The first to be worshipped, as usual, was the laddoo-loving, elephant-headed Ganesh, as the five days of Yampanchak kicked off on Tuesday. The next day was devoted to that air-borne scavenger, the crow, which this week were feasting on all the uncollected garbage littering the city streets. Thursday was Dog Day in the morning, while offerings were made to Laxmi, the Goddess of Fortune, in the evening. Friday is Cow Day, and then comes the turn of the bull. Tihar will end on Sunday with sisters venerating their brothers. With that the festival season that began nearly a month ago will finally come to an end in most parts of the country.
There are variations in the way Tihar is celebrated in different parts of Nepal. A day before Laxmi Puja, for practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, it is Dhanbantari Day, when they bow to their founder in reverence. The business community in the tarai celebrates the same day as Dhanteras when families buy a piece of jewellery, or at least a metal utensil, to mark the occasion. The day of Diwali is also when some business communities close their accounting year and open new ledgers by imprinting a yellow swastika on deep red cloth-covers. Friday is also Mha Puja, the day of self-worship for the Newar community which also celebrates its New Year (the 1120th) on that day. On Brother's Day (Sunday), Kayasthas of the tarai worship their ancestor Lord Chitragupta, considered to be the ledger-keeper of Yama-the God of Fate. It is also the only day when Rani Pokhari in the centre of Kathmandu is open to the public.
Diwali, as it is called in India, is primarily a religious festival. Whereas Tihar in Nepal has taken on a socio-cultural and family-oriented aspect in Nepal. The deusi and bhailo chanting from house to house has an almost Halloween-like trick-or-treat quality to it. Then there is the legend about King Bali, who was so generous that all who went to see him returned with all wishes fulfilled. He was tricked into giving up his kingdom through the machinations of Devas and their chief conspirator, the wily Bishnu. It is said that during Tihar, Bali gets his kingdom back for five days and that is what the deusi singers chant. Meanwhile, some historians say they have traced Bali as a Magar king in Central Nepal.
Latter-day traditions of Tihar include the official sanction of gambling. Nepal imports nearly Rs 50 million worth of playing cards every year, and most of them are used up this week. Even women, traditionally barred from gambling, play their hands with modest stakes. In the eastern and central tarai, celebrations continue till Chhath Pooja when the Sun is elaborately worshipped in its female form as Mother Goddess Chhathi Mai. This four-day festival involves fasting, penance and then feasting. It is said that Chhath is the only time when even a setting sun is celebrated for its glory, since the cycle of birth starts with death. In a sense, then the setting sun is even more important than the rising one.
In all these festivities, for five to six days in the hills and for nearly two weeks in tarai, one single leitmotif common to all celebrations is the humble earthen lamp-the diyo. From the day it is lit at the start of Yampanchak, it keeps burning till all festivities come to an end. Truly, Tihar is a festival of lights: from the small mustard oil lamps in tiny terracotta cups to designer candles and colourful electric bulbs that is the rage of the upper middle classes.
All life is said to be composed of five basic elements-earth, water, air, fire and sky. They owe their origin to the sun, which is the representation of the Supreme Being. The earthen lamp is worshipped as a miniature symbol of the life-giving sun. An earthen lamp is the product of all the five elements-the panchatatwa. A potter takes raw earth, mixes it with water, turns it on his wheel, lets it dry in the air under the sky and then bakes it in fire. When that earthen lamp arrives in your puja room, it has already passed through the process of life and death. It is now the symbol of eternity, of immortality and of light. It is capable of listening to your prayers of tamasoma jyotirgamaya to lead you from darkness to light.
In the brave new world of triumphant capitalism, everyone is an 'Economic Man', a Vaishya. Just like the original religious antecedents of Christmas are covered by modern commercialisation, so it is with Tihar. From virtual firecrackers on the Internet to Diwali greetings on satellite channels, the original message of Tihar is lost in this blaze of consumerism. Good fortune is translated into wealth, and the implication is that money can buy you happiness.
So we open up our dhukutis and paint Laxmi's little feet from the door to the vault. Greed is glorious, and, with globalisation, ostentatious displays of wealth are no longer considered in bad form. Egged on by cable, the new creed is: it's no use having it unless you can flaunt it. Thus the rush at jewellery shops, department stores, illegal cracker vendors in the by-lanes of Asan and the gambling dens of Gyaneswor and Maharajgunj, not to mention all those casinos in the city where all you need to do to get in is pretend to be an Indian.
The form is prominent, but does the substance of Tihar survive? The best time to reflect upon that question is this week, when expensive sweet packets oust sel-roti, dry fruits challenge guavas from the garden, madals make way for electric guitars in the deusi groups, and people go for extravagance in a big way even in a festival as religious as the tarai's celebration of Chhath.
But all is not lost, and even that what is lost is not lost forever. Like a potter's wheel, change goes and then comes back in cycles. The realisation that culture is beyond the realm of consumerism seems to have dawned upon many. The little terracotta diyo is staging a comeback. It's all a matter of keeping faith. Darker the night, brighter burns the wick. May its flickering flame inspire us to live in harmony with the five basic elements of life. Let us light a lamp, rather than curse the darkness.