America has a heterogeneous society, with diverse cultures, people and traditions intertwined in a single strand. Our country respects and honors diversity, and holds freedom of religion as one of our highest values. People can practice, preserve and share their cultural uniqueness, or choose to blend in with the majority culture.
Since 2008, our small state has become more diversified by a surge of Hindu believers, people from Bhutan who endured grim religious, cultural and political repression. Hindus were forced to adhere to the majority Buddhist culture and religion: Hindu priests were even force-fed cows, which are sacred and considered gods to Hindus. Finally, they were ejected from Bhutan and forced to live as refugees for two decades.
Now these Hindu Bhutanese, in their new American homes, are able to preserve and practice their culture and religion without any restrictions. I want to share our beliefs and religious festivals with you, our new neighbors.
Dashain usually occurs in the month of September and October, starting from the bright lunar fortnight and concluding at the full moon. A complete 15-day holy service is offered to the goddess of power, Durga. The story of this festival is in the Ramayana, a Hindu’s Holy Scripture. In this book, Lord Ram was finally able to annihilate the devil Ravan only after he offered a Puja (holy service) to the goddess Durga. Basically, this is a celebration of victory of righteousness over immorality or simply good over evil.
At Dashain, elderly people bless their children and grandchildren, and parents their children, by putting a patch of red Tika on the forehead. Tika is a blend of red dye powder with yogurt, sugar and rice. Many times I was offered medical help by friends who thought I was bleeding when I was walking with Tika, a blessing. The blessing is divine, and it is widely believed that if received while wearing new clothing, the blessing may be realized. Therefore, both these festivals include a major shopping spree. The most common food served during Dashain is goat meat, except in some Hindu priests’ families.
Tihar or Diwali is also called the Festival of Lights. The main festival night concurs with the new moon night, the darkest night that falls between mid-October and mid-November. The festival begins with the cleaning up of house and yard, also embellishing the house with Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Tihar also denotes the triumph of light over darkness or knowledge over ignorance. The very night of Laxmi Puja, people offer rituals to Lord Laxmi. After the rituals, a Deusi Bhailo group (team-up to sing carols) visit homes in their neighborhood, collecting money, sweets and food, and in turn offer blessings. And the next day of Laxmi Puja is devoted to a sister-brother bond in which sisters perform fasting and put colorful Tika on their brothers and in return their brothers give them money and gifts.
These festivals are especially important for Hindu Bhutanese who have had to leave so much of the rest of their way of life behind. But Hindu holidays do not fit neatly into the Christian calendar, which generally governs the schedules of work and school. Some festivals occur over many days, and this can mean choosing between work and religious observance. We worry about our ability to continue our observances in a country that does not understand our beliefs.
We welcome all to learn more about our culture and to join us in our festivities. We are glad to be your neighbors.
(Suraj K. Budathoki, a former refugee from Bhutan who is now a U.S. citizen living in Manchester, is executive director of An International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan.)