Honouring traditions is an important part of keeping a culture alive. That said, traditions are sometimes adapted as a result of changing times. My first experience of the Teej Festival – an ancient Hindu tradition for women honouring Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parbati – was a glance into shadows, past and present, for Nepalese women.
According to the Hindu holy books, the Goddess Parbati fasted and prayed fervently for 108 years for Lord Shiva to become her husband. As Shiva was so touched by her devotion, he made her his wife. In gratitude, Parbati sent a messenger to preach and disseminate religious fasting among mortal women for the promise of prosperity and longevity for their husbands. Teej is celebrated to honour the devotion of Parbati. However, women pray to Shiva and Parbati to seek blessings for marital bliss. In addition, married women fast to pray for the long and healthy life of their husband, and unmarried women fast to pray for a good husband.
The Teej Festival takes places over three days. On the first day, “Dar Khane Din”, women (of predominantly Brahmin and Chettri ethnicity) don their finest red attire to gather in a central place to dance and sing devotional songs. A celebratory feast also occurs. However, at midnight, feasting stops and fasting – for 24 hours – begins. On the second (fasting) day, women – dressed in red – go to a Shiva Temple to worship the “Shiva Lingam”, a symbol of Lord Shiva. During the main puja, they offer flowers, fruits, flowers, sweets and coins to Shiva and Parbati to seek their promised blessings. An oil lamp is lit and burned throughout the night to ward off bad omens. On the third day, “Rishi Pancami”, the seven great “rishsis” (saints) – Kashap, Atri, Bharadwaj, Vishwamitra, Gautam, Janadagni and Vashishtha – are honoured. Using the leaves and red mud from the roots of the sacred Datiwan bush, women take a holy bath to seek forgiveness for sins committed during their monthly periods throughout the year. After three hours of cleaning, they are believed to be purified. With women in a semicircle, a puja is then performed by priests around the “Sapta Rishi”, a symbol of the seven saints. During this ceremony, red dress is also worn.
My first experience of the Teej Festival was limited to the first day: Dar Khane Din. With the help of Nepalese women (from various ethnic groups), I donned my red sari – from a Hindu Wedding in Nepal in 2012 – then joined them at a “mela” in Melbourne. Although I am not sure how Teej is celebrated in Nepal, I observed acknowledgement of the tradition, with a small shrine devoted to Shiva and Parbati, and traditional dancing and singing. However, in a break with tradition, western and Hindi music was also played – and a “dohori” was held. (As I had experienced a “dohori” in Nepal, I understood the concept of the ‘back and forth’ interplay of singing between men and women, even though I could not understand the exact meaning of the Nepali words.) In keeping with tradition, older Nepalese women appeared to value the symbolism of the Teej Festival for its true meaning. However, in contrast, younger Nepalese appeared to view it more as an opportunity for social interaction. However, there appeared to be ‘tacit agreement’ that traditional dances and devotional songs should be passed from generation to generation as older and younger women engaged, collectively, in the various musical interactions.
As an Australian woman, I felt it was important to honour the Teej Festival in a traditional way. I chose to adorn myself in my red ‘wedding sari’ because I understood the symbolism of red – and the importance of wearing wedding attire. The Teej Festival is named after a small red insect called ‘teej’ that emerges from the earth during the monsoon season. This season is believed to coincide with the time Shiva and Parbati were married. Therefore, the choice of red – and dressing like a newly-wed with glamorous saris, glass bangles and heavy ornaments – symbolically honours their divine union.
Although I have learned a lot about the Teej Festival from my ‘real life’ experience, I feel my understanding of it is incomplete – because I have not experienced the second day of fasting with a visit to a Shiva Temple or the third, and final, day of holy bathing and devotional prayers. To enrich my understanding, I hope my next visit to Nepal will coincide with Teej, so I can experience it in a country where the tradition is fully upheld. In turn, this will help me to appreciate the changing nature of the tradition here in Australia.
This article was first published in Pipalbot, Melbourne, Australia: www.pipalbot.com.au