Very few things in life frighten me, but by the time I arrived in Pokhara, I was scared. My left hip and knee had never fully healed from an injury sustained in Mexico earlier in the year and as a result even an easy trek to Nagarkot and day hikes around the mountain village of Puma had aggravated my knee so badly that I was in pain for days afterward. Panicked that my hiking days were over, my imagination went into overdrive with visions of wheelchairs and four-legged walkers.
Part of the problem was that I had stopped practicing Yoga. I love being a digital nomad but staying in hostels, especially when I am in dorms, has its drawbacks, the greatest of which is the lack of enough room to do Yoga. I could count on one hand the number of times I had attended a class over the past year and I knew it was time to get back to a dedicated practice.
Fortunately, Pokhara is rife with Yoga studios. After two lame classes with poorly trained teachers, I finally found the Annapurna Yoga Ashram and Guru Narayan Prasad Dhakal who custom designed a Yoga practice for me that completely realigned my hip and knee and restored my structural integrity. Over the next six weeks I became such a fixture in his home that, to my delight, Guru and his family invited me to be a part of Bhai Tika, the brother/sister tika ceremony held on the final day of the five-day long Nepali festival of Tihar.
One of the most dazzling of all Hindu festivals, Tihar is also known as the Festival of Lights. As the dates for the celebration approached I began noticing changes around town. Flickering candles and oil lamps began appearing on the stoops or were hung from the walls and ceilings of homes, stores and businesses. This custom reenacts the ancient Hindu legend about a king whose astrologer told him that a serpent would come to take his life away. When the king asked if there was any way to escape death, the astrologer advised him to sleep with lit oil lamps all around his bed and decorate the palace with oil lamps on the day when the goddess Laxmi was to be worshiped. In return for being so honored, Laxmi persuaded the serpent to spare the king’s life but Yama Raj, the god of the underworld, still had to be convinced that it was not yet the king’s time to die. Yama opened his ledger to where the king’s remaining age was written as zero but the serpent cleverly put a seven before the zero and the king lived for seventy more years. As a result, during Tihar Nepalis worship both the underworld and the goddess Laxmi.
Early in the morning on the first day of the festival, known as crow’s day or Kag Tihar, the Dhakal family placed birdseed and dahl bhat (rice and lentils) on the roof of their house for crows, believed to be the messenger of Yama Raj, the lord of death. On day two, dog’s day or Kukur Tihar, prayers were offered to the dog that guarded the gate to the underworld, as this is thought to divert destruction away from worshiper’s homes. Following these prayers, every family honors a dog by placing a tika (a mark, usually red, made by applying powdered pigment) on its forehead, hanging a floral garland around its neck and feeding it a meal of dahl bhat. Like most Nepalis, the Dhakals have no pets, so they hunted down one of the hundreds of skeletal strays that roam the streets of Pokhara and temporarily adopted it. On this one day of the year, all the strays in town wandered about in a daze, sporting bright red tikas, flower leis, and bloated bellies.
On the morning of the third, most important day of the festival, cows were worshiped. As the national animal of Nepal and the most sacred animal for Hindus, a cow symbolizes wealth and is considered to be the mother of the universe due to its milk producing ability. As with the dog, one of the cows that meander through the streets of town unmolested for most of the year was captured long enough to apply a tika to its forehead, place a garland around its neck and feed it a meal. Those performing a cow puja (a religious ritual) may also place her manure in different parts of the home, drink a drop of the cow’s urine and even dip a blade of grass into the urine and sprinkle it on each others body.
That same evening, pictures and icons of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, were displayed in an area of the house dedicated to worshiping gods and a puja was performed at dusk using flowers, incense, fruit, and silver coins. Outside, the initial trickle of candles and oil lamps had swelled to thousands, turning Pokhara into a flickering, glittering jewel. Troupes of girls wandered from home-to-home and business-to-business long into the night, chanting and singing a special song known as Bhailo or Bhailini, played only on this one day during the year. They performed traditional dances in the dusty street, forcing traffic to wind around them and the crowds that gathered to watch the shows, passing a tray for donations after each performance.
Ceremonies on the fourth day differed according to the particular deity worshiped by each family. My Yoga family reenacted the ancient legend of a village that refused to pray to Indra, god of rain. Angered by the villagers refusal and set on their destruction, Indra brought heavy rains that flooded the village, but one of the three most important Hindu gods, Lord Krishna, liftied a hill named Govardan, allowing villagers to escape the flood waters. On the fourth day of Tihar the Dhakals, in honor of Krishna, made a model of Govardan from cow dung inside their home.
With each passing day of Tihar I had grown more excited by my invitation to join my Yoga family for Bhai Tika, the brother/sister tika ceremony on the final day of the festival. On the morning of the fifth day, soon after I arrived the two daughters, Himrekha and Annapurna, began stringing garlands of fresh picked marigolds and small purple flowers. The finished leis were placed on a hand-woven tray, along with cracked walnuts, fruits, water, oil, and a collection of multi-colored pigment powders and glitter that would be used to produce tikas. Each family has its own particular tika design; my Yoga family’s signature was a rainbow colored vertical stripe that began at the top of the forehead and stretched to between the eyebrows.
Finally, with preparations complete, the official ceremony began with the application of a rainbow tika above the door leading into the kitchen. Pranab, the older brother, sat cross-legged on a carpet while his two sisters, Himrekha and Annapurna, walked around him three times in a clockwise direction, dripping oil and water on the floor. After they anointed his head with a few drops of oil, Guru Narayan created a pattern for the tika by tearing a horizontal strip in a green banana leaf. Guru held the pattern on his son’s forehead while his sisters carefully applied a base of rice paste through the cutout, then dabbed dots of colored powder on top. When they were satisfied with their work, Guru peeled off the banana leaf, leaving a perfect rainbow tika on Pranab’s forehead. While offering a prayer that the enemies of their brother get lost, the girls placed a flower lei over his head and gifts in his lap. The siblings then switched places and Pranab applied rainbow tikas on his sisters’ foreheads.
I was happily filming away when Guru motioned for me to put down the camera; it was my turn to sit cross-leggged on the floor while bhai (younger brother) painted a rainbow tika on my forehead. As Guru applied the rice paste paste, the girls pointed to my forehead, giggling and chattering in Nepali.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded from behind the banana leaf plastered to my head.
“Your skin is the same color as the rice paste!” declared Annapurna.
“It is like strawberry ice cream,” added Himrekha.
With my tika completed, I exchanged places with Guru and helped create one on his forehead, after which we spent the rest of the day stuffing ourselves with fruit, candy, nuts, Selroti rice rings that resemble giant pretzels, and a traditional Nepali meal of pickles, dahl bhat, spinach and curried vegetables.
Without fail, meeting people and learning about the local culture has always created the most memorable travel experiences for me, so it was with enormous gratitude that I thanked my hosts for inviting me to be their older sister – didi – for a day. Guru gently corrected me:
“You are not didi for a day; you are part of our family. You are didi to us forever now.”
I was touched to the core and had to fight back tears as I left. Not only have I been restored to health by my fabulous Guru, I have gained an adopted family. The gods have truly blessed me.