Death and doughnuts

Monday 29/01/18: A few days ago, we were sitting outside watching some performers at a school open-day. A particularly awful singer was being inflicted on us (and apparently, he was a special guest that the school had brought in… on purpose!) until the music and microphone were abruptly (and mercifully) switched off. We all looked up in gratitude and noticed a group of men running down the hill, armed with what looked like pieces of wood, planks and tools. For the briefest of moments, I panicked. Then I saw the covered stretcher; someone had died.

Death in a Hindu country like Nepal means that the body has to be cremated as quickly as possible. Ritual ash markings and flower offerings are applied, rice is placed in their mouth, and a coin is folded in their hand before the body is moved from the house.

These unfortunate men were heading down to the river (or another sacred site) to burn their loved one’s body. This sobering realisation was lightened later when a group of our volunteers realised that they’d been speaking with the elderly lady and her family that very morning. She’d been brought out to the front of the house to sit in the sun with her family and loved ones, when our volunteers had come across them during their community visit. The volunteers’ pidgin Nepalese, oblivious smiles, and misplaced futile attempts to convince the family to join that day’s VSO activities hopefully brought some light relief to the lady’s last hours.

There is such a wide range of caste and religious traditions in this country that it can be difficult, even for our Nepalese volunteers, to understand what’s happening around us.

This morning, I learned about another part of the death rituals in Nepal as our household celebrated Sraddha.

Sraddha is a ritual to honour deceased relatives and provide peace for their departed soul. Today marks the first year’s anniversary (by star alignment rather than regular calendar) of grandfather’s mother’s death. Not as sad an occasion as you might expect, but they’ve been so busy getting everything ready that sadness isn’t really an option anyway.

The cooking started last night. For hours, Rachana and grandmother hunkered down by the outside fire making sel rotis.

These deep-fried treats are similar to doughnuts but skinnier, crispier and less sweet. The best thing about them is that they’re considered a failure if they’re fat and fluffy – enter the human dustbin… I endeavoured to eat as many of those fat fluffy failures as I could.

This morning, I’m lying on my bed with a bloated stomach, listening to the sound of people arriving in our house. I don’t want to interrupt as I’m not sure what the etiquette is so I’m grateful when Rachana texts asking if I want to join them. On the roof balcony, I find an empty stool near the action. Grandfather, with a freshly bald head shaved especially for today, is sitting cross-legged opposite another man, who I recognise as another priest we’ve previously spoken with.

This priest is currently reciting a rolling stream of Sanskrit while grandfather reacts, dropping oils and water at certain commands or holding his hand in specific positions as the holy text dictates. I wonder out loud at the speed of the recitation and a man beside me comments that the priest has another engagement later this morning. I have no idea if he’s joking or not but it’s always lovely to hear someone talking English so he’s just unwittingly marked himself as my translator for the next hour.

He explains that he is grandfather’s nephew and is here to honour his mom’s late mom. Sraddha is generally performed for the last three generations as anyone older than great-grandfather/mother is expected to have already found peace. From first glance, the set-up is similar to the blessing I witnessed as part of our little calf, Taari’s, naming ceremony; there are flowers, candles, incense wicks, and special dishes with unusual long spoons. Small brass pots of charcoal smoke away gently.

The nephew explains that there is a very specific set of rituals to honour the dead and as most Nepalese cannot read Sanskrit, the visiting priest (Brahmanaas) reads out the sacred scripture, giving the grieving son/grandson/great-grandson instruction. There is a lot going on so it’s easy to see why a guide is required. The floor in between the two men is filled with grass twig offerings and little tapari bowls made from dried-out saal leaves, stitched together with small bamboo sticks. Many of the bowls are filled with money and food blessings to appease the ancestral spirits; bananas, cauliflower, orange, rice, milk, and my favourite sel rotis. We’re not allowed breakfast until later so everything looks very tempting. Grandmother kneels down and squishes up a banana before mashing it with something that looks like coarse flour to make a ball and then adds it carefully to the pile of offerings.

She then adds soil from their holy basil tree (tulsi) to a tapari bowl before laying that down too.

Despite the sanctity of the proceedings, it’s a joyous affair that apparently doesn’t call for silence. Relatives sit and blether, paying little attention to what’s going on.

I get pointers from the nephew who explains as grandfather sprinkles water from his fingertips and wafts smoke clockwise then anticlockwise over each dish. Suddenly, the priest pauses in his chanting making everyone look around expectantly. Grandmother eventually toddles back in with a length of cotton stretched between her fingers. The priest then continues as grandfather carefully lies the thread between a banana and a plate filled with a rice ball and other offerings. I wish I understood more!

Finally, when all of the offerings have been made, Grandfather massages the priest’s bare feet with oil, bows his forehead and the ceremony is over.

The priest’s role now finished, he picks through all of the offerings and empties the goodies rather unceremoniously into a blue plastic bag that he’ll take away with him.

Grandfather gives us each a blessing tika, but yellow rather than the normal red: nephew explains that red is only used to worship gods and goddesses. I’m handed 101 rupees and a spoon is thrust at me. I’m not quite sure what I’m to do: am I supposed to eat directly from the spoon? Is it even food? Eventually my confusion is understood and they mime that he’ll tip it on to my palm and I should then lick it off. Apparently, it’s called panchamrit and is a mix of milk, honey, yogurt, sugar and ghee which is consumed at the end of worship. It’s actually nicer than it sounds.

Somewhat surreally, the priest then sings “wash, wash, wash your hands” at me to the tune of “row, row, row your boat” and pours a little jug of water over my hands. It feels a bit strange to have enjoyed a death ritual so much but I think it reflects well on this happy family and their ancestors.

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