While I was in Bhomechowk, I was able to witness a memorial service for a uncle who had recently passed away. For this culture, a program is held forty five days after the person died (or any number of days as long as it is an odd number). It is a five day program, which serves to appease the spirit of the loved one so that they can pass on.
Day one, a Friday, people started to come into town. Visitors showed up with small bags in hired jeeps or walked in from neighboring villages. At least one member from each family member unit must be in attendance at these occasions, which makes for a lot of guests! They came from all over Nepal. Our home and the surrounding ones filled with people young and old. Groups of older women with beautiful weathered faces and colorful shawls gathered in our home to drink tea. Elderly men sat on the porch drinking millet wine.
Day two was a Saturday. The program was happening next door to us, just up the hill. Women gathered and a large tent was being set up. People were eating food and sitting around chatting. Girls came in with large back baskets full of rhododendron blooms. I learned that these were going to be used to make garlands to decorate the house and the shrine. I headed down to my house after tea when there wasn’t anything for me to help with.
Later, I was glad that I did. A few women arrived who had not been able to come right after the death, and now they were mourning. Their loud wails could be heard echoing through the village, as is traditional. It was a good reminder that this was a sad occasion; as an outsider it could easily be mistaken as a family reunion. Still more people were arriving as the day progressed.
Sunday, day three, still more people came. School is on Sundays in Nepal, so Om and I worked all day. During the evening you could clearly hear the monks chanting with occasional fanfare from alien sounding wind instruments. Drums punctuated the prayers and every once in awhile all of the instruments and chanting would crescendo and suddenly drop off, before beginning again.
I was invited by Om to see what was happening so I went up with the intention of sneaking in the back and watching for a little while. This almost worked as planned, except that my entrance was loudly announced by a drunk uncle! I’m not sure what he said, but it was definitely with amusement. I was welcome, but I wasn’t unnoticed! From my vantage point I could see a line of monks sitting at a low table. Butter lamps burned among them and in front of an altar (though I couldn’t see the alter because of my position). The rhododendron garland crisscrossed overhead.
The monks had narrow books in front of them, from which they chanted their mantras. They would flip pages with in one hand while using the other to ring bells or tap drums with the beat of the mantras. I stayed for a little while, until, after a mighty crescendo, a few monks got up and started prostrating themselves over and over in front of the altar. Then they appeared to be taking a break so I snuck out to go to bed.The chanting and instrumentals soon started up again and went late into the night.
Monday, day four, was the start of the dancing. Om and I went to school and on our way there they were already dancing. On a wide terrace outside of the house, a circle of men dressed in traditional white tunic-like garb gathered. They played long narrow drums that hung sideways and sang and danced. This dance was to appease the spirit of the loved one. Lawn chairs were set up for spectators on a terrace right above the one with the dancers.
When I returned home from school they were still dancing. More people were gathered now, watching from terraces above and below. Some women had joined the dance too. I learned that the dances and the songs that they were singing told stories about the gods.
The dancing continued as the sun went down. The final dance was a long one and consisted of half of the man gathered on one side of the terrace with the long slender sticks waving in the air (this was to ‘shoo’ the spirit on). The other half had the drums and were facing each other, beating intensely and undulating back and forth. After a mighty crescendo and shout, everything fell silent. This portion of dancing was done.
While this was happening, fires covered with giant pots and stirred with paddles rolled out copious amounts of fried roti and enough dalbaht to feed everyone. With full stomachs, people migrated back into the tent, where the monks again began their prayers from the night before while everyone else looked on and prayed in their own fashion. This too went late into the night. I went to bed, but I learned that it would go until close to midnight. Then, they would take a symbolic pole and throw it in the river, marking the end.
Tuesday, day five, still had activities. I learned that after such a sad occasion they now would have activities to make people happy. The women would have a dance and a great feast would be held. I went to teach at school, but Om stayed back to help with preparations. When school was done for the day, I climbed up a terrace to check out what was going on, as I figured that entering in through the main way would be blocked by people and dancing. I found Om almost immediately, and he directed me towards the dance.
Inside the tent women sat crosslegged very close together so everyone would fit. Three women were up in front dancing in slow circles while someone played a drum and everyone sang and clapped. They wore their traditional shawls on their heads and people would hand them money, which they would then tuck in the shawls, fanning out around their faces. This money would go into the community coffers for projects and celebrations.
Naturally, as I am a giant white American, I can’t sneak in the back without being noticed. I figured I’d end up dancing if I went in there, but I thought I would have more than three minutes to study how to do it. No such luck.
When the dance ended the sea of faces turned in my direction, and before I knew it I was up in front. From underneath all of the shawls smartphones popped up in the hands of the women. Huge smiles and laughter were had by all of us as I tried to copy the two women who were up there with me. I ended up dancing for three long songs before finally I got to sit down. Now, however, I was no longer that weird stranger in the back. I was handed a cup of tea and welcomed into the grinning spectators as a part of the community. I also decided that, because so many videos were taken of me, I could take some as well!
The dancing continued on and on. More women joined the crowd, until your knees were locked together with your neighbor’s. The women were young and old, all squeezed together into a happy throng. Babies would be passed from mother to grandmother to aunt. A few men sat around the edges, and one old man danced along with the women with exaggerated, comical dance moves.
Eventually Om pulled me out, probably to make sure that I ate. It was just in time because my legs were cramping up from being sitting crosslegged for so long without being able to move. The food was still dalbaht, but this time with spiced rice and a bunch of different curries. It was so good!
After dinner I went back with the women, who were still dancing. Now even more had joined the crush. I tried to sneak into the back, but I was seen and ended up in front dancing again (some of the women had missed it the first time). Again the laughter and smartphone documentation – somewhere out there I’m sure there is epic footage of my version of Nepali dancing! This time it was also hard to escape back to the crowd, as a nearly bald, tiny old grandma kept shooing me back up there. Who can say no to that?
Finally a spectator again, I watched for awhile, until my legs were cramping. I made my exit to see what was happening outside the tent. Here I found people sitting around drinking whiskey and homemade millet wine. As there were a few women out there too I figured it was fine if I sit with them around the fire. After asking my preference I was handed a slightly warm glass of millet wine, as that is the proper way to drink it. It was nice to sit in a chair and enjoy a fire. If not for slightly sweet but otherwise unremarkable beverage in my hand and that the conversation was in Gurung instead of Minnesotan, I could have been back home.
Someone had set up a speaker, and the children danced to their favorite tunes down on the terrace where the dancing had been happening earlier. Eventually things became quiet. I learned that it was time to go back into the tent, for more dancing. This time it was the children’s dance, and they were raising money for a community picnic.
The speaker had been set up inside and would alternate between traditional and pop songs, and people would hand them money. One of the little boys’ favorites came on and the dance floor came alive with writhing little bodies. When the energy of the song would build up too much, it would manifest itself in 6 year old flips and cartwheels. Everyone was laughing so hard at the joy of these little people that I am sure I was not alone in the tears that welled up in my eyes!
Eventually, a lone young woman came and danced with such beauty and energy that more than a few men came up and ‘made it rain’ with rupees over and around her. The little ones scuttled out quickly like little crabs, collecting the money to put in the pot as she continued her awesome dance.
I decided that this would be a good one to end on as it was getting late and they showed no sign of slowing down. With school and so much excitement over the last five days, I was exhausted. From my bed I heard the music continue until around midnight. I figured my students would be just as tired as I would be the next day!
Wednesday the clean-up began and guests started departing. Slowly the village quieted down, as goodbye meals of dalbaht and cups of tea were drank to send off the loved ones. The final guests departed on Friday, after a full week. What a way to commemorate a life well lived! I feel so honored that I got to be included.