I awoke on my first Friday morning in Baglung to find nobody home. It was the day before a family wedding, which consisted of the public announcement and celebration and the arrival of extended relatives. Unbeknownst to me, the celebration began around ten. After few confused phone calls, a quick change of cloths and a twenty-minute walk into town, my host dad managed to find and walk me to the festivities at his brother’s house. A handful of Nepali women rummaged about the kitchen, pausing for just a moment to ask my name and if I’d eaten before continuing to prepare heaps of food. After a hearty serving of the usual daal, bhaat, tarkari and achaar (lentil soup, rice, curried veggies and cold, spiced radish-salad) and a steaming glass of milk tea, they ushered me back outside to sit down. Two banana trees framed the front door of the house with their buds crossed over the head beam. Streamers of shiny flags and a thin canvas canopy spanned the street, sheltering a wide carpet in front of the door. This scene visibly announced the marriage to the community. And then – three women sat on the carpet and started drumming and singing a Nepali folk song in seemingly never-ending loops – audibly announcing the wedding as well. A good sport, I sat down beside them and began humming along. They called out to each passer-by to join in. Many smiled while continuing on their way, but a good few actually stopped and sat down to sing along. Over the course of three hours – yes, three hours of sitting on a carpet in the middle of the street, singing the same two folk songs in endless loops – our group of three women grew to fifty people. Yes. Fifty. Plus children. Entry to the street party was simple: the starters commanded newbies to dance.
Then a couple ladies laden with trays and giant thermoses emerged from the house. It was time to enjoy the fruits of their labor: each guest was handed a plate of kajaa, consisting of a hard, round roti, beaten rice and more achaar. Everyone was also given a ceremonial tika, a paste of red powder and rice applied in a dollop on your forehead, and of course – more tea! Snack complete, the women began singing again, which I took as my cue to escape home.
The next morning a couple relatives bombarded my room earlier than I was comfortable, hurriedly dressed me in a borrowed red sari and ushered me out the door. Such was the beginning of a drawn-out, hurry-up-and-wait sort of day. I arrived back at my host-uncles just to find a dozen Nepali women sari-ing themselves and applying ungodly amounts of eyeliner, which they also managed to attack me with. Once everyone was finished, we returned outside to send off the bride and groom in a streamer-laden car – yes, much like our tradition, only a lot more colorful and for taking the couple TO the temple rather than away. The rest of us crammed in a mini van with a vast assortment of goodie-filled trays balanced on knees and children’s heads. We were headed for the Kaliko Mondir, the largest and most important Hindu temple in the region. Apparently thousands of Nepali pilgrims travel to this temple each year during the fall Dashai festival (we’ll see what happens next october!). The mini van dropped us off on the main road, but the temple itself was nestled in the forest about a half mile beyond. Eager to check things out, I abandoned the group (which waited for the bride and groom to show up) and followed the broad path under the trees toward the temple.
A mingled clanging preceded sight of the temple, coming from a long row of bells stretching 100 feet before it’s facade. The devout stop to ring each one as they leave (Hindu’s chime bells at the end of their worship) and repeatedly touch their ring finger between their head and their heart after each. The temple itself is a triple tiered, pagoda style structure, with brightly colored fabric adorning each roof line and a large, wrap around porch. The place was an absolute zoo that day. Apparently 7 other couples were also consummating their marriage that day. Well-dressed Nepalis sat and stood along the perimeter, talking and waiting; troupes of musicians blew their long, brass horns and beat on drums; young men hopped, squatted, and waved their hands in dance; a handful of goats were lead around on leashes, with red tika powder on their foreheads and marigold on their necks or back; a couple dozen decapitated goat carcasses swung between pairs of men who carried them away; a long line of people ran out the temple and wrapped around its “porch” as individuals waited their turn to worship at the shrine inside; as they waited, many lit wicks in one of the hundred oil dishes along the railing.
When our bride and groom arrived, the photography began. Absolutely everybody needed a shot with every conceivable combination of wedding guests and the couple. A few video cameras were even going; to what end, I’m not sure (they recorded everyone assembling and re-assembling for photographs). After our goat was sacrificed, his head added to a bloody shelf with others, the groom’s mother gave tika to the bride and groom. For the bride, this meant a heaping handful of red powder was dumped along the part in her hair, from her temple all along the top of her head – the location reserved for married women. The groom’s mother then gave tika to each of the wedding guests. This moment is akin to the ring exchange in western weddings – it’s the symbol of completion. The couple was officially married at that moment. (Tangent: this made me wonder whether or not there is a legal system for marriage in this country. Do they require a marriage license as we do? If so, what does it affect?)
The bride carried a handkerchief, which she used to wipe her tears throughout the day. Marriage still bears a lot of old-fashioned traditions in Nepal. They are arranged by the parents, families pay a dowry, and the bride leaves her childhood home to live with her new husband’s family – frequently in a different town across the country. The bride’s family wasn’t present for the ceremony I witnessed; it was held in the groom’s town and house. Once settled in, she will cook and clean for her new family. You thought YOU were worried about YOUR in-laws liking you? Try moving in and cleaning for them…
Tika complete, we all marched back to the mini-van and a banquet hall back in town. Similar to western receptions, food was served, music played and some colored lights danced around. Dissimilar to our receptions, there was no clear start or end to anything; chairs were set in rows and people got up for food at will. When the bride and groom arrived, they sat on a small stage with the groom’s parents, and guests took turns bringing them gifts (it looked like a whole lot of fabric for new cloths mostly).
My extended host-family literally celebrated the gain of a family member that day. We always say this rhetorically (and mean it too) in western weddings, but in this culture, it’s about as literal as it comes. As I wrote above, the bride leaves her family behind and moves in with her husband’s. This is one (among many) reason why the average Nepali family spends far less money educating a daughter than a son: why invest in a family member who will ultimately leave? This opens up one of many broader conversations that I’ll save for another post. Until then, keep this as a cliff note for the next time you find yourself invited to a Nepali wedding. ;)