Hartalika Teej: Finding Festive Flavours In Foreign Lands
Image Credit: Women in Nepal's Pashupatinath Temple on the occasion of Hartalika Teej. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If she were granted one wish right now, Mumbai-based Prachi Agarwal would ask for nothing more than to be back home in Birgunj. She could then join the ladies in the family, dressed up in a flaming red saree adorned in her wedding jewellery to celebrate the three-day festival of Hartalika Teej. 

“This is the most important festival for Hindu women in Nepal, where we alternately fast and feast for their husband’s longevity and happy married life. In my hometown, the entire city comes to a standstill as women draped in red finery visit temples to offer prayers, singing and dancing all the way. Then all of us would head home to prepare a lavish feast together for our families before starting our nirjala (without water) fast from midnight,” she reminisced. 

In Mumbai, though, she ruefully notes that hardly anyone knows about Hartalika Teej. Or they end up confusing it with Hariyali Teej, which is celebrated in Northern India.  

Minakshi Singh, co-founder at Café Lungta, too, found desultory responses from the largely Nepal-origin workforce in her restaurants when she quizzed them about Hartalika Teej. “Hindus in Nepal celebrate it just like Diwali and Dasain (another 9-day festival that corresponds with Dusshera in India), though it is not a big gourmet celebration. It is celebrated by the women of the household, who usually have sabudana kheer to break their fast past midnight,” she said. 

Taste aside, there is a scientific reason for including this dish for those observing a fast. The starchy sabudana is packed with carbohydrates, a great energy source, while the calorie-dense milk offers the nutrients that help digestion.  

It is this simplistic homeliness that sets Hartalika Teej apart from other high-decibel festivals that many of us have gotten accustomed to. Earmarked for the third day of Bhadra Sukala Paksha, as per the Hindu lunar calendar, this festival commemorates the union of Lord Shiva with his consort Parvati. 

The first day of the festival, called Dar Khane Din, is when bedecked and bejewelled women gather to dance to the beats of traditional folk and Lok Dohori songs. A community feast is then laid out in the evening, called Dar Khana, where people dig into wholesome treats like bedmi puri, sel roti, pakoras, tarkari, aalo ka achar, dal, pulao, paneer ki sabji. This is topped off with seviyan kheer and gujiya as desserts. 

However, no Nepali feast is complete without the inclusion of meat. So, you can expect masu pulao, prepared with mutton or chicken, or macha jhol, a thin fish gruel. 

While this feast continues into the wee hours of the morning, with the inclusion of singing, dancing and convivial ribaldry, the women start their 24-hour fast from midnight. Interestingly, comparisons have been drawn between this fast and Karwa Chauth, which is again followed by women in Northern India and popularised by Bollywood movies. 

Women, married and unmarried alike, wear their finest sarees in the brightest shade of red and proceed to the temple to pray to Lord Shiva to seek blessings for a happy marital life, singing all the way. Interestingly, men rarely visit the temples on this day so that women can celebrate Hartalika Teej with abandon and without intrusion. 

At dusk, the ladies of the house light lamps to welcome Shiva and Parvati into their abode and perform puja. Besides flowers, incense, vermillion and turmeric, the thaal offers vrat ka khana (fasting food), which typically comprises sabudana khichdi and fruits. 

The following day, which Nepalis call Ganesh Chaturthi, the women break their fast after visiting the temple. The meal comprises aloo sabji, masala puri and karkalo tarkari with rice, with sabudana or seviyan kheer and fruits ending it on a sweet note.  

The Nepali diaspora gets nostalgic when talking about Teej crops up. 19-year-old Bidisha Gurung, who moved to New Delhi from Waling two years ago for her studies, remembers bursting into tears the first time she was away from home during Haritalika Teej. “While it was a big deal in our valley, there was not much in Delhi to remind me of this festival. Some of my Indian classmates did talk about how their mothers celebrated Teej, but it lacked that intrinsic Nepali touch to it,” she recalled.  

As Bidisha noted, it is not just the food alone that makes Nepali people homesick during Teej; it is longing for the intrinsic customs associated with the festival. Prachi recalls how this festival was when she could visit her parental home without going on a guilt trip about abandoning her marital duties. 

“My brothers or cousins would come to my house with gifts for my marital relatives and formally invite me to celebrate Teej in the home where I was raised. It is a very emotional ceremony, with lots of waterworks all around, and where I can relive my childhood memories,” she happily recalled. 

On her return, she would carry yomari, bara, sel roti, gundruk achaar, and even newari choila home. She would be transported back to her mother’s kitchen whenever she would bite into these culinary gifts.  

Every year now, as she longs for Hartalika Teej fare, Prachi scouts for places in the city where she can get some traditional fare, just like most of her kinsfolk who moved from Nepal to various parts of India. Goumtesh Singh, co-founder of Yeti - The Himalayan Kitchen, which has outlets in Pune, Goa, Gurugram, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, says, “People have started going to restaurants for the Dar Khana meal before fasting, instead of making food at home. This is mainly because most live in a nuclear family setup and stay far from their native families.”

While not much in Mumbai reminds Prachi about Teej, she has learned to make the best of the situation. She heads to restaurants like Yeti - The Himalayan Kitchen or Dumpling Khang with her family to retain her bonds with her homeland. 

As Bidisha and Prachi believe, they might be away from home, but their home is never far from their thoughts. And they have come a long way from dwelling in sadness about missing it. Now, they just get up and find a piece of their home wherever they are.