Oct 27, 2011

Tihar and Halloween: Long Lost Twins

Tihar is a festival of lights, when we clean our houses to welcome the goddess of wealth to our home. Halloween is a night of ghosts when children dress up and eat treats, and adults dress up and drink beer. Sound very different, don’t they? However, I found that the Hindu festival of Tihar and the Western festival of Halloween are actually pretty similar.

There are a few very obvious similarities between Tihar and Halloween. The first similarity is in the custom called trick or treat. Children dress up in fancy dress costumes, which are usually scary, and visit their neighbors where they play the game of ‘trick or treat’. They ask the neighbors to give them a ‘treat’, which is usually candies and chocolate. If not, they end up playing some minor ‘trick’ on the neighbor, like puncturing their tyres.

In Nepal, we thankfully avoid the trick part, and our costumes are meant to make us look pretty rather than scary, children do go around to their neighbors’ homes and get lots of Tihar goodies in return. Today cash may have replaced the goodies but there was a time when it was more normal to give rice and food to the deusis and bhailis. It is still not uncommon to find selroti, mithai, and fruits among the Deusi and Bhailini’s booty. Incidentally, this tradition of Deusi and Bhaili seems unique to Nepal, I have yet to come across an Indian Diwali celebration where children sing at their neighbors' houses and are given goodies.

The reason for celebrating Halloween is steeped in many layers of mythology. The end of October and beginning of November are the All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which commemorate the dead. As a result, today Halloween is a day of ghosts, devil, and anything that is scary in Christianity. The association of death also exists in Tihar since Yamraj and his army plays a major role in Tihar. However, the representation of death in Tihar is not so macabre as in Halloween.

Also, going back to the pre-Christian roots of Halloween, Halloween is supposed to be descended from the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated in Western Europe over 2,000 years ago. This festival was marked by building huge fires in pits. Today, this fire lives on as candles placed inside carved pumpkins.

Though these skillfully carved pumpkins have come to symbolize Halloween more powerfully than the candle inside it, fire was central to Samhain. The fire of Samhain symbolizes the end of summer and coming of winter. After the big fire died down, people took away embers to their own homes to light their own fires for the coming winter.

Fire is also central to our Tihar, we light candles and diyos during Tihar to light up our whole house. We burst firecrackers and burn sparklers. Maybe these pretty Tihar lights have a purpose too, to remind us that winter is coming near and we must keep the house warm!

The mythology of our own Tihar is built in so many layers that it is very difficult to uncover each layer and arrive at the root of the festival. Add to it the fact that every layer is beautiful, is full of symbolism, and every layer is very dear to us, and the task becomes even more difficult. Many communities celebrate Tihar as the return of King Ram to Ayodhya, many others celebrate it as the Yamapanchak, the days when death’s messengers get a holiday and Yamuna worships her brother Yamaraj. Then there is the story of Krishna lifting the Govardhan Parvat and saving his fellow villagers, which is commemorated in Govardhan Pooja. The obscure story of Krishna killing Naraksura is also attached to Tihar. But though different communities may focus on any of these stories, most of them celebrate the third day of the festival in the same way: by performing Laxmi Pooja. At the root of all these festivities is Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity. Over the years, prosperity has come to mean money and gold, but if we look closely at the earliest pictures of Laxmi, we see what she truly symbolizes: Laxmi’s hands are often overflowing with grain, the true wealth of an agrarian people.

Tihar celebrates the harvest of grains that were planted in spring, and we give thanks to this wealth by worshipping goddess Lakshmi. In the western world, when Romans conquered Europe, Roman deities influenced Celtic Culture. The deity celebrated in Halloween was Pomona, the Roman goddess of food and grains, She was often depicted surrounded by baskets of fruits!
The most important similarity between Tihar and Halloween is that they both occur at the same time. Due to our lunar calculations, the date of Tihar often varies, but it is safe to say that this festival occurs at the end of autumn and beginning of winter. Halloween always occurs on October 31, at the end of fall and beginning of winter. Why are festivals celebrated half the world from each other so similar? Were our cultures connected in ancient times? Did we share the same beliefs and religion at some point? We can only guess, but what we do know for sure is that both occur at the time when the spring’s crops are harvested and stored, and people are getting ready to face the cold winter. The reason for celebrating both Tihar and Halloween are full of mythology, but the earliest of them point to harvest and the change of seasons.

To me, it seems that people of all cultures celebrate certain milestones in a year: every culture has festivals of spring, summer, planting, sowing, etc, which are important to the community. Food and grains are important to every community, and hence, harvest festivals are found in almost every culture. As for the similar manner of celebrating, only further studies into the prehistoric roots of these festivals can tell us more. Until then, Happy Tihar, have a blast!



NepaliYouth said...

I have been having the same thoughts for some time now. Good to know I am not alone!! :)

There was an error in this gadget