The Localist

A Nepali meaning of family: A source of identity and existence


“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in…”

What a beautiful poem Robert Frost has written. When I read this poem, ‘home’, to me, means ‘family’, and I wonder if Frost also had a similar thought in his mind when he was composing the poem. Home is essentially a family and vice versa. There has to be someone at home to welcome you. Imagine returning to your home after a decade or so away and your old mother is standing at the door of your small shed smiling at you. What a warm welcome you feel inside. Or conversely, imagine you commute back to your bungalow exhausted from a long day at the office, but there is noone to welcome you… You need a family to make your home alive and pleasing.

You might ask me, “Do you mean then that family is home?”

Well, not exactly. A family is more than a home. It is even more than a bunch of people who know each other as kinfolk and also share a common household.  As a rustic guy brought up in a hilly village of Nepal, I have come to know family as a whole clan. All members of a clan, whether they are alive or dead, belong to a family. Those who are alive respect their dead ancestors as demigods residing in the heaven. The idea is that death is just a small turning point which requires you to change your journey from this mundane life on earth to eternal life in heaven. Therefore those who are dead are revered as the Swargiya or Swargabasi members (residents of heaven) of a family, according to Nepali culture.

These Swargabasi members are an essential part of a family. The main pillar of a house represents Swargabasi family members, who thus protect their offspring.  Some households therefore do not let anyone other than members of their own clan touch the main pillar of their home. I have also seen a separate house being built for the Swargabasi; usually the Kirati people have two adjoining houses, one for the living members of the clan, the other for Swargabasi members.

The Swargabasi family members are remembered in almost all family events, including feeding and fasting. A small portion of a meal is served first to the Swargabasi before lunch and dinner every day. They are offered the crops that ripen first. Be it a birth of a baby or a marriage of any family member, you have to revere the Swargabasi. If you did not, it is believed that the Swargabasi will get angry and might even cause you trouble.

In addition, there is a special day when people, usually Hindus, revere their Swargabasi ancestors as Kuldevata. The first full-moon day of the year according to the Nepali calendar is scheduled to be the day to observe their Kuldevata, or God of the clan. A temple is erected usually in a place of the origin of the clan where the ceremony takes place. This is a grand ceremony indeed. People belonging to that particular clan come back to their place of origin, even from abroad. If any special family program has been carried out in a past year, their presence is deemed compulsory. A newly married bride must enter the temple on this day in order to become a member of the new clan. If she doesn’t enter the temple of the Kuldevata, she will be treated as outsider. The same condition applies to a newly born baby. The parents must introduce their baby to the Kuldevata during the ceremony. All new members are introduced to the Kuldevata, along with a male goat. This goat is sacrificed in the name of the Kuldevata. The eldest male member among the elders, who is also given the status of a headman, performs all the rituals.

During these ceremonies, some people believe that they can communicate with their Swargabasi ancestors. They begin shivering like a shaman. When they begin shivering, it is believed that the soul of a Swargabasi ancestor has entered their body and is speaking through them. You might be surprised to know that in this state, they express what has happened in the past almost exactly. For example, what the time was when they died, how they died and also what is happening to their offspring abroad, and so on. Most of the time, their expression even matches the ancestor’s expression. During the ceremony people ask their ancestor if they had any problems reaching heaven. Usually if the dead one has not yet reached heaven, it is believed this will mean trouble for the family members or even the domestic animals.

The Swargabasi is thus offered rituals according to their demand. The ceremony is an opportunity for people to interact with their Swargabasi ancestors. These days, it has also become a forum to develop and verify the genealogy of the clan.

The meaning of family in Nepal thus extends to the whole clan. It not only allows you to live intact with your present circumstances, but also encourages you to recall your clan’s past and see how it is interconnected with you. Perhaps this answers questions about identity and existence for individuals in the hills of Nepal.





Image. Photo from video by Bipes Shreesh

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