There we sat, my roommate Chimi and I, with our foreheads decorated in bright paint, our hands and hair full of Marigold pieces and white rice. As I opened my eyes, the smiles of the twelve people crowded around the bedroom greeted me. ‘How did I get so lucky as to be here?’ I wondered to myself.
Diwali is a Southern Bhutanese custom adopted from Nepal and parts of India. It is a celebration that spans several days and is held in honor of Lord Rama’s return to his palace and after defeating a demon dragon in an epic battle (it may be noted here that the God this festival is attributed to changes depending on whom one asks). Bhutanese and Nepali alike celebrate with dancing, singing, firecrackers and ceremonies, yet I had no idea about any of this when our roommate Hema invited Chimi and I to her family’s celebration of Diwali in Thimphu.
As we walked up the stairwell to Hema’s uncle’s home we were greeted with bright garlands and strings of electric lights around his doorway. The sitting room just inside looked much the same. Garlands hung from the ceiling, bright lights decorated the walls and Hema’s aunts and little female cousins were swathed in beautiful saris, each in a different color. Every member of the family bore bright paints upon their foreheads and kind smiles on their lips. Ushering us to sit, her family greeted us with ‘Namaste,’ served Chimi and I sweet tea and asked about our homes. When we had finished our mugs, Hema smiled her sweet smile and brought forth garland necklaces made of real Marigolds which had been strung together with white string. To my delight, the shocks of orange and green were placed around our necks and Chimi and I were taken by the hand down a small hallway to the master bedroom. The jolly chanting and musical accompaniment I had subconsciously registered since I’d entered the apartment was emanating from a computer screen inside the bedroom. A video of traditionally-dressed Nepali dancers covered in Marigolds were singing praises to Lord Rama and Diwali. Chimi and I were motioned to sit upon a woven rug in the center of the floor while Hema’s extended family crowded noisily upon the bed, the dresser and the floor to watch as we received the Diwali blessing. Before us on the wooden floor were several platters which contained butter lamps, incense, and apple, rice and even more Marigolds, these in several shades of orange and red.
Hema’s beautiful little nine-year-old cousin, Nikita, somberly picked up the brass vase of marigolds, tipped the water into her hand and sprinkled it twice around the rug we were seated on. Another small golden pot held pieces of grass which Nikita ceremoniously dipped and swept upon the floor around us in a circle twice, then did the same with lit incense. While Nikita performed her part of the ritual with incredible seriousness, the family and I beamed at each other and the drums and voices of the Diwali video rang out through the entire apartment.
Nikita, with her younger cousin Mukita, then took handfuls of white rice and crushed marigold buds and alternated sprinkling them over our heads and into our outstretched hands, the sequins that adorned their little saris glittering in the light. “It is time for your tika!” Hema’s uncle proclaimed, and from seemingly no where a large metal tray was produced on which there were several brass bowls of different colored paints. With all the seriousness of brain surgeons, Nikita and Mukita went about placing the first layer of white paint in a large dot in the middle of Chimi and my foreheads then alternated like dancers between painting the insides of these dots for both of us in colors of green, blue yellow and red. “Ellie, you look so happy,” Hema exclaimed from her place nestled on the large bed with her family. I opened my eyes and realized that the chiming Diwali song, the dzongkha chatter and laughter Hema’s family made, the deep scents of marigolds and incense, the crunchy and smooth textures of the rice and buds in my hands- all of it had almost overloaded my senses and truly given me such a sense of pure happiness. I began to register that my cheeks were in a bit of pain from smiling so widely for such a long amount of time, but nothing could make me stop.
Here, in the home of people I had only just met, taking part for the first time in a ceremony like this I felt more at home in a way I rarely had since coming to Bhutan. I wasn’t able to understand what the family said to one another in dzongkha, or say more than ‘Namaste’ to Hema’s grandmother who spoke no English, yet the warmth that emanated from each of them, the feeling of close bonds and family inclusiveness made me feel that I was part of their flock. ‘How strange,’ I thought, ‘that so far from anything I have known in these twenty years, I can feel so at home.’
With Sincerity, Ellie