Friday, October 28, 2011

Bhutanese light up Syracuse for Dipawali


A deep is lit for Laxmi.
When the candles are lit, the marigolds are strung, and the money is out, Laxmi will come.

It doesn’t matter that the candles are standard tea lights from the Dollar Tree down the street and not the copper candle dishes, or deep, that would light homes in Nepal. Or that plastic garland hangs where floral wreaths would have been. Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, cannot tell the difference.

The Siwakoti family of Bhutanese refugees left Nepal and resettled in Syracuse in 2008. Although some cultural practices don’t translate well to life in America, the family maintained most of their traditions as they began celebrating Dipawali, Wednesday. 

“It is not the same here, but we try to keep our culture,” said Ranga Siwakoti, the father in the family.

Dipawali, or Tihar in Nepali, is a three-day annual festival of lights and a time to worship Laxmi and ask for her blessings. It is also a time for brothers and sisters to treasure one another and exchange wishes for long lives and happiness.

“It’s a time for brothers to give sisters money,” said Jassoda Siwakoti, with a sly nod to her male cousin–in Nepali culture, cousins often consider one another as brother and sister.

“Sometimes we feel like we should have been born girls,” Kamal Siwakoti retorted.

A sister prepares her brothers
to receive tika.
On Friday, the final day of Tihar, sisters in the family placed tika, a vibrant powder colored orange, blue and green, on their brothers’ foreheads and a mala, or garland of marigolds, around their necks. The brothers returned the blessing by making neat marks with matchsticks on their sisters’ foreheads.

After the tika, the family watched YouTube videos of Tihar in Nepal, saying, “You see? That’s how it is in our country.” Even the 80-year-old matriarch perked up to the familiar scenes, watching from her bed as the computer speakers blared the music she remembered from home.

Ethnic Nepalis who were born in Bhutan, like the Siwakotis, were persecuted in the country for having a different culture and a different religion from the native Bhutanese. The family fled the country to be independent from a lifestyle that was being forced on them. They sought refuge at a camp in Nepal before being granted asylum in Syracuse.

“You love your culture and I love my culture,” Ranga said. “We want to be able to celebrate who we are.”

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