Dasain is a time for Nepali families to get together. Kathmandu’s population drops by half as people head back to their home districts, and flights to and within Nepal are full during the festive season.
But two years of Covid made travel difficult, and since then high air fares have discouraged many from flying. Which is why virtual vermilion tika and Jamara barley shoots have become the norm.
Maya Moktan has not been able to celebrate the festival with her family in Sindhupalchok for eight years because she is a nurse in Dubai. She only gets a few weeks of leave which does not coincide with Dasain. But she has made the best of this by connecting with her family on video calls.
“I have now celebrated one too many Dasains virtually,” Moktan told us in a video chat from Dubai. “I miss my family even more during this time and call them every day.”
While still in Nepal, she and her family used to travel from Bhaktapur where they had settled to their hometown in Sindhupalchok district every Dasain. This annual ritual has now shifted to the mobile platform.
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“My dad pretends to put tika on me on the mobile camera and I act as if I received it on my forehead,” adds Moktan.
Badri Dhital is working in Japan and has not been home for five years. He could not make it this year either. The time difference with Nepal means most days he is often unable to catch his family online, but he made sure to mark the Dasain via a video call.
“Thank god for technology. This is the only thing that helps lessen the pain of separation,” the 27-year-old told us in a phone interview.
Virtual platforms have dramatically changed the way the Nepali diaspora marks Dasain. With more than 300,000 Nepalis leaving the country every year for work, study or to settle abroad, there is now an increasing trend of digital Dasain.
An estimated 5 million Nepalis are in India or overseas, which is nearly 15% of the population. This year, 1.5 million people left Kathmandu for their hometowns during Dasain, many could not find bus or airline tickets in time. And this year heavy rains disrupted festival travel.
Even for families living in Nepal, digital Dasain has become an option in case they cannot make it home. Many share Dasain photos on Facebook or social media platform group chats. As the number of TikTok users among Nepalis exceeds 50% and is catching up with Facebook, more and more Dasain videos are shared on that platform.
But while online platforms have made Dasain easy for families to spread far and wide, there are concerns that they are eroding the unique culture and heritage tied with the festival. For example, there has been a dramatic drop in traditional kite flying or playing in the swing during the festival week.
There are also fewer local Dasain carnivals which used to help in face-to-face social integration. But Nepalis do not have to wait Dasain anymore to take part in shopping — just about everything can be bought online, from food to clothes. What used to be carnivals are now Dasain schemes offered by brands and companies.
“As we embrace technology, we have stopped meeting relatives and celebrating festivals in their true spirit. Our children want to do even less of that,” says Dipesh Ghimire, a professor at Tribhuvan University, adding that the trend is now equally prevalent in rural areas.
He adds: “In fact, technology have made everything so accessible and cheap so that Dasain is no longer necessary for some people who are connected all the time with their relatives anyway.”
Dasain celebrations of the past represented the society of yesteryear. If it is celebrated the same way today, it cannot reflect the understanding of people today, their consciousness and the world at large, adds Ghimire.
Another culture expert Govind Tandon says digital platforms have made Dasain more accessible and significant without adding financial burden to families away from home.
Digital Dasain has also lessened the craze of dakshina, the cash token given to younger relatives, for whom the pocket money is an added attraction of the festival.
But even dakshina is going digital. Banks and digital wallets now offer schemes at Dasain. Last year, e-Sewa provided gifts worth Rs500 to 500 people who made transactions under their ‘Dasain Digital Dakshina Abhiyan’.
The campaign was so successful the developers extended it until Tihar and some 30,000 people used the platform amounting to transactions worth Rs70 million.
Says Ashish Gautam of E-Sewa: “Digital Dakshina has made Dasain technology-friendly while also reducing the burden of printing new notes.”
Now banks and digital micropayment platforms, as well as brothers and sisters, are gearing up for virtual Tihar which this year falls on 24-27 October.
Translated from the Nepali original published in Himalkhabar monthly magazine.