At a time when Halloween is at our doorstep, it is possible you might have seen some of your neighbors walking in your neighborhood with what appears to be a bruise on the forehead, if you see it from a distance. In reality, those are Hindus from the Himalayas, one of the newest communities to resettle in the United States, observing Dasara.
Receiving “teeka” is a blessing given by our elders. It is made from rice colored with red powder and marked on their foreheads, along with paddy seedlings tucked behind our ears. It means that Nepalis all over the world are celebrating their annual festival called Dasara.
October 8, 2019 marks the first day of Dasara, the annual Hindu festival of meeting and greeting families. For Nepalis, Dasara is also known as Vijayadashami and marks the culmination of nine days of Durga Puja, celebrating the Goddess Durga’s triumph over evil, after she slew the demon Mahishasura. On Dasara, statues of Durga riding on a lion are brought to different temples and communities for worship. Many Hindus also believe that Dasara marks the conquest of the Hindu Rama over demon king Ravana, who kidnapped Lord Rama’s wife Sita.
Dasara is one of the major festivals celebrated in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and some states in India. Millions of Hindu Nepalis also celebrate Dasara in their new home country, like my family does in the United States.
According to Pew Research, there are 2.3 million Hindus in the United States who will be seen with their colorful attire and ‘teeka’– visiting each other to celebrate the festival. The youngsters visit the elders in their family and distant relatives often travel to receive blessings from their elders.
My earliest memory of celebrating Dasara goes back to the refugee camp in Nepal in the late 90s when I was a child. I would walk miles with flip-flops following my parents, visiting family members and relatives inside and outside the camps.
During the festival, I would eat basmati rice, goat meat and other delicious meals. But eventually my family couldn’t afford to maintain the holiday traditions, due to poverty and deprivation. We lived on our daily food ration provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the hope to eat another delicious meal in the next Dasara.
Fortunately, here in the United States, I no longer have to wait for Dasara to get new clothes and have a full dinner plate. I recently went to the local mall to get some new clothes for myself and my family to celebrate Dasara!
To me, Dasara is not all about receiving or giving away money; it’s all about finding myself within my upbringing and cultural heritage. I delight in embracing it and teaching our traditions to my U.S.-born daughter.
As much I worry my daughter may not continue our cultural traditions as she grows up, it is my responsibility as a New American to make sure I teach her to define what it means to be a Hindu American in our nation today.
Bhuwan Gautam, a former refugee from Bhutan, is a Define American Ambassador and the senior advisor to the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts–Springfield, a Massachusetts-based community organization that responds to the social, cultural and educational needs of the resettled Bhutanese. He holds MPA from Westfield State University. Read more about his story.