Intro: The mythical roots of Teohar run deep, and before the profligacy of the current times make it impossible for us to trace them back, Dr. HARKA BAHADUR CHETTRI takes us on a journey of discovery. This is the story of Teohar...
Sagar, the King of the Ocean, had two daughters. The elder, who symbolised progress and prosperity, was named Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth; the younger, Alaxmi, or Dhumawati, stood for despair and destruction. Both wanted to rule the world and Sagar had a crisis at hand which offered no easy solutions. Finally, Sagar worked out a compromise, he temporarily divided the world into two unequal halves – the first half comprised of four months which begin towards the middle of June and ends sometime in October. This period is considered ‘bad’ because it not only brings disasters like landslides and floods, but also a host of lethal diseases. The land suffers the onslaught of rains and actually loses its brightness. Against such a dull backdrop, Goddess Laxmi takes charge of the affairs of the planet from her less virtuous sister, Dhumawati, sometime in October. Lights are lit all over to celebrate this exchange of power and welcome the Goddess of Prosperity.
India and Nepal are two countries where Teohar/ Deepawali is a major occasion. Spread over five days, the festival is also known as ‘Yamapanchak’. A festival common to Hindus, no doubt, the manner in which the Nepali community observes it, has however something unique about it which separates it from the manner in which Hindus elsewhere celebrate the festival.
The first day is observed as the Festival of the Crow. Called ‘Kak Teohar’, it is followed by ‘Kukkur Teohar’, the Festival of the Dog, and ends on the fifth day with Bhai Teohar or Bhai Tika. According to Devi Bhagwat Puran, the Hindu holy book about Goddesses, the Crow is the messenger of the God of Death, Yama.
Taking a minor digression, the Devi-Bhagwat Puran, which translates as “the Old Book of the Goddess”, is one of the most important work in Shaktism, the veneration in Hinduism of the divine feminine. It is one of the Puranic works that are not necessarily authoritative for all Hindus, but that have special importance for the Shakti sect within Hinduism. The text describes the Devi, the Goddess, as the foundation of the world and as identical with Brahman, the Supreme Being. The Devi-Bhagwat Puran also deals with topics like spiritual knowledge, social and personal ethics, and holy places.
It is a popular belief among the Nepalese that the crow always carries messages, hence no one should throw stones, shoo it away or try to kill the bird if it is heard cawing in the vicinity. Modern interpretations of the practise look at the bird from a more utilitarian point of view. The crow is nature’s scavenger which removes the dead and decaying organisms, thereby minimising the possibility of the spread of epidemics. It also guards the crops by preying on rats and insects which are major pests for crops. So, Kak Teohar is a means used by humans to express their gratitude towards this bird.
The same is true of Kukkur Teohar. The dog is among the most faithful animals. There is also an incident in the Mahabharata where Yudhistra, still alive, begins his journey for heaven. The only company he has on this journey is a dog who later turns out to be none other than Yama himself.
The cow is worshipped on the third day on Gai Teohar. Leftovers of the special food prepared for the cow are later taken as Prasad. Nobody eats anything before this Prasad on the day. The worship of the cow leads us to an insight that the practise is a result of agricultural civilisation when the cow was the most valued of all animals. On this day, the cow is worshipped in the morning (again, an aspect unique to the Nepalese in how the festival is celebrated) and Goddess Laxmi propitiated later the same evening with the decoration of lights and bursting of firecrackers.
The fourth day, Goru Teohar, sees the ox being worshipped. The importance of Goru Teohar is not only due to the fact that the animal is used to till the fields, but also because it helps continue and multiply the generation of cows. Goru Teohar is also known as Govardhan Puja or Halli Teohar.
The fifth and final day of Teohar is Bhai Teohar or Bhai Tika.
There are still more myths associated with different aspects of this festival and although all of them will not be possible to be included in this essay, we delve into some of them here.
The practise of singing Deosi and Bhailey when groups of boys and men [Deosi] and girls and women [Bhailo] move around the locality, singing songs from door to door, is traced back to the western Khasland of Nepal. The practise apparently developed and spread to various parts of Nepal from Khas, albeit with some alterations and adaptations, and thence onwards to wherever the Nepalese settled.
In the Karnali region of northwestern Nepal, for example, the festival’s Bhailo singing has two divisions – Sani Bhailey and Thuli Bhailey. Sani Bhailey is celebrated during the full moon of December during Mangshir Purnima. Fifteen days later, i.e. from the New Moon till five days, Thuli Bhailey is observed. The fifth day of Thuli Bhailey is also called Chhada Bhailey since it is played by young boys and girls as a single group.
The Khas society, among whom the practise is believed to have originated, also celebrates Deepawali as the festival of Gender Worship. A long bamboo pole is fixed near a Tulsi plant and the top of the Bamboo Pole carries a burning candle. Such lights are popularly known as Aakashdeep. Tulsi is a sacred plant and believed to be an incarnate form of Vishnu who had taken the form of a Tulsi to oblige a certain Sati. This worship is also known among the Nepalese as Linga Puja, the phallic worship. Shiva Linga is also worshipped throughout the Khas province.
The singing of Bhailey on Laxmi Puja and Deosi on the following two days is also traced back to the mythical Kirat king Balihang, who is also described in various Hindu scriptures as Asura Raja, the king of demons. Balihang was famous for his generosity and legends narrate that when this Kirati king became immensely popular and powerful, Indra, the King of Gods, began feeling insecure. His insecurity growing with Balihang’s increasing influence, the terrified Indra turned towards Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu, after a patient hearing, worked out a plan to save Indra’s pride and throne. Disguised as a poor Brahmin, he went to the pious king and asked for some alms. The Kirati king was prepared to give anything, but the disguised Vishnu asked for land that he could cover in three steps. Once Balihang agreed, Lord Vishnu regained his original form and within no time, the pygmy figure of the Brahmin grew to such a size that his head disappeared behind the clouds. In a single stride, he covered the whole earth and with his second, heaven. With no where left to place his third step, the virtuous king placed his head in front of the mighty Brahmin and said: “Lord, let your third step be on my head.” Thus, Balihang was pushed into the ground. Lord Vishnu, however, promised to guard the King till he remained buried. This is the reason why performing any kind of religious rites is forbidden between July-August because all the Gods are believed to be underground guarding Balihang and there is no one in heaven to receive the offerings made by the pious. Though the modern Deorsi and Bhailo singing carries hardly anything of this story, it is believed that they were mythically devised to spread this story as far and wide as possible.
The other version of the genesis of Deosi and Bhailo is also related to same Kirat king. It is believed that he fell grievously ill once and showing no signs of recovering. The God of Death, Yama, started sending messages of his impending death in the form of dogs and crows, but Balihang’s sister, who was guarding him, sent back the messengers with word that Yama could take her brother after he fulfilled certain conditions. Yama was told to wait till Panchami, i.e. Bhai Tika. He could take Balihang away only after the colour of the Tika had faded away, or the water she sprinkled around her brother, dried, or the flowers with which she had prepared the garland, wilted. She was only buying time and Yama was confident that the few extra days she had negotiated would not lead to anything miraculous. He granted her wish. Balihang’s sister was, however, mush more ingenious than Yama had given her credit for. She carefully chose the ingredients of the Tika to make sure that it did not fade. She applied a Tika of rice grains, which she knew would not lose their colour in a hurry, giving her brother enough time to recover from his illness and thwart death. The next day, she mixed oil in the water she sprinkled around him to keep it from drying, and on the third day, she stringed a garland made of Makhamali, a flower of the aster family, whose fibrous and robust petals do not wilt for years.
In the meanwhile, Yama’s messengers kept close watch on the developments so that he could be intimated the moment any of the conditions imposed by Balihang’s sister were met and he could arrive and take away Balihang. However, none of the conditions were met and soon Balihang began to recover and when he had fully recuperated, thereby providing no opportunity for death to visit, his sister sent the same messengers across the kingdom to announce Balihang’s recovery. Deosi and Bhailo, which still celebrate Balihang in their lyrics, are believed to be these messages.
Nowadays, however, very few people are aware of the actual story behind the tradition which has changed beyond recognition. Makhamali has been replaced by Saipatri which has of late even given way to artificial flowers made of plastic and paper. Obviously then, very few sisters still string the garlands themselves. The rice tika has been replaced by brightly coloured chemicals. The purity of feeling between brothers and sisters that manifested once, has degenerated to cheap fashion devoid of the essence of tradition that helps build a community.
Of late, there have even been concerted moves to disassociate Teohar from its Kirati ethos. This, most believe, stems from a certain section’s commitment to do away with anything Aryan, which, for them, carries with it implicit connotations of “developed” which could go against the much sought after tribal status. Such considerations are ironic because the whole concept of Teohar draws its roots, among the Nepalese, from the life of a Kirat king.
[This article was first published in the Weekend Review, Oct 27-02 Nov 2000, Vol 2 No 15]