Tikka in Nepal

Yesterday you may have noticed people walking around with ashes on their forehead.

The day is called Ash Wednesday. It’s an annual Christian holiday which serves as the first day of Lent. Lent is a complex event, but it is essentially a six-week period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for Easter.

On Ash Wednesday black ashes are applied to a believer’s forehead in the sign of the cross, typically done by a priest or minister. The ashes  are a symbol of one’s penitence as well as of our mortality (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”).

If you can’t make it to a church on Ash Wednesday yourself, someone who did go there can apply the ashes from their forehead onto your own later in the day.  (Thanks for the ashes yesterday, Dad!)

Throughout history, many cultures around the world including Hebrews and Greeks have used ashes to indicate not only penitence but mourning and humility. Ashes are even mentioned in Homer’s The Iliad in 800 B.C.

Other cultures, like those of Nepal and India, also mark-up one’s forehead on special occasions, including happy ones. Nepal in particular has a wonderful tradition of “tika”, which is a red powder applied on the forehead during “happy” events like to welcome a visitor.

So for example, if you are going to volunteer in Nepal, you will most certainly be honored with tika by your host family and/or the place you will volunteer like a school or orphanage.

On my first trip to Nepal, in 2000, the elementary school where I taught English gave me an incredible welcome, filled with songs and a speech by the principal, all topped off by the staff and students smearing red tika on my forehead.

As you can see from the photos here, they were quite liberal with the tika! Having come to Nepal as a volunteer basically on my own with little knowledge of local culture, I had no idea I was in for the tika ceremony until they sat me down on that chair.

(And it didn’t help that the only person at my ceremony who spoke English was the guy busily taking these pictures without explaining a thing to me about what was happening!)

As the days and weeks went by on my volunteer trip to Nepal, I learned that tika wasn’t always a  full-contact sport. At my host family’s place during the Dasain festival, the most important holiday all year in Nepal, I (gently) exchanged tika with my host sister and brothers. The tika on this occasion wasn’t just powder but a mixture of the red dye powder (abir), yogurt, and rice.

And even when making a casual visit to a Hindu temple, the custom is to exchange tika with the friends and family you are with.

My clients who volunteer in Nepal often send me photos of their own tika experiences.

Here is one of my volunteers with her host family, riding in one of Nepal’s public minivans:

And another volunteer in Nepal with his host family in one of the villages in the Chitwan area.