Across the districts of Far Western Nepal, towns are deserted and villages are abuzz with women engaged in weeklong fasting, feasting and revelry. This religious festival has deep agrarian roots, and celebrates the closes ties women have to the land and their crops.
Saraswati Bhatta is shaping an image of the Goddess Gaura from rice stalks and decorating it like a bride with a red dress and jewelry. The doll god is then treated like a woman visiting her maternal home for her family’s pampering.
Gaura is another name for Gauri, Shiva’s consort. Unlike Tij, which is marked on 14 September in the rest of Nepal, the Gaura Festival is more ritualistic with women soaking grains, fasting and then eating the sprouts. Unlike Tij, on the main day the men fast too until their wives’ puja ends.
But like Tij, Gaura is essentially a festival of, by and for women. Gaura songs are performed at predetermined times encapsulating the lifestyle and values of the entire community here in the remote mountains of western Nepal. The songs are about the courtship of Gaura and Maheswor (Siva and Parvati for easterners), a woman’s experience of childbirth, and many other social events.
The lyrics outline social customs like the dates of festivals, and behaviour expected from men and women. Some songs describe which food is found in what season, and even where to find water. The festival serves as an elaborate information and communication system set in song long before mass media served that purpose. The songs instill a knowledge of roles, values, and social mores, and help people feel rooted in the community.
The Gaura platform still gives women in a society steeped in patriarchy a rare chance to voice their perspective and provide valuable insight into women’s lives and thoughts. On the fourth day of the festival, women dance with the image of Gaura and send her off to her husband’s home, singing songs of bereavement.
However, the Gaura Festival, like Tij, while allowing women to let off steam hand serve an emancipating role, also establishes the gender status quo, instructing women them about their place in society.
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The festival is followed by popular mela, and people from all over the region congregate here in Malikarjun of Darchula situated amidst lush mountains above the clouds. Food stalls and shops line the site, damaha players strike drum beats rousing people with deeply devotional music. The strong feeling of community is enhanced by women in traditional clothes and jewelry who do slow walk-dances while singing in circles for hours.
“Both men and women sing songs of local histories and epic poems, and express their feelings spontaneously, this might seem like just entertainment, but it is also a way of preserving and passing down our history,” says Mohan Dhami, an expert of local culture.
Despite its continuing popularity, the significance of Gaura in communicating the spirit of community is losing out to modern lifestyles with mobility and mass communication. However, it still carries a strong sense of identity for the people of Western Nepal wherever they may live.
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