As an Australian student journalist the Bala Chaturdashi Festival was foreign to me and in many ways was confusing given that in Australia it is more common to remember those who have passed in a sombre and often private way, but here in Nepal everyone shares grief and experiences in the form of festivals.
Strolling through the Diyo an eerie glow emitting from their slowly dying flames, a woman reaches to relight her candles and lamps. The Diyo litter the area, creating a gateway for people to walk through and brightening the dense darkness of the Sleshmantak forest.
The faces of the locals expressed a wide-range of emotions – with some smiling and happy as if remembering a joke they heard long ago, to the small children confused by the events around them and sleepy from the long night, to those lost in thought staring into oblivion, possibly lost in memory. Together these expressions demonstrate the power of grief and the way people deal with it – there are no rules, no right ways or wrong ways.
Some drank the night away, in remembrance of those passed and to celebrate the lives they had once lived. A mother stood surrounded by her children, lost in a Bhajan as her voice echoed throughout the Pashupatinath Area, causing passers-by to smile in appreciation of her strong singing voice. In every nook and cranny sat locals laughing, singing and dancing long into the night, until their voices are hoarse and their bodies are tired.
Embers of bonfires and the ashes of the deceased glowed ruby red before cascading like an airborne waterfall into the Bagmati River – the affect was both mesmerising and horrifying, as these ashes would continue to float down the river forever traversing the Kathmandu Valley and yet the remains would be tainted by the polluted, murky water. I think this once beautiful tradition is now tainted by the unholy Bagmati River, marking the end of an era – of a time once prosperous and sacred now diminished.
The Bala Chaturdashi Festival – Remembrance of the Deceased
Hindus from across South-Asia come together during the Bala Chaturdashi (Satbij Charni Ausi) festival to mourn loved ones and to celebrate the memory of the deceased’s lives.
In late November (during Marga Krishna Chaturdasi) singing, dancing and laughing can be heard from the Sleshmantak forest – a place marked by the holy Bagmati River and the sacred Pashupatinath Temple (temple of Lord Shiva). This forest is considered a very blessed place as it is mentioned in Shiva Puran Mirgasthali as the dwelling of Lord Shiva in his deer form.
Here, families and friends of the deceased come to light traditional oil lamps (Diyo), recite mantras and sing Bhajans (religious hymns), while dancing throughout the night in honour of Lord Shiva.
Devotees stay awake all night keeping the lamps lit until daybreak the next day, when the ritual bathing in the Bagmati River begin. Pilgrims take turns dipping their bodies into the river, with three dips they consider themselves on the path to purification.
The pilgrims then pay tribute to Lord Shiva by dropping Satbij (a mixture of seven sacred seeds) at as many of the temples and 108 Shiva Linga idols around the Pashupatinath Temple as they can. Each time Satbij is dropped a Ratti of gold (approximately 0.121 grams) is believed to be offered and dead beloved ones are remembered.
For many years, the pilgrims have followed a path through Kailash forest and around the Pashupatinath Temple. After the walk and the rituals some citizens partake in a fun element of the Satbij ceremony – the awakening of Lord Ganesh’s idol. This idol (found near the Bishwaroop Temple) is superstitiously believed to be deaf – so the locals shake, scream and shout at the idol to awaken him from his eternal slumber.
Hindu’s believe that performing Bala Chaturdashi rituals will secure a superior place in heaven for the deceased and will help settle the restless souls of those departed who weren’t burnt properly. This may be true as many come together and share the same beliefs, ideals and considerations in honour of those no longer on Earth in which all are treated fairly and equally.
This festival began many years ago after a trader named Bala Nanda came to the renowned cremation area (Arya Ghat) to attend his relative’s funeral, where he accidently consumed a small piece of human flesh mixed in with his portion of ceremonial food. The flesh transformed the trader into a horrible demon with a silver head known as Balasur (Bala + Asur [meaning demon]) ‘the cannibal’.
The demon began to terrorise Arya Ghat, eating the deceased and scaring the locals, which prevented the people from cremating loved ones. The citizens then approached their King and begged for help, in which the King assigned Brisha Singh (a very close friend of Balasur) to kill the demon.
Brisha was ridden with guilt – he had managed to kill Balasur but only through betrayal. Brisha travelled to the Sleshmantak forest where he meditated, chanted Om and prayed to Lord Shiva for the revival of his friend. Lord Shiva pleased with Brisha’s sincerity offered him salvation from his guilt and the cleansing of Balasur’s spirit.
Lord Shiva requested that Brisha scatter Satbij on the grounds of this holy forest, purging Balasur’s sins and clearing Brisha’s conscience. Since that day, Satbij has been dropped in the forest and the festival has been performed.
Taylor Mason is an Australian journalism student doing a photojournalism internship in Nepal.