Observing a Monthlong Hindu-Nepalese Festival

  • In Ridgewood, Queens, the monthlong Hindu festival Swasthani is observed by Nepalese at a local temple. (Photos by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Sahara Paudel, 8, has been attending the evening prayers at Durga temple of Ridgewood, Queens, every day for more than two weeks now, going with her mother to the temple to celebrate a monthlong Nepalese-Hindu festival, Shree Swasthani Brata Katha.

Shree Swasthani Brata Katha is an annual festival which usually begins with the full moon in January and ends on the day of the full moon in February. Goddess Swasthani, a Hindu deity, is worshipped during this period.

In Nepalese, “Brata” means “fasting” and “Katha” means “story”. The month’s celebration is marked by daily fasting and recitation of an elaborate story. Married women fast to ensure the well-being of their husbands while unmarried women fast in order to get suitable husbands.

The 31-chapter story is recited one chapter a day by the family at home for the whole month. The head of the family, especially males, read out loud the story either in the morning or in the evening before the meal that breaks the fast. The chapters tell the story of the life of various gods and goddesses. According to legend, Princess Parbati, a daughter of Himavan (King of Mountains), fasted for a month praying to the goddess Swasthani to get Lord Shiva as her husband.

Paudel, who lives in Ridgewood with her mother and father, is too young to understand the cultural aspect of this festival. All she is interested in is dancing. “I like dancing a lot and I come here to dance every night and to worship god,” said Paudel.

The festival started on Jan. 23. Every day, the goddess Swasthani is worshipped in the temple at 8:30 a.m. in the morning and the recitation of the story takes place from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the temple.

Usually, people worship Goddess Swasthani at home with all the proper rituals. But it’s difficult for the people here to perform it as they live in limited space. So, the temple in Ridgewood has become the perfect place where people can gather to worship, and priests attend to all the rituals associated with the worship.

Hari Narayan Sapkota, 50, the priest of the temple, said that he is surprised to see so many devotees coming to the temple to hear the story and see the dance to praise God. “Life in New York is a very busy life but it’s surprising to see so many devotees coming every night in this cold winter. I guess this is what the devotion to God is,” Sapkota said.

Every night, more than 50 devotees join in the prayers. “During weekends, more than 100 people come to worship together. The temple is too small to accommodate all of them. Still, they stand outside the temple to listen to the recitation,” Sapkota claimed.

Most of the devotees offer fruits and money to the temple. Fruits are distributed to the devotees as “Prasad.”

Prasad is anything, typically an edible food, which is first offered to a deity, and then distributed in his or her name to their followers as a good sign.

Money is offered to help maintain the temple.

Nilmaya Acharya, 52, who has been a permanent resident in New York for five years, appreciates the opportunity to mark this festival. “I used to go to the Sali river of Kathmandu district to celebrate this ritual. I am thankful to the organizer who has managed to assemble all of us together in this ritual even in New York,” said Acharya.

The Ridgewood Nepalese Society (RNS), a community organization based in New York, has been coordinating the celebration of this festival for six years. This is the third time the festival is being observed in the temple.

Milan Kumar Shahi, 40, the secretary of RNS, said, “We want to preserve our Hindu culture and we want to pass this culture to the next generation as well. This is the reason why we encourage all the Nepalese families to bring their kids so that they understand our culture.” A resident of LeFrak City in Corona, Shahi added, “Our festival is our identity.”

The festival concludes on Feb. 22. Various types of foods are prepared to mark the end of it. It is believed that on this day everything has to be in 108 pieces, even the flowers. The number 108 signifies the goddess Swasthani.

Of the 108 pieces, eight are to be given to the husbands, if there is no husband then to a son, and if no son then to the son of a friend, and if no friend then the woman who is fasting has to formally release it on the nearby river.

Watch video, produced by Anuz Thapa, of the Shree Swasthani Brata Katha celebration in Ridgewood:

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