In the auditorium at Akron's North High School, Mahananda Luitel spoke English to about 100 olive-skinned women in saree dresses and ceremonial sashes, like the kind wrapped around the necks of distinguished guests.
“Mother is God. Without mother, we cease to have life on Earth,” Luitel told to the audience before him, which included his own mother and six other women in their 90s.
“You are our guests,” he continued. A generous applause quieted Nepali voices in the crowd. “You are our Gods today. We respect you. We honor you.”
Hindu men met their female counterparts Sunday — on the first day of the annual three-day Teej festival — with gratitude. The celebration of women is among 20 or 30 Hindu customs worthy of a festival each year. Each tradition survived two decades of captivity in the refugee jungle camps of Nepal, where the Bhutanese lived before resettling by the thousands in North Akron.
Here, life's difficulties involve adjusting, not the political oppression and genocide they left behind. But they must fight still to keep tradition alive in their American-born youth.
As Bhutanese women took their last sip of water to fast on the first day of Teej, 300 Bhutanese travelers from Minnesota, Georgia, New York and across Ohio awoke to finish a three-day soccer tournament at the Copley Sports Complex.
The Teej women’s festival, which cost about $3,000 to put on, and the sporting event, which cost many times more to reserve the fields and most of a local hotel, were paid for by Dilli Adhakari, a successful Bhutanese businessman who runs a home healthcare agency.
The events are supposed to foster unity and sustain community, said Bhakta Rizal, a Bhutanese activist whose nonprofit Shanti Community Farms gives refugees in Akron's North Hill a place to grow their native crops.
“When we get together, when we play together, we can pass the culture onto them,” Rizal said.
Each night of the soccer tournament, Rizal said the Bhutanese guests would meet in hotel conference rooms to share the challenges and solutions of growing their local communities, whether in Atlanta, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. It’s a chance to instill discipline and breed entrepreneurship in youth, keep older generations that have trouble learning English connected and “bridge the gap” between the two generations, Rizal said.
He and fellow community leaders with the Bhutanese Community Association of Akron said the inaugural Peace Zone Championship Cup that ended Sunday will return next year and the year after. The goal is to grow America’s premier soccer tournament and annual gathering for many of the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in America who consider Akron to be the capital of their new homeland.
Rizal, Luitel and others organizers behind the pair of events this weekend invited local media and non-Bhutanese community members to attend. They want to build multi-cultural relationships with their new neighbors.
“I think the community needs to know that they’re such a peaceful, prideful, generous culture,” said Lura Pethtel, a 90-year-old white woman from Tallmadge who was recognized on stage Sunday with six other nonagenarians, all of them from Bhutan by way of Nepal.
Pethtel volunteers at the International Institute of Akron (IIA), which resettled and continues to support most of the local Bhutanese population. At IIA, she met Luitel, a leader among local Hindus who teaches English to fellow refugees.
“I’m here because I have found them to be wonderful,” Pethtel said Sunday. “They are gentle and generous and fun.”
The North High School event was steeped in customs from Bhutan, Nepal and a religion that emphasizes peace and harmony but can be misunderstood, attendees said.
“People here in the western world believe that Hindus have too many gods,” said Dhatri Bhattarai, who interpreted for Narad Timsina, a local Hindu priest. “But there is one supreme God and there are other deities who keep and pass messages to the main God, like disciples.”
Popular Hindu gods like Krishna are but the many forms of Vishnu, said Timisina, who spent 18 years in a Nepalese refugee camp. A witness to oppression, he now “walks as a priest” in America, said Bhattarai.
The three-day Teej is practiced in various ways, to achieve various means, depending on the various cultures of Hindu people in Nepal and North India. But they are all led by women.
Priests believe the celebration to be 40 million years old. It began, as the story goes, when Lord Shiva answered the Goddess Parvati's prayers. A symbol of strength and wisdom, he appeared and married her.
In North Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and other places where Bhutanese people have made their homes, women fasted on the first day, unless they are not healthy. They danced. If unmarried, they prayed for a husband as virtuous as Lord Shiva. If already wed, they prayed that their husbands, children and communities be blessed. After sunset, the women were served a feast.
On day two, the Bhutanese pray to Lord Ganesh for peace in and outside their homes. "We want the local community to be involved for the good sake of the community," said Sha Neopaney, the past president of the Greater Akron Hindu Sewa Samittee, which organized the women's festival Sunday.
Day three in Nepal ends with women bathed in nearby rivers, wiping their bodies with kush grass, apamarga, til and other plants. The cleansing wards off disease. But it’s also like confession or baptism, in that it washes away evil.
“They believe that sins they have committed in the past, whether knowingly or unknowingly, will be removed,” Timsina said.
There won't be bathing in the Little Cuyahoga River on Tuesday, the priest explained. Instead, they'll perform the ritual in backyards as an old tradition finds a way to live in Western society.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.