Here is what the image shows: her face turned towards the sky, her mouth open, catching a fountain of thwon (rice wine), flowing down Hatu Dyaa’s mouth, straight into hers.
Her eyes are shut, like they were caging inside them a perfect moment of desire. It is an image from a day at the Indra Jatra week, now, popularly known as a women-only night at the festival.
“How was it?” I ask her.
“It was exhilarating!” she texts back.
In 2017, the Yenya or Indra Jatra committee set aside a day for women to drink from Hatu Dyaa (Swet Bhairab) an activity which in the past had not been segregated by gender, and was therefore accessible mostly to men.
“It gets quite rowdy,” my friend says. And explains she had gone prepared with a “quick dry tee and shoes and all”. She says she would love to do it again and I assure her I would join her.
Growing up in Naradevi Tole, tucked away in old Kathmandu, Yenya was the focal point of the year for me, and not any other festival. In the evenings, the family would set out for a walk through the festivities.
One time, my काका raised me through a crowd of men, taking me all the way to where the wine was trickling down the mouth of Swet Bhairav. I carry a faint memory of being scooped up from the ground and being flung under the massive face of the deity as some wine spray hit me.
As a grown-up, however, I have only experienced the ceremony from a distance. I got on a call this week with some girlfriends who had attended the event in 2019, and felt an excitement rise in my belly, looking at images of them jostling to get under the wine tap.
“I definitely want to do it again,” Anbika Giri laughed. “It was hard to push others and go all the way to the wine pipe, but I still managed. It splashed over my face, body, mouth, my hair. But I also came away with a sense of achievement.”
Bhawana Gurung, who was alongside Anbika that evening, did not exactly get to drink, but was definitely showered on as she got shoved around in the crowd: “I came home smelling like thwon.”
Anbika recalls how everyone around her looked overwhelmed by the experience, despite clothes and hair that had become soaked in rice wine. She calls the experience a way of exercising your will. She calls it a symbol.
“I saw it as a way of choosing. To push your way through the crowd and then to compete to drink — not everyone gets to do it. But the thing is, you’re not being hindered. You’re making a choice to experience it,” says Anbika. “Fun events for Nepali women are limited. We’re told that enjoyment is not right. We internalise it. So this activity is a symbol to reverse that. Even if it was water instead of wine, people would still go. It is about claiming space.”
Coming from a Janjati community, Bhawana has experienced more “freedom” than her friends from other communities. “I think it’s a privilege that we don’t have to observe seclusion when we’re on our periods. I’ve also had freedom of mobility. But my mother would still bar me from drinking alcohol, which means that even within our community, my freedom is inferior to that of a man. So, the event for me was not so much about drinking, as much as it was about participating at free-will.”
Bhawana’s main take away: “We have festivals where women aren’t allowed to go to temples or attend certain festivals. If this festival can be inclusive, so can the others.”