Culture

Nepali Women Celebrate Teej as Festival of Freedom Today

 

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Nepal

Women across Nepal fast today for their husbands or future husbands on this rare public holiday strictly for women.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – It’s midafternoon and the neighborhood of Gongabu in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, boasts a festive mood for Teej, a Hindu festival taking place today in which women fast in dedication to their husbands or future husbands.

 

Songs about the festival echo throughout the premises of the Kathmandu Vidya Kunja Secondary School. About 200 women, ranging in age from 15 and 70, gather here, all dressed in red. Some dance to the music, others clap, and some even play the “madal,” a traditional Nepali drum. 

 

Draped in a red saree, Sabita Kafle, 30, wears red bangles on her wrists, red beads around her neck, vermillion on the parting of her hair and a green-beaded “tilahari,” a traditional necklace. All these symbols signify a married woman in Nepal. 

 

Kafle, who has been dancing for half of the day with the other women in the crowd, hasn’t even had a sip of water. She says she is not going to be hungry or thirsty or even tired today during the fast. No one will stop her from dancing on one of the few Nepali public holidays just for women.

 

“It’s Teej today,” she says. “It’s a day of freedom.”

 

Teej, previously reserved for higher castes, is now a time of celebration for all Hindu women and their friends of other faiths as they fast for their husbands or future spouses. Today, women fast and visit the temple out of respect for their husbands, as well as dance and sing to celebrate their freedom to have a say in their marriages. Rural and urban women practice different Teej traditions, and some worry about the commercialism of the festival in recent years. But overall, women say it’s a time of unity and freedom.

 

Teej is an important day for Hindu women. Married women dedicate the festival to their husbands, as they fast for their husbands’ prosperity and long lives. On the other hand, unmarried women also fast on this day in hopes of marrying the men they desire or finding a good husband.

 

The festival of Teej usually falls during the month of August or September. Women in rural areas call this perfect timing as it falls between the time of planting and harvest, so they’re not busy on the farms and can spend the day dancing and singing with family and friends.

 

Teej also marks the beginning of festival season in Nepal. Two weeks after Teej, the country, and especially the capital, observes the Indra Jatra, the festival dedicated to the god of rain, followed by Nepal’s biggest festivals, Dashain and Tihar.

 

Teej is a festival originally reserved for the Brahmin and Chhetri, higher castes in Nepal. But it’s now celebrated by Hindu women of all castes, who are also joined by female friends of other faiths. Gathering for songs and dances has become a Teej ritual throughout Nepal for rural and urban women alike.  

 

Pandit Narayan Prapannacharya, who has a master’s degree in Hindu religion, literature and philosophy, says the year women began celebrating Teej is unkown.

 

“In the Hindu religious text of Skanda Purana, it’s mentioned that goddess Parbati wanted Lord Shiva as her husband, while her parents wanted her to marry someone else,” she says. “So, Parbati went to a forest and fasted all day by the riverbank. As a result, she found Lord Shiva as her husband. Therefore, women celebrate this day with the same belief.”

 

For unmarried women, Teej offers the prospect of finding a good husband.

 

Reshma Adhikari, an undergraduate student, says that she started participating in the Teej fast two years ago. She says she has seen her mother fasting for years, and when some of her classmates began to fast, it motivated her to join them.

 

“I’m not sure if I’m going to have an arrange[d] marriage or love marriage,” she says. “I’m not even ready to get married now. But I’d love to have a husband who loves me and look forward for a happy life. This is why I’m fasting now – for future.”

 

The color for this festival is red.

 

“In Hindu society, the color red is conjoined with marriage,” says Samjhana Poudel, a woman from Hetauda in southern Nepal celebrating Teej. “Widows are forbidden to wear red. Thus, wearing red signifies that you’re married and fasting for your husband.”

 

The festival of Teej spans two days. Yesterday, the eve of the main day, is called the “Dar Khane Din.” Women who are fasting today enjoyed a feast. Until late at night, they cooked and ate various delicacies.

 

Today, they woke up early, freshened up and dressed in red before making their way to Lord Shiva’s temple. Women visit the temples of the Hindu god Shiva on the main day of Teej because most women in traditional Nepali society look up to their husbands as gods.  As such, the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu is the epicenter of this festival. Thousands of women flood this century-old temple of Lord Shiva today.

 

Police divert vehicular traffic in the area so the women can walk freely. Authorities also make special arrangements for health, as many women faint or get sick while standing in long queues to enter the temple premises on an empty stomach.

 

The day after Teej, women usually break their fasts after washing their husband’s feet and drinking some of the water, a ritual representing respect.

 

Pandit Loknath Luitel, a Sanskrit scholar who has been a Hindu priest for more than 30 years, says Teej also represents freedom for women.

 

“The tradition of marrying the man that the family chooses is still prevalent in the traditional Nepali society,” she says. “But festivals like Teej hel[p] to debunk this practice as wrong and limit freedom for women. Thus, Teej is a religious festival also related to women’s freedom.”

 

He says Teej enables women to have more agency in whom they marry.

 

“Women have the right to marry whoever they like and want, and Teej is a festival dedicated for their husband’s prosperity and long life,” he says.

 

In addition to freedom regarding marriage, Teej also promotes freedom of expression for women.

 

In traditional Nepali society, most women don’t have the privilege to make their own decisions. Instead, their responsibility is to make their husbands and his family happy and perform household chores. So they take Teej as an opportunity to go to their maternal houses and have a break from daily work. They also express their pains and joys through song and dance.

 

“[In] Nepal, being a male-dominated society, women take this day as an opportunity to express their problems, feelings and emotions,” says Bimala Rai, who has her doctorate in sociology.

 

She adds that it’s also a break from household chores.

 

Urmila Dahal from Bhaktapur, a district neighboring Kathmandu district, says she wanted to break away from the daily household routine and wanted some time for herself, so she went to her parents’ house in Dharan, a town in eastern Nepal, for Teej.

 

“This year, for Teej, I told my husband to take care of the kids and went to my parents’ house,” she says.

 

Ram Bahadur Thapa from Kathmandu says that on this day, he doesn’t let his wife do any chores.

 

“I send her to her parents’ house,” he says. “I do all the household chores. After all, she is taking the fast for me. This helps to strengthen the love between us.”

 

He says that there should be an equivalent holiday for men to honor women.

 

“I think there should be a day for the husbands to fast for their wives,” he says.

 

Rai agrees.

 

“If there would have been any day as such for men too, it could change the gender notion attached with this festival and also embolden the love between the couple,” she says.

 

In rural villages, Teej becomes a time of reunion for many women.

 

But in cities, the festival has taken a different form. Women affiliated with different organizations usually plan parties in restaurants and banquet halls. Weeks before the festival, celebrations are at their peak.

 

The festive mood set in nearly two weeks ago, before the festival started. Women start planning where, when and how to celebrate Teej. TV channels and radios played songs, shows and commercials related to the festival.

 

Teej gift packs, known as “saubhagya,” which means “marital bliss,” are abdundant in markets. The packs include celebratory items, such as red bangles, beads and vermillion power for married women.

 

Urmila Sharma, from Bhaktapur, has been distributing Teej gift packs to her friends and family this Teej season. She says that by doing so, she will add longevity to her husband’s life.

 

But some say that commercialism has overpowered Teej with the hype weeks before.

 

“I don’t like this growing trend at all,” says Raju Dahal, a local businessman in Kathmandu unrelated to Urmila Dahal. “Teej is just one day. Why the celebration from weeks ahead?”

 

But Tila Luitel, celebrating at one of these parties in the capital, disagrees.

 

“It’s OK for men to go to restaurants on a regular basis,” she says. “So why is it wrong for women, mostly busy with their household chores, to have [a] few opportunities to go to restaurants and enjoy parties as such?”

 

Others in both cities and villages cite the trend of using the festival to display wealth. Laxmi Sharma, a housewife from Burtibang, a village in Nepal’s Central region, says that the ornamentation has reached a stage that Teej seems more like a display of a woman’s social status than anything else.

 

In order to break free from these traditions, Sharma and other women in Burtibang and nearby Barangdi have started a new practice. They’ve decided to wear only everyday glass bangles and beads and not expensive jewelry.

 

“People shouldn’t see any difference in social class in this festival,” Sharma says “We’ve decided to do this so that everyone can be a part of this festival and celebrate together regardless of who is rich and poor.”

 

Even if it’s for once a year, women say that this festival helps to erase the social, cultural and economic differences across Nepal. Teej is their day to celebrate womanhood.