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The Teej Festival as a metaphor for the Nepalese transnational identity

Based on experience of Dr. Arianna Borelli

The migration process represents, by definition, an opportunity for creation, reformulation, change and (re) construction. The feelings of identity and belonging do not escape this dynamic and are shaped congruently to the context in which they emerge.

The first works on the study of Migrations described a linear, unilateral and monofactorial relationship of the fenómeno migratório. Starting from the 1970s, system theories pushed migratory studies beyond its conceptual limits: the migratory space acquires three-dimensionality, migratory paths gain reciprocity and variability, and the migrant subject challenges the frontiers of nation-states by transforming into a being in national movement, trans and mute. Schiller and Basch think of transnationalism as a phenomenon of building social spaces that link the country of origin with that of destiny, describing the subjects in migration as "transmigrants". The transmigrant is a being capable of maintaining various relationships (family, economic, social, religious, political) without being hindered by national frontiers, and whose identity is worked according to the influence of the interactions with the various systems with which he is in contact. Each of the components that defines a person and / or a migrant community plays a valuable role in determining its complex identity process. The place is a central element in defining the principle of individual and social identity (Pereira, 2019, citing Augè, 2002).

The complexity of the dynamics and paths is the result of an interconnection of macro, meso and microscopic factors. The advantage of adopting a microscópica perspective, which manages to analyze the social units and individualities, the families and the factors that influence its organization and desenvolution - the "little transnationalism" to use the term coined by Grillo-, is primarily important in order to succeed to understand the complex structure, the most real and global one, of the concepts of identity and belonging. The anthropology of migration agenda of the last twenty years has explored the relationship between the multiple elements that contribute to the definition of transnational families, recognizing in the religious sphere one of the cardinal points of the identity definition. In recent years various qualitative surveys have been carried out which have tried to answer the following questions: What is the role of religion and the rituals associated with it in defining identity and belonging in migrant subjects? And what is the effect of migration on religion and its rituals? What are the social and family repercussions? How are they created and what are the characteristics of the transnational spaces they belong to? The detailed observation of religious demonstrations and events may suggest reflections on the social and cultural transformation of some transnational realities, also touching on political and economic issues. Using the ethnographic study of domestic and public rituals in the countries of origin (for example, Salih with Moroccan marriages), in the communities of fate (such as Webner with the Muslim communities in England), or in both (for example, Mapril with the study of Korbani in Dhaka and Lisbon), scientific literature has highlighted the importance of the spiritual and religious factor in the creation and perpetuation of the sense of community, in the definition of transnational spaces of belonging, in ensuring the continuation of family ties and cultuara of origin. Gardner and Grillo saw the ritual as a very particular element and prone to study, for the flexibility of its manifestations. The ritual is an adaptable element, and is transformed parallel to the transformation of the context in which it is performed. At the same time an element of change and continuity, the ritual is the central bastion of the negotiation of traditional and modern elements, and indirectly, of the construction of individual and social identity. Very rarely has the relationship between gender and transnational ritual been studied as the main objective of the work of social anthropology of migration. The study of ritual spaces, physically localized in a nation-state, but conceptually much wider and without limitations on geographical fronts, could help to understand the effects in gender relations.

Building on the field experiences mentioned above, I tried to analyze the transnational process of the Nepalese community in Portugal, one of the communities that has grown the most in the last ten years in the Lusophone state, through one of its religious events: the Teej Festival. The Teej festival is a religious event of the Nepalese tradition which has been celebrated in Portugal since 2014.

Nepalese international migration began as a military emigration in the early 1800s, when thousands of Gurkhas soldiers joined the British army to fight its colonial battles in Asia. 2.3 million Nepalese (total population of 28.2 million) (Migration Data Portal, 2019), in 2019, outside national borders, driven by the numerous socio-economic and political problems of the last fifteen years. Nepalese migratory movements have all the credentials to be defined diasporic phenomena: they are in fact characterized by a continuous wave of people directed beyond national borders, the emigrated communities have maintained relations with the country of origin through the formation of a collective memory and the creation of social capital organizations and have managed to establish contacts and relations with the community of the country that welcomes them. The awareness of the identity of a group as a diasporic group is revealed daily in the life of Nepalese migrants starting from political, academic and intellectual figures and is structurally represented by official bodies (consulates or embassies) as well as by informal community organizations.

In Portugal, Nepalese immigration has grown at a rapid pace since 2009-2010, reaching 11500 Nepalese residents in Portugal in 2018 (the estimates of the Community NGOs count about 20000). 65% of this population lives in the metropolitan area of ​​Lisbon. Male residents are clearly more numerous than women, uniformly in all Portuguese regions.

Except for rare examples, little space has so far been devoted to the social study of this community, and no study has been devoted to the exploration of religious rituals and its influence on dynamic identity. At European level, the most important studies have been carried out in England, as could be expected given the large community it hosts, and mainly concern the ex-Gurkha population. For example, Payar (2016) raised the problem of the loss of religious space and consequent transformation of ritual practices and individual lives of relationship with the country of origin and destiny. Gellner (2014) studied the differences in the associative life of Nepalese in the United Kingdom and Belgium, discovering different systems of aggregation and formation of transnational identity.

This work aims to reflect on the conceptual identity-religion-society triangle, all included in the process of change that represents migration, and analyzed through the celebration of the rituals of the Teej festival.

The Teej festival celebrates the goddess Parvati, mother goddess of Hinduism, and represents one of the most famous and observed festivals by Hindu women in India (mainly Rajastan) and Nepal, where it is included in official national holidays. The women's festival is inspired by a legend of Hindu mythology that tells of the love between Parvati and Shiva, celebrating their first date. The central theme of the Teej Festival is the devotion of women to their husbands. Women dress their best clothes and pray, meditate, dance and sing for the health and longevity of their husbands, fathers and children. In the case of single women the prayers are carried out in the hope of finding a good husband, while the widows pray for the serenity of the soul of the deceased companion. The celebration of the Festival, as common in all rituals, is not uniform in all the places where it is performed, the socio-geographical context shapes the manifestation of the ritual as well as the experience of it.

The Teej, which as often happens on Eastern holidays is also associated with the natural / environmental element that celebrates the end of the summer dry season, is celebrated between August and September, on the third full moon of the month Bhadra. The festival lasts three to five days, and is full of various types of rituals. One of the most symbolic moments is fasting (Nirjala Vrat - complete fasting, neither food nor liquids) respected by women for 24 hours, in solidarity with Parvati's suffering and patience. The union and the companionship is essential to be able to overcome the difficulties of fasting, thus creating a network of solidarity between women who urge each other, having fun, with music, dance, night vigil and tales of stories, strength each other. In Nepal women use to make a large procession to the temple of the goddess Parvati, carrying finely decorated statues of the goddess, and ending the celebration with prayers and purifying baths in front of the temple. On this last day of celebration (Rishi Panchami) the procession, the music and the dances bring the celebration to the streets, uniting the community in its transversality. In this sense, the Teej is a primarily female celebration, but which ends up involving (and upsetting) the entire family and society. During the Teej women are exceptionally exempt from household chores and receive gifts from husbands and in-laws. The Teej is also an opportunity to meet and exchange between a promised bride and the family of the future husband. In this context, the event represents an important opportunity for strengthening the intrafamily hierarchies.

Much attention is paid to women's clothing and ornaments, which, together with the suggestive dances, want to represent the erotic and sensual counterpart of the female figure, in honor of the act of seduction by Parvati di Shiva. This public manifestation of female sexuality is an exceptional and unique license of Teej, possible because it is justified by the ascetic rituals that accompany it and authorized by patriarchal power. The set of Teej practices, and above all the work of preparing the rituals, create a fertile substrate for group cohesion. Communities of women create their songs to celebrate their strength and atone for the challenges of married life. The lyrics of the ritual songs of this event are rich in information related to family life, social and national politics. The purpose of Teej's musical rituals is to provide means for exorcising the challenges of Vrat. During the civil war against the monarchy, the songs of the Teej took on revolutionary characteristics, shouting against the suffering of women caused by the oppressors of the government. Contemporary music often speaks of modernity, equal rights and freedoms. In this sense, the Teej has become an occasion and space for the cultivation of female subjectivities and consciences. As already deepened by Holland (2009), the songs of the Teej festival represent a ritual in contrast with the rest of the celebration: the festival that was to celebrate and represent the ideal of Hindu femininity, turned out to be a collective space of protest and claim of the rights of women crushed by patriarchal society. The Teej Festival is one of the few occasions when women can go home and rely on the emotional support of their families. The stories of "returned" daughters are often a source of inspiration for Teej's new songs.

To help me understand how the Teej festival turned into Portuguese territory, I interviewed the coordinator of the women's group of the NRNA (Non Residentes Nepali Association) in Lisbon, who is also the founder and former president of the Nepalese women's association in Portugal.

The Teej Festival has been held in Lisbon in Martim Moniz square, the center of the multiethnic area of ​​the city, since 2014. Several Nepalese associations come together to organize this celebration, including the NRNA and the Nepalese Women's Association in Portugal. La Junta de Freguesia (the municipality) allows the use of space, but the entire economic burden is the responsibility of the organizer, therefore the creation of the event is possible only through the collaboration of different organizations (at least 700 euros are required). For practical reasons, the biggest celebration, in Martim Moniz, is celebrated on Sunday (it does not necessarily coincide with the Nepalese date of the Festival), but in the previous days different groups of women gather in the gardens and squares of the bairros to perform the rituals with their collectivity.

My informant says that she feels accepted by the Portuguese community in the days of the Teej: "It is like bringing some Nepal to Portugal, I am happy because I live in a country that allows me to keep my traditions and offers me a central square for celebrate my holidays "(cit). The freedom to be able to reproduce one's own traditions in Lisbon strengthens the link with the origin and authorizes the creation of new religious and transnational belonging spaces. "It is very nice for women because we can rest for five days. During the Teej we can also wear very beautiful clothes and many gold jewels, and we dance and sing our songs" (sic). Confirming Peggy Levitt's vision, the symbolism of rituals seems to play a key role in the construction of alternative spaces of belonging. In the same way, the relationship between symbols and identity is influenced by the influence of the social and political spheres in shaping the sense of belonging.

The fact of having held the celebrations in a central square like Martim Moniz fills my informant with pride "I invited all my neighbors to see" (cit.). As described by Werbner with Muslims in the United Kingdom, the construction of totemic spaces is associated with a sense of legitimacy of a place in society. This need for protagonism in the public space seems an act of denunciation for a place in society, but also an attempt to approach the community of the new residence. The integration process is often accompanied by intercultural negotiations; on this occasion the Nepalese women's community felt accepted and recognized for having had the opportunity to publicly express their rituals, and revised some of its structural details to adapt to the target community. In addition, the annual repetition of the event contributes to building and keeping the collective memory alive, celebrating belonging to the community group and promoting civic participation. Social capital (in this case religious-community-political) serves as a form of individual ethnic-identity reconfiguration in destiny, and accompanies in the process of building the community identity of the "European Nepalese" (double presence).

Not all Teej rituals are reproduced in the celebration in Lisbon. For example, in Lisbon there is no temple procession, nor is there a facility in Portugal to perform the cleansing bath ritual. The fact that there are elements that do not travel confirms the semantic and structural transformation of the religious event, where greater importance is given to the creation and maintenance of the bonds between the members of the new community than to the spiritual significance of the festival.

One of the aspects that most aroused my curiosity when I participated in the Teej ceremonies in 2019 was the proud protagonism of women in their dances, which contrasted with what I knew about the strong patriarchalism of Nepalese society. According to my informant, the dances are more "free" (cit.) In migration environments outside Nepal. "Some members of the community did not initially love this event as we did it in Portigallo. But now they know that the women's group is large and has power, so they can't say anything. Girl Power! (Laughs)" (sic.). My informant was the founder, in 2013, of the Nepalese women's association in Portugal, which was created with the aim of creating an exclusive space of union, support (economic, legal, social and psychological) and security for and by community women in Portugal. Through political actions and collaboration with other associations, the Lisbon women's groups are managing to smooth the patriarchal features of the family and social dynamics, which is reflected in the Teej dances. Women feel protected because they know they can turn to a trusted and powerful enough place / group to support them, and men know that gender-based violence (physical and psychological) can have consequences. The construction of structures of female authority and representation as opposed to those of the male universe reveals a profound transformation of gender hierarchies in the Nepalese community, from which women take on complementary decision-making power in various spheres of social action. Another sign of change is the fact that in recent years, although it is not a common trend, men have started to fast together with women, as a sign of solidarity and gratitude.

This work is not intended to draw conclusions about the Nepalese community as a whole. Aware of cultural heterogeneity and religious polytropy, I asked who celebrated the Teej in Lisbon. Only the richest? Only the Hindus? Only those who belong to the same caste? Contrary to expectations, my informant claims that the Teej is a transversal celebration in Nepalese communities in Portugal, celebrated by Nepalese Hindu women. Hindu women from India do not celebrate the Portuguese Teej with Nepalese women (in India they celebrate Kajari Teej on different dates from the Nepalese Harthalika Teej). It is rare that Nepalese residents in other areas of Portugal go to celebrate the Teej in Lisbon, each community independently organizes its celebration (the main ones in Lisbon, Monte Gordo- Algarve- and São Teotónio -Zambujeira). In Lisbon, each subgroup has the opportunity to celebrate the rituals of the Teej more intimately in its own way, at home or in the gardens, but in the great celebration of Martim Moniz there are no differences, it is the celebration with the large family of Nepalese women in Portugal . The theatricalization and aestheticization of the rites, also present in Nepal but accentuated in Lisbon, seems to derive from a need to assert one's intersectional minority status: ethnic and gender.

In Nepal, feminist groups and political parties often participate in the celebrations of the Teej Festival, also using the music of rituals to cultivate women's political awareness and willingness to act (Holland, 2009). In Lisbon, political groups (or indirectly political groups, such as feminist groups) usually participate collectively in organizing the big Teej festival in Martim Moniz square. Party political groups, whose internationalization tendency has been described in several documents (e.g. Geller, 2014 and Pereira, 2016), take advantage of the national celebration to stimulate and win the electoral favor of Nepalese residents outside the borders (the emigrant community is strongly represented in the Nepalese parliament). The Nepalese Women's Association is part of that wide range of spontaneous civil movements generated by non-politicians and representing real resources against marginalization, exploitation, forced labor and potential discrimination suffered in the country of destination.

The event also acts as a bond with the family of origin, it is customary to call the family every day and ask them to perform the puja on their behalf. This ongoing relationship, guaranteed by the Teej, keeps dependence on families of origin alive and contributes to the cultivation of the Nepalese international identity. The interrelation between the transnational dynamics of meso (society) and micro (family) is a determining factor of individual identity. The migration of the ritual across borders keeps the link with the country of origin alive, attributing a character of continuity to the socio-religious event. On a more intimate level, the celebration represents a ceremony to honor the new family built with migration, expanding the concept of family, which now includes elements close to but without blood ties. "Teej is for celebrating families, and they are my family here - referring to the other Nepalese women in Lisbon" (cit.).

In short, the observation of the rites of the Teej Festival in Lisbon confirms the link between the realization of traditional religious events and the sentiments of identity proposed in the literature. The construction of totemic spaces reinforces the process of integration and definition of belonging spaces in the new country of destination, and keeps the relationship with the culture of origin alive. Transnational processes are dichotomous because they represent a factor of continuity and change at the same time. The elements of innovation of the individual being and of the Nepalese transnational community are reflected in the alteration of some ritual practices, and vice versa. The reciprocity of the relationship between spirituality and migration makes the migratory experience capable of reconfiguring ritual practices and religious rhetoric, while being shaped by the practice of rites in the new country of destination.

In addition to the religious aspects, the Teej festival is a means of analyzing political micro and mesostructures and transforming gender relations. Teej rituals represent an opportunity to gain space for female autonomy, cultivate one's awareness and proactivity and count on the emotional support of the rest of the community.

In this sense, the Teej Festival acts as a metaphor for the Nepalese immigrant community in Portugal, a community able to elaborate its identity through the negotiation between traditional habits and customs and the adaptation to a new culture, supported by large social networks.


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