In just a little over a decade, the Nepalese community has flourished in Queens. Many call the borough their home and still manage to preserve the rich culture they have grown up with in the tiny landlocked country tucked away in the Himalayas.
Traces of this can be seen in community gatherings celebrating festivals like ‘Dashain,’ the most popular festival for the Nepalese. For the thousands of them who have immigrated to the States over the years, Dashain brings back memories of flying kites out on the terraces of their houses, and playing cards all throughout the day and into the wee hours of the night. It means being engulfed by the smell of “kashi ko masu,” goat meat, wafting through the kitchen as it is being prepared. But most importantly, it’s a form of thanksgiving where entire families come together and enjoy big feasts while receiving blessings from their elders. The younger ones receive ‘Tika’ – rice grains and red powder mixed in yogurt that are placed on the center of the forehead in small amounts with blessings of prosperity and longevity – and some money from their elders.
And even though these sights are a distant memory to the Nepalese here, their traditions and culture remain.
At the Divya Dham Temple in Woodside, Queens, they gathered for the annual Dashain celebration on Oct. 6. The 15-day religious festival is the biggest and longest auspicious celebration in the Nepalese calendar. Traditionally, thousands flock to the temples to take part in religious ceremonies and bring with them abundant offerings of fruits, dairy products, and homemade sweets to the deities. The festival falls around September–October, starting from the bright lunar fortnight and ending on the day of the full moon.
The most popular deity that is worshiped in the festival is Goddess Durga, who symbolizes invincible power and patience. The worshipers usually bring silver plates filled with religious offerings to give to the goddess, such as flowers, incense and holy water when they visit the temples, also known as mandirs, during the festival.
Women wear the traditional garb, saris, which usually are red to symbolize the auspicious occasion. Namrata Sen, of Forest Hills, said she looked forward to gatherings at the temple because it’s become a place where the nostalgia for home fades. “It’s very special and important to us because it keeps us connected with the feeling that we miss when we are back home,” said Sen.
Sen expresses the feelings of many in her community who hope the culture they have tried to keep intact for years will continue with the next generation.
“I hope my children continue in this custom and culture even when they grow up. We really try to do that,” said Sen who is raising two boys in a traditional manner and teaching them about their Hindu religion as much as possible.
Sen says they speak in Nepali at home and she asks her boys to pray every morning and before going to bed in the small mandir they have built in their home.
“It’s about your religion, no matter where people live, they don’t leave their faith,” said Bijay Poudel from Jackson Heights who has been successfully running a weekly Nepali newspaper, Vishwa Sandesh New York, for the last four years. “Celebrating festivals like Dashain brings peace to lot of the community here because it’s bringing a piece of home to America.” Poudel said his paper’s circulation is about 7,000 in New York and estimated there are now about 50,000 Neplaese living in the United States.
For others, like Anjan Shrestha of Elmhurst, who moved to the States 12 years ago, celebrating festivals like Dashain is a way to keep his country’s distinct identity and not have it mistaken with any other culture. “We are Hindus, but we are Nepalis and Dashain is very different from any Indian festival.” He referred to Indian festivals like Dasara and Diwali that frequently get compared to the Nepalese Dashain and Tihar. Tihar is known as the festival of lights and runs at the same time that Diwali does for Indians. It follows the lunar calendar and falls in late October and into November. Houses are lit with clay lamps that are placed outside and inside homes and people worship Goddess Laxmi, who is believed to bring good fortune and wealth into their homes. “The Nepalese community in Queens is very tight-knit,” said Shrestha. “Celebrating festivals like these are just a way for us to keep our spirits up and enjoy the company of friends.”