Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Vo'Ye Newar Feast!

Celebration and partying in Nepal are two very usual habits such as brushing teeth or washing the dishes. Everything is pretext to a feast : the full moon, the many Hindu Gods, the death anniversary of your grandpa… Each week, if not each day, something is happening. It was time for me to write about one of the biggest events I’ve been invited in so far : the Vo’Ye Newari Feast.
Vo’Ye in itself means « feast » in Newari, the Kathmandu valley local language. The celebration is « justified » (do they need justification ?) by the Indra Jatra festival, the festival of the God of Rain. To this occasion, the Kumari, the living Goddess, is getting out of her palace. What ? Who ? Ok ok, let’s start from the beginning.

The Kumari is initially a little girl, selected when she’s around two years old through a long and demanding process, so she can become THE Nepalese living Goddess. For this job, she has to fit in 32 qualities, which are roughly tested during the « recruiting process ». Among others, all the applicant little girls are put aside alone in a dark room filled with skulls for quite a while. The ones not crying can get to the next level. Being a living Goddess is not easy !
Once « elected », the little girl and her family move in a palace located on Durbar Square, Kathmandu. She will get out of this palace only nine times per year, among others during the Indra Jatra festival. Therefore this is so important !

The rest of the time, the little Kumari is getting various teachings and can play with two or three children that have been carefully selected. But the playing in itself is very restricted. In fact, if the Kumari gets hurt and shows some of her blood, she would instantly lose her divine quality. Therefore she lives in a very protected cozy world and must not take ANY risk.
Logically, the Kumari remains a Goddess until she gets her menstruations. At that moment, she and her family are sent back home, with a nice retirement pension.
Some stories tell that marrying an ex-Kumari brings bad luck… This can be understandable knowing that taking care of an ex-goddess can be challenging ! Some Nepalese, shyly, explain that marrying a girl you have been worshipping before is too weird : does she go to the bathroom like everybody ? How can you kiss her normally ?

Now that you know who the Kumari is, we can come back to the story of the Indra Jatra festival and to the Vo’Ye feast. During the afternoon, my colleagues and I dressed up as true Newari people and went for a tour through the streets of Thamel, to reach Durbar Square. There, we waited under the rain for quite a while. « The Kumari will come in 30 minutes ! » someone said. Two hours after we were still waiting. This is a typical example of Nepali time line, where minute = hour and hour = day. Anyway, goddesses do what they want, right ?

In the meanwhile, the square got packed. People in colorful saris, waiting, laughing, chanting. A lot of music, and some « protector spirits » dancing around or running away… That was almost a show. Then we felt a huge excitation : the three chariots of the Kumari were living the palace ! The first one was carrying a little girl representing Ganesh, the second one a girl representing Bairav, and finally the Kumari HERSELF… The three girls are surrounded by men throwing sacred flowers to the crowd. The woman behind me grabbed me to keep her balance and to get a flower. I got one, so I offered it to her. She was so happy that she wanted to fix my hair. Nepalese are real fun, you know.
Apparently not the three girls on the chariots tough. They actually didn’t smile at all : « if the Kumari smiles, it’s a terrible sign for us. It means it could be earthquake, or huge storm ». I must confess it was a bit special to see these girls, all between 5 and 7 years old, being so richly dressed up and being so incredibly serious, almost severe. But it was a very strong moment, we could really feel the uniqueness of the instant, as we were carried by the enthusiasm of the crowd !

After that, we drove to an old palace to start enjoying some Newari food… 18 flavors in total. Good, we were all hungry enough ! We sat on the floor, got served in leaf plates, and ate with the right hand, Nepali style ! Alcohol (rice beer and 60% strong life water) was abundantly served in clay cups (apparently it absorbs the water part so only the alcohol is left…). Then the serving process started : many women dressed up Newari style began to go around with dishes : boiled egg, smoked fish, bars (deep fried lentil patties), hakku chhoila (smoked buffalo meat) and yoghurt… The list was long! No need to precise that we had a lot of fun J
After the dinner, some dances were performed, while we sat and started digesting (long process, that will last the all night………). Very typical Newari evening, the kind that brings you into a culture, the kind that no other tourist can get… Unique !

Sakuntala, elected BEST COOK of the country by the socialtours team!

Sakuntala has the sun stuck onto her face. It seems like she can’t stop smiling ! Born in the south east of Nepal, in the village of Biratnagar, Sakuntala is one of 6 daugthers. What a gang ! They all meet when it is any kind of celebration. Sakuntala is the only one not being married. Among the six, they are two, including her, having a professional life. Active and hard-working, Sakun’ has grown up in a family where making good food is essential. It’s in the family kitchen that she became such a great cook !

It was a chance to be taken there. So, eight years ago, Sakun’ came to Kathmandu in order to find a job. And that’s how she began at Socialtours : she was at first in charge of maintaining the offices and of making the lunch for the team.

But today, Sakuntala is much more than that : she is the ambassador of the Nepali cooking style towards foreigners. How come ? In 2011, Socialtours decided to try organizing a cooking class for curious tourists. The « Cook like a local » experience started being quite known, and since then, almost each day, foreigners are knocking at the door to give it a try.

Sakuntala welcomes them all with her usual big smile, and takes them to the market for sourcing the necessary ingredients. Then back to socialtours kitchen, she offers technical information and show her pupils how to deal with a momos, a dal bhat, or an aloo paratha. « My favourite is actually the dal bhat, but well, I like pretty much everything ! ». And then she adds, laughing : « You know, I was slim when I started, but now, with everything I cook, I gained a bit ! ». The part she prefers in her job ? « Hard to say. I like being with the people, and of course, I like to cook ».
When she has some free time, Sakuntala likes to travel, to shop, to watch movies… and to experiment some new tastes in her food !

Friday, September 6, 2013

Vo'ye | the NEWAR feast

During the festival of the God of Rain, Indra, the Kumari Living Goddess makes one of her rare appearances in public, going through special routes in old Kathmandu. It is thought that these routes she takes were the boundary of the city of Kathmandu in the ancient days. We follow this route on a guided tour and end it with a sumptous traditional NEWAR grand feast, blessed by Lord Indra.

The Newar Feast
There is a close association between the Newar culture and food, and feasts are very common in Newari families. The traditional Vo'ye boasts a wide array of dishes starting with sagun (holy offering), typically consisting of a boiled egg, smoked fish, bars (deep fried lentil patties), hakku chhoila (smoked buffalo meat) and aila (liquor), and ending with dhau (yogurt).

With the rise of catering services and the busy lives of the people, parties are catered to and the tradition of the Vo'ye is diminishing. These traditions of feasting bring families closer and remind us of our rich roots, which people need to be aware of and not let diminish.

This feast is an attempt to modernise this rich tradition and bring it back into vogue, showcasing what can be achieved by building in ambience, music and a little bit of style.

A Location with History
The third edition of this yearly feast organised by socialtours and powerful hands will be held at Bhojan Griha, a renovated palace about 150 years old, full of history.


We will add Newar dance performances & classes along with the feast, to make it an evening to remember.

1500 hrs: Gather at Kathmandu Durbar Square for the guided tour.
1700 hrs: Gather at Bhojan Griha for the grand feast.


Guided Tour and Feast: Rs. 1999.-
Grand Feast only: Rs. 999.-
Children below 10 years: Half price
Children below 4 years: Free

Some pictures from the previous years!


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