My Big, Fat, Nepali Birthday Celebration

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July 11th 2008
Published: July 12th 2008
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Okay, so it wasn’t MY birthday, it was my host mom’s grandma’s birthday. And it wasn’t her birthday, it was the day she turned 77 years, 7 months, and 7 hours.

Anyway, this very important day full of 7s is the first janko (old age ceremony) celebrated by the Newaris (an ethnic group). The other jankos occur at 84 years and 99 years. It’s a huge deal, actually, because not many people live long enough to reach this milestone.

A Newari birthday party doesn’t have a big cake, balloons, or presents. Instead, all the female relatives (and volunteers staying with relatives) get dressed up in traditional outfits, the men can wear whatever they want as long as they don a traditional cap, and then everyone tromps around the hometown of the old person, making sure to hit all the important temples along the way. There’s also a band, complete with drums, cymbals, and flutes, platters full of rice and tika powder, and the grandma is carried around in a seat covered in all sorts of colorful decorations. The women walk two-by-two, occasional toss some rice (two grains at a time), and try not to melt in their saris.

Before today, my host dad, warned us that “the Newari saris are not sexy,” and that was not a lie. First you have to wear a petticoat, or in Esther and Rieko’s case, rolled up jeans. Then you put on your sari, but it’s often a two-person job (or in our case, three-person ordeal). I stood there with my arms up while Aaji and some other family member wrapped me in the thick, black, pleated skirt, plaid wrapper, and red sash. And that was only the bottom half! On top, I had a traditional red blouse, which wraps across the front and has about a zillion ties on it. THEN, I had to be tied into my cream scarf, which winds around your waist, chest, and shoulders. All in all, you have about twenty pounds of fabric, which adds about twelve inches to your waist. Apparently, appearing to have a thin waist is not all that important in the Newari culture. We all looked like sumo wrestlers because all the fabric was wrapped around our mid-section.

The walk around Patan, a big city just outside of Kathmandu, was actually a lot of fun. The monsoon held off long enough so that we remained dry, and it was only hot, not scorching. The music attracted a lot of attention, and people flocked to windows and doorways to watch the procession. Everyone got a kick out of the crazy white girl throwing rice, and people kept laughing and pointing at me as we went by. There were actually quite a few tourists snapping photos of us, too.

Afterwards, we changed into normal clothes, even though we were still covered in tika powder and various necklaces. Dinner was…an experience. It kind of reminded me of the Nepali version of that Medieval Times restaurant. We sat cross-legged and barefoot on straw mats in long rows inside a huge room on the second floor of what looked like an abandoned warehouse. Each row had about 45 people, so nearly 200 people in the room sat expectantly in front of banana leaf plates (the Nepali version of paper plates). People walked up and down the rows with huge pots of food and ladled some onto each plate. I ended up with a plate full of water buffalo, chicken, beaten rice, two types of achar (spicy raw vegetables), two types of beans, radishes and mushrooms…all of which I had to eat with my hands! I had small bowls that looked like terracotta (they were actually made of mud, and also disposable), one filled with some very strong liquor made from rice and the other had two types of soup and curd at various times. Finally, we were served cucumbers and carrots, and they sprinkled some sugar on our curd, which is apparently the signal for us to get out. It turns out that the entire community is invited to this feast, and they feed us in shifts. We were merely shift #2 out of ten or more.

On our way out the door, we stopped to pay our respects to Rupa’s grandmother. People were giving her hard-boiled eggs, bananas, apples, cloth, flowers, tika powder, and coins. They all signify different things, but most of them mean something all the lines of good luck and long life. There were also four small children involved in the ceremony today who were getting lots of eggs and pieces of fruit, as well as wrapped gifts containing toys. I’m not quire sure of all the details, but the Newaris celebrate several symbolic marriages (to fruit and bells and small children of the opposite sex, apparently) as children before they actually tie the knot as young adults. These children were going through various marriages today, so they had on elaborate dresses and traditional outfits.

It was a completely exhausting day, but I would definitely be up for another hike through temples wearing a ridiculous outfit. I got to see all the temples recommended by my Lonely Planet guide, and I didn’t have to pay a single entrance fee! Plus, I get to keep my red Newari blouse, though I’m not sure I’ll ever wear it again. Without the skirt to go along with it, I’d look like a midriff-baring Chinese cowgirl…

Additional photos below
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12th July 2008

I see no problem looking like a midriff-baring Chinese cowgirl.
16th July 2008

I found your blog yesterday and read through all your entries! It's great to see that you went to Phalebas!! Reading about your experiences and seeing the photos makes me miss Nepal even more: I liked it there a lot and want to go back. I should have made it at least two months instead of one. Anyway, things are mixed in Zambia but overall I'm learning and observing interesting things. I plan on adding a new entry to the NGO blog soon, it's at John
17th July 2008

Looked like you had a good time with the celebration. Who fed all those people? Love you!
29th May 2010

Hi, I really like the place,culture,dresses,cute girls,songs and all Thanks
5th December 2010

Great Experience
You Girls got a great experience in my hometown! You all look good!

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