One Year Ago…

One year ago Tri and I got a horrible phone call in the night. It was his cousin. “You’re mom’s in the hospital,” he said to Tri. “Come to Nepal now.”

Tri booked the earliest flight that he could and left for the airport alone. I kissed him goodbye, not knowing exactly what was going on, not knowing how long he’d be there, not knowing when I get to see him again. The next few days were lonely as hell for me. I felt lost and confused. I knew he would reach Nepal by Tuesday night while I was sleeping, and I was hoping that I would get news letting me know that he had made it to his family safely. When I woke up on Wednesday morning, groggy from a restless night, I checked my mail to find something from Tri’s friend: Tri had made it to Nepal, had his seen his mom one last time before the ventilator was turned off, and now she was dead.

Those few days of being alone and unsure and then the shock of finding out that Tri’s mom was dead were the worst days of my life, and I hope that as long as I live, I’ll never have to experience something so heart-wrenching.

Tri, his dad and his brother went immediately into the initial 13-day mourning period required of Hindus, but the next year was also part of that mourning process. This past year we’ve been considered jutho (discussed here and here), unable to partake in religious holidays, weddings, or pujas, except for the monthly shradda. Last week was the puja to mark the end of the year long period. It was a strange experience, both sad and uplifting, a big fat reminder of the nightmare that happened a year ago but also a time to enjoy family and friends.

The puja area with the fire in the middle. Tri, his dad, and his brother were sitting off to the right out of view

On the first day, the family priest came to our house and performed the usual shradda that has been happening every month. Tri and his brother fasted in the morning and participated in the puja. The next day, a similar puja took place at the house. Normally we would have gotten visitors for this puja, but there was a bandha in Kathmandu that day, so only a few people living close by could make it. The third day was the big puja. Eleven priests came to our house. They were required to recite the Mahabharat, a Hindu epic, but because it’s so long, each priest read a part of it so that the whole thing could be finished that day. A picture of Mamu was set in the middle of the puja area, and a fire was lit. Tri, his brother, and his dad were called over by the priests periodically to sit near them and perform certain rituals. I don’t know the meaning behind most of what was going on, but there were a lot of fruits, flowers, and water involved, and one of the priests kept pouring ghyu (clarified butter) into the fire.

This went on from morning into mid afternoon, all the while the fire burning strong. Towards the end, one of the priests went onto the balcony on the second floor of the house and unrolled a red cloth. Buwa grabbed onto it and then Tri, his brother, his dad, his aunt, and I all got under it as the priest poured water along the cloth and onto our heads. I assume it has something to do with purification.

Then a long string of dried leaves was hung across our house to keep the ghosts and bad spirits away. This was actually supposed to be hung up after we moved into our new house, but since we weren’t allow to then because we were jutho, the priest included it in this puja. Afterwards, the priests blessed us with tikka (our first in a year) and then tied red doro strings around our wrists.

Towards the afternoon, people started showing up, hanging around to watch the puja, and after everything was over, we all ate a big meal. Many people came by: neighbors, distant relatives, close ones, friends. In the evening, as fewer guests remained, we all moved into the living room, and although there was sadness, things felt a little festive with people joking and laughing. Mostly, I just felt relief. It feels like we’ve been given the go-ahead to live again, to continue with our lives.

Here are few more photos…

A diyo (candle) in our front hall that burned throughout the puja and into the evening

The remains of the fire lit during the puja

Ironically, the first day of puja fell on Easter. Tri wasn’t supposed to eat meat or eggs that day, so no Easter Eggs for us, but despite the clash in traditions, the two somehow felt similar. I’m a secular Christian more than anything else. I’ve always celebrated Easter but never attached any religious meaning to it. However, I do recognized it as a holiday of death and rebirth. According to Hindu beliefs, Mamu might be out there somewhere, experiencing a rebirth of her own. For us, this ceremony was kind of a renewal and and permission to move onto the next chapter of our lives.

Although we’ve been immobilized by grief and Hindu rules about mourning during this past year, I have to admit that this year has been filled with a lot of wonderful things too. I graduated from college; Tri and I got married. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves, and we moved across the world. I got to meet and know his family and friends better so that now they’re my family and friends too.

Despite the still tangible grief, life is looking pretty good. I recognize what has happened in the past and won’t forget it, but I feel excited for the future.

An Afternoon in Ason Bazaar

On Sunday we went to Ason Bazaar, a market in the heart of the city. We went with Mama and Maijiu to begin buying things for the 1 year puja to mark Mamu’s death. I wrote about the Shradda ceremony a while ago in this post. It’s been happening every month for the last year, and during the puja that takes place, food is set out as an offering to Mamu. During the 1 year puja, the family needs to give offerings of clothing, jewelry, cookware, shoes, and other things that will supposedly reach her in heaven. I know that Tri was feeling a little bad about the whole thing because these items are quite expensive. After the ceremony, all of the items are given to the priest’s wife; we had to buy everything in her size. It’s a little difficult to swallow that a grieving family has to shell out so much money. If it was all donated to the poor, that might be one thing, but it’s going to the priest and his family. Some people are totally fine with this, and if they really believe that the items will reach their loved ones in heaven, then it certainly brings piece of mind. But for agnostics or nonbelievers I understand why it might make them feel uneasy.

I enjoyed going out, though. If you’re going to visit Kathmandu, you’ve got to go to Ason.

The crowds are suffocating and wonderful. It can be hard to walk through the throngs of people but exciting because there’s so much to see. You can get any and everything there. Clothing, spices, jewelry, shoes, stoves, street food, and the list goes on…

The Kasthamandap temple, for which Kathmandu was named

A smaller temple

Jewelry on display

As we were walking past one section of the bazaar, I remembered something suddenly. When I was here two years ago, I went to Ason with Mamu one time. I don’t remember why we went, what we were looking for, but on Sunday, I saw one of the paths that Mamu and I had been walking down. I remembered trotting along behind her, her out-reached hand guiding me through the crowd, past the stores around the beeping motorcycles…

Pote Shops

After walking for a while, we reached a tiny jewelry shop near Basantapur (a square with many temples in it). I literally had to crouch down to squeeze inside the shop. Mama and Maijiu bought a ring and a tilhari there before we headed over to the pote section of Ason. As I’ve mentioned before, pote are Nepali marriage beads. The tilhari that Mama and Maijiu bought is a big golden bead that is threaded onto the middle of the pote. After we brought the tilhari to a pote shop and Maijiu had picked out a good set of beads, the expert threader went to work.

Threading the pote

More pote

Thicker pote

The pote I bought

I sometimes wear pote. Recently I haven’t been doing it as much, but I do when the beads look good with the outfit I’m wearing. And since I only have one pote that I like, I thought I should get a couple more while we were in Ason. The one that I have already is a string of red beads with green beaded flowers around the necklace. Yesterday I chose another thin string of pink beads with gold beaded flowers and a slightly thicker one made of blue and gold beads. I just took a light blue sari to the tailor to be sewn, and I’m hoping the blue pote goes well with the sari fabric.

Japanese lunch, including tempura!

After our romp around Ason, I was tired and starving! So Tri and I went to the only Japanese restaurant that I know of in Kathmandu, a place called Koto. It really hit the spot.

Meeting an American Friend at Kopan Monastery

Tri and I visited one of my mom’s friends from back home, an American Buddhist nun who comes to stay at Kopan Monastery every once in a while. I wasn’t sure if we were going to get a chance to visit her because we’re all so busy and life has been traveling at quite a hectic pace, but my mom insisted that we see her, and I’m so glad we did. I treasure opportunities to talk and spend time with Americans because they come so infrequently, and she grew up in the town right next to mine, so meeting her was especially meaningful.

Right now she’s leading a meditation course for foreigners who have come to stay in Nepal for 10 days. If you know Kathmandu, Kapan Monastery is above Chahabil in the hills, surprisingly close to Budhanilkantha (I think within walking distance).

It was nice to hear about her experiences with Buddhism and how she became interested in it. About 25 years ago, she was working in politics but took a 6 month leave to travel. At one point, she ended up in Nepal to go trekking but hurt her leg and was stuck in Kathmandu. She saw an advertisement for a meditation class at Kopan, decided to try it out, and loved it. Eventually she quit her job to become a nun.

The shelf on which they keep relics from the monk

She showed us around Kopan and introduced us to some of the other monks and nuns.

A few months ago, one of the senior monks (with whom she felt very close) passed away, and his body was cremated. Apparently, in this sect of Buddhism (they practice Mahayana) holy people are supposed to have things grow from the ashes of their cremated bodies. The monks at Kopan have been and still are collecting little relics from this monk’s ashes.

She showed us what they have gathered, including the monk’s teeth, tongue, and heart as well as a rock with some kind of green mineral growing on its surface….

Sorry for the glare. Those little green dots in the top right-hand corner of the rock are the green mineral

They even found a small conch shell among the ashes…

A small conch shell found in the monk's ashes

When I was in fifth grade, my parents took me to Italy, and we ended up visiting quite a few churches. My brothers and I loved looking at the relics from the saints’ bodies. There was something grotesque but magical about being in the presence of those body parts from holy men and women, and I felt the same way today.

A playful picture of the Rinpoche with our friend on the left.

We also got to see Tibetan Buddhism’s  take on reincarnation in action. A monk named Geshe Lama Konchog used to reside and practice at Kopan but died  in 2001. Soon after, one of his disciples started searching for his reincarnation. Our friend explained the process they went through to find him. They had to consult some kind of astrologers who told the disciple that the child would be living in a certain area, have a father with a name starting with a certain leter, etc. The disciples soon found someone who fit all of these characteristics. After testing his knowledge to see if he remembered things from his past life, they decided that he was indeed the reincarnated lama. As a final step, prior to confirming him as the Rinpoche (reincarnated lama), they took the boy before the Dalai Lama. Then they brought him to Kopan. There was a movie made about the process of finding this little boy called “Unmistaken Child.”

We met him today. He lives on the monastery grounds with an aunt and cousin, and his immediate family comes to visit every once in a while. He was a very happy child but a little lonely. Our friend goes to play with him when she can because he doesn’t have much access to kids his own age.

She told us that when people come to meet him, they often act reserved around him because he’s a holy figure.

I’m not going to say that I don’t believe in reincarnation or that this kid isn’t holy, but he is just a kid. And he should be treated like a kid, allowed to laugh, cry and just act silly sometimes.

Visitors comes from all over, and one had brought him a really fun book called Look Now with facts about a whole range of subjects, including natural disasters, population growth, and birth and death rates around the world. After arriving, we started going through it together.

I thought we would be at Kopan for just a short visit, but we ended up staying at the monastery for over two and half hours.

I was in another world the whole time. The grounds are exquisite, with trimmed lawns and a pristinely painted stupa, a far cry from the polluted streets of the Valley. And the monks are mostly Tibetan, so their culture is very different from the dominant one in Kathmandu, what I interact with and experience on a daily basis. I liked being up in the seclusion of the monastery for a bit, but it felt very removed from what’s going on in the rest of the Valley. When we drove our car back down the hill, I couldn’t help but enjoy the traffic, noise, and jostle in the streets. It’s good to get out of that once in a while, but I guess the Buddhist nun life just isn’t for me.

Anyway, thank you so much to our amazing friend for taking time out of her day to show us around! 🙂

A Trip Down South

We’re back! It was an intense trip that included meeting lots of new people, a visit to the birthplace of the Buddha, and a trip to the emergency room, but we all made it back in one piece.

We left Kathmandu on Sunday and arrived at about 5pm in Bhuttwal, a little city an hour’s drive from Lumbini. We stayed there with some friends of my father-in-law. Much of their family was gathered there for Tihar, and we brought along 9 people (including me, Tri, Tri’s brother and dad and a number of family friends). All together, including the staff in the house, we were 33 people. Although it was, at times, a little overwhelming, I loved it. There was always something to do, people to talk to, food to eat. I had never met these people before this week, but now they feel like family.

On Monday morning, we set out for Palpa, a hill station about an hour and a half out of Bhuttwal. It was a bit crazy getting out of the house because there were so many of us, but we finally made it for a picnic lunch.

On Tuesday, 10 of us went over to Lumbini to see the temples. Lumbini is in the Terai (the planes of Nepal), only about half an hour from the Indian border. Before coming to Nepal in 2009, I visited Delhi and Agra, and Lumbini really reminded me of what I saw there. In India, the land was flat and dry and the weather hot, very much like Lumbini. The people also looked more like the Indians I met in Agra and Delhi than the Nepalis I know in Kathmandu. Lumbini is a cluster of beautiful temples right in the middle of a vast expanse of farmland. Different countries have donated money to build temples to the Lord Buddha, many of them replicates of Budhhist temples from those places. Here’s the Thai one…

The Cambodian one was under construction, so we couldn’t go inside, but you can see the top of it here…

The German, supposedly one of the most elaborate ones, is built in a Nepali style. I love the ceiling…

Going to see the Buddha’s actual birthplace was the best. There are ruins in the middle of Lumbini supposedly from Siddhartha Gautam’s family palace. They also have the stone on which Siddhartha’s foot was imprinted after he was born. Of course I was a bit skeptical about the lumpy imprint on that stone being from the baby Buddha’s foot, but I didn’t mind extending my imagination a bit 🙂 There were tourists from all over, including a number of pilgrims from South India. You can see the ruins on the grass. The people in white are the pilgrims…

I started re-rereading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when we were down there, a book I remember loving in high school. It’s a little slow but a good story. I can’t give a proper review of it because I haven’t read it in so long, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in religion in this area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal, partly because of one of Barani’s comment on this post about Buddhism having only a small influence in Nepal. Thulobaa (Tri’s uncle; literally means “big dad”) came with us on the trip down to Bhuttwal, and I asked him if there were any Buddhists in his family. Although I don’t think he would call himself a Buddhist, he said that he and many other Hindus practice Buddhism because they consider the Buddha to be a god. Similarly, there are a number of people in Nepal who would call themselves Buddhists but celebrate Hindu holidays. The fact that the Buddha can be worshiped and loved in what was once considered the only Hindu Kingdom on earth is only one example of the tolerance for diversity and difference that I see so often in Nepal.

Anyway, I’ll add some more photos to the photo page, and I’ll post a little about what we did for Tihar, in particular Laxmi Puja, soon.

Impurity, the Caste System, and How I Fit into It

Yesterday I started writing about my experiences with and reactions to the concept of jutho, translated as “impure” in English. In this post, I wanted to write a bit more about that concept as it relates to my place the caste system.

I’ve always found that members of the Baun, “Brahman” caste adhere most strictly to rules concerning jutho. Tri’s dad’s family is Baun, and Bua’s parents always followed rules about jutho. Bua told us that when he was little, his mom prohibited him from learning the English alphabet because it was considered a jutho language. Another family friend told us that when he was in the 13-day mourning period that happens right after a family member dies, a Baun neighbor told him not to speak English. During this period, people must eat a very simple diet, not touch others, and try to purify themselves. Because his neighbor thought of English as an impure language, she considered it inappropriate to speak it at a time when he was supposed to be purifying himself.

English is supposedly impure because it’s considered a gai khane bhasha, literally a “cow-eating language,” meaning a language spoken by people who eat cows. In Hindu culture, the cow is a god, and eating beef is a big no-no. Those who eat it are apparently impure and so is there language.

These rules about jutho are part of a Hindu tradition. Many members of ethnic minority groups in Nepal who are not Hindu pay no heed to these rules. When I lived with a Buddhist Sherpa host family, my host sister didn’t care one way or another whether or not I followed rules about jutho.

A few weeks ago, some older, distant relatives came over to visit. After arriving, the women started cooking in the kitchen. I try to learn about Nepali cooking whenever I can because I’m truly hopeless when it comes to cooking the local cuisine, so I went into the kitchen to observe. I immediately noticed that one of the women was uncomfortable, but I ignored it, thinking it had nothing to do with me. Then I started pointing to different foods, asking their names and how they were to be cooked. Although one of the women was responding to my questions, another of them pulled back away from me. She then said in Nepali, “You stay over there, okay?” while pointing to the opposite side of the kitchen.

When it was time to eat, I went over to get a spoon from the drawer. This woman was sitting by the drawer and looked very uncomfortable as I neared. Out of respect, I stopped and asked Tri to get the spoon for me because, at that point, I understood she didn’t want me to touch or come close to her.

After they left, I talked to Tri about what had happened. He explained that because I am a foreigner, they believe that I am and will always be jutho. Any food that I touch supposedly becomes impure as well. Most of this impurity apparently arises from the fact that I come from a country and a group of people who eat beef.

A few days later, I was talking to Maijiu (Tri’s Aunt) about the experience, and she asked me, timero man dukhyo? “Did your heart hurt”? I said no, trying to brush it off, but it hurt a little. I keep reminding myself that it’s just what they grew up with. I also realize that what I have to deal with pales in comparison to what others have to put up with. I know of some people who are not Baun but married into Baun families. They were treated in a similar way but much more frequently. I only have to put up with this attitude once in a while.

Although I don’t like how they treated me, I feel a little better about the whole thing. They came over again this past weekend and weren’t as harsh. Once they realized that I respect their culture and that I can speak Nepali, they eased up a bit. One of them even sat next to me, and we had a nice conversation about her daughter (whom I’ve met and really like). I also feel incredibly lucky that Tri’s dad is not this way. Although he comes from a conservative family, he has always been very open, accepting, and does not believe in these types of restrictions.

Shradda

Mamu’s shradda was on Thursday. After someone dies in the family, if you are Nepali Hindu, you have a priest perform puja (religious prayers and worship) for that person every month for a year. After a year is up, you must do it once a year, on the day he or she died. This is called shradda and is done to feed the deceased.

On Wednesday, the day before, Tri, his brother, and his dad had to refrain from eating meat and eggs and could only eat one meal of daalbhaat (rice and lentils). We weren’t sure if I was supposed to fast or not so to be on the safe side, I didn’t eat meat or eggs either. And I actually made a mistake that day. Usually we have rice in the morning and roti for dinner. Because I had eaten about 6 rotis for lunch (they were really good), I didn’t want to eat them for dinner, so I made myself some rice. After I started eating, Tri’s brother told me I wasn’t supposed to have more than one meal with rice the day before shradda.

On Thursday morning, Tri and his brother had to fast until the puja finished. All of this fasting has to do with purity. To partake in the puja on Thursday, Tri and his brother had to be pure. Neither I nor my father-in-law were part of the puja for my mother-in-law because only the sons of the deceased have to perform shradda, so we didn’t have to fast that morning.

After the priest came over, he arranged some flowers, fruit, and spices in pots specially used for puja and in bowls made from dried banyan leaves. After he finished getting ready, Tri and his brother went to the roof of the house, where the puja was taking place. The priest recited prayers, gave them some special water to drink, and gave them each a new sacred thread to wear. The long white string is worn like a sash inside of the clothing. Traditionally Hindu Baun (Brahman) men were supposed to wear this sacred thread all the time, but I don’t think it’s as common today. After the puja finished, we all sat down to have daalbhaat.
            On Friday, we had another shradda for 16 generations of my father-in-law’s ancestors. This puja occurs only once a year and is also done to feed the ancestors. It reminds me of a book I read by Lisa See called Peony in Love about a young girl in China during the 17th Century. I’m skipping over a bunch of the story, but from what I remember, the main character dies and becomes a ghost. However, because her funeral rites do not happen as they should and no one in her family sends her offerings, she starves in the afterlife. We were talking about this tradition in the context of Hinduism, and Tri made the point that if your ancestors have already been reincarnated, why would you need to feed them? I’ve learned a lot about Nepali Hinduism in the last few years, but I still have so many questions.

Remembering Mamu

As many of you know, Tri’s family must remain in mourning for a year. He cannot celebrate holidays, go to weddings, or do anything religious. Last week, Tri and I were invited to the wedding of one of his high school classmates, and we were hoping to go to the non-religious part of the celebration. Tri’s dad said that even that is not allowed, that they probably wouldn’t want Tri to be there because it’s bad luck.

There’s an interesting Newar festival going on today called Gai Jatra that addresses death and loss. Those who have lost a loved one in the last year must lead a cow in a procession around the city. It’s also a time when people dress in costume, tease, joke, and laugh. It was started by a Newar king when his wife couldn’t move past the death of their son. Tri told me that the king then ordered those in mourning to process around the city to show the queen that she was not alone in her grief, but Wikipedia says that the king also promised to reward anyone who could make her laugh. Either way, both the tradition of processing and laughing are still practiced today. Not only does this holiday remind those who are grieving that they are not alone, but it also promotes them to forget their troubles for a while by joining in the joking. Tri’s family is not Newar, so they aren’t going to the Gai Jatra celebrations, but I really like the idea behind this holiday.

Before I left for Nepal, my family and I were talking about this year-long period of mourning, and how, although it’s limitations are frustrating, they are also good for the mourners. This year is set aside to mourn and remember the person who died, but after the year is up, you have to move on. Anyway, I’ve been really thinking about Mamu (what we called Tri’s mom) lately. I was looking through some old photo albums and found some pictures of her as a young woman…

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