opened up this cultural space for Nepali women and they started using tij as their own March 8th women's day, singing about inequality, discrimination, lack of opportunities and for their rights.
Now as armed conflict rents the fabric of Nepali society, the injustices inflicted on women are revealed as never before. Women are increasingly beginning to sing about the bigotry and intolerance they face in society and some of the songs are even militant, where the symbolism of wearing red now stands for revolution.
Through tij songs, Nepali women reveal their changing roles in their families, communities and even the nation. Like this bitter-sweet song of suffering, struggle and hope:
We ploughed the fields, roofed the huts, even contested elections, sisters
There isn't a job we didn't do these last years
While brothers and husbands left by buses and trucks
We took care of cattle, the sick and the poor
We held up the roofs as walls crumbled around us, sisters
We never once stepped back and said it wasn't our job.
Yet now they say we are weak, dear sisters
That we are uneducated and don't know right from wrong
We'll fight if we have to and die if need be, sisters
We are gearing up for our last battle now
Lets go door to door, this coming tij sisters
And gather all others feeling down and low
Let's usher in a new tij with all hues of red sisters
We can then finally let go and do as we please.
We'll sing together and destroy the enemies, sisters
Then we will dance with abandon.bari lai lai
This song is not scripted by NGO workers, it is not written by women cadres of an underground political party, they are spontaneous honest words that come straight from the heart and are woven into the age-old tunes of tij. They are sad, yet empowering because the pain is processed and shared.
This tij, we will hear the songs on our streets but let's listen carefully to the lyrics. They need to be heard not just because the women singing them have unusually delightful voices or because the words are different and powerful, they need to be heard because they are a testimony to the times. This is oral history or shall we say herstory.