Siruwat: Narrating the Untold Journey of the Deities to the Himalayas during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Prepared rice for mangkok© Mohan Rai

The Rai communities of the eastern hills of Nepal celebrate the Siruwat festival during April and May, on the Nepali first full moon day of the year. Siruwat is celebrated to mark the season of plantation, also called dhule puja, which means worshiping the earth or soil. It is believed that the deities travel to the Himalayas after they are worshiped to avoid the summer. The festival is also called Ubhauli, referring to deities’ movement towards the upper hills/Himalayas. Every Rai household practices this ritual. Deities are offered eggs, alcohol, chicken, water, and freshly harvested rice. There is a belief that if people do not perform this ritual, they will get sick and go mad. Therefore, even people who live far away or are traveling make efforts to return to their village to perform this ritual.

Preparing mangkok (rice from freshly harvested rice) and alcohol in gourd © Mohan Rai

My family moved to Kathmandu about two decades ago, and although being five hundred kilometers away, at least one person from the family managed to go to the village every year for the ritual. This year, however, the community to which I belong was supposed to perform Siruwat on 9 May 2020 in my village. Yet, for the first time in history, many families like mine could not attend the ritual due to the nation-wide lockdown caused by the ongoing pandemic. The coronavirus has challenged the discourse of this supernatural belief. We are worried over our strongly constructed belief of the maladies connected with not performing the ritual. We ponder over questions like what would happen to our deities who are supposed to travel to the Himalayas after worshiping and whether they would wait for us until the lockdown is over to conduct the puja. Thankfully, this year we have not experienced peak summer yet. Maybe the gods are controlling nature and waiting for us to worship them. Could this be linked to the supernatural power of our gods—their control over nature and not to scientific reasons like climate change? This is an uncanny feeling for us.

The deities worshiped in Siruwat are believed to be sisters, brought as a dowry by a mother and transferred to a daughter once she gets married. The god of the family is called Purkha Hangma, which means the main goddess and is worshiped inside the house, and others are called Daije, which means brought in dowry and are worshiped outside the house. Since we could not perform the ritual on time this year, we had to make ourselves promise that we would re-worship them soon, and present them all with the traditionally offered items to get their blessings. Once the travel restrictions are over, the head of my family—my father, will travel to the village and perform the ritual. This time, it would be different. Wattongs, the old generations of the community would discuss, purify the previously worshiped gods, and apologize. Then they will fix the new date and time to complete the ritual.

The Covid-19 virus has challenged the fundamental aspect of honoring the journey of the deities to the Himalayas by hindering this ritual performance and has also alarmed the community against celebrating other festivals due to risks of viral transmission. Therefore, when people are adapting to their virtual presence in many activities, there is an urgent need to convince the community on finding alternative ways to perform rituals, such as doing it remotely instead of being physically present at the site. Like Siruwat, many other festivals—both communal and national, which are the cultural manifestation of communities, are under threat; re-performing or rescheduling them is a challenge, considering their complexities.