Dogs treated like royalty for Tihar, the Nepali Diwali

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Rocky sat patiently as his people rubbed vermilion powder onto his forehead, placed a garland around his neck and showered him in marigold petals. 

Then he scarfed down some chicken-flavored treats.

Rocky is a Japanese Spitz, and his owners, Mon and Mani Sanyasi, are Hindus who were honoring their dog as part of Tihar — the Hindu festival also known as Diwali — in their cozy apartment on Columbus’ Northeast Side.

Often called the festival of lights, Diwali holds different meanings and is celebrated differently by different populations across South Asia, as well as their diasporas in the United States. A common theme is the victory of good over evil, which is symbolized by lighting candles and fireworks that illuminate villages, towns and cities over the holiday.

For the Sanyasi family, the holiday also involves ritual worship of cows, crows — and dogs.

“We’re all the same,” Mon told The Dispatch in Nepali. “They may have four legs, but they’re a lot like us. They get hungry; they get thirsty; they like to go explore. … The main thing is, you’ve got to love them.”

The Sanyasis belong to the Bhutanese Nepali community, who number around 30,000 in central Ohio. Most Bhutanese Nepalis are Hindu, although there are significant Buddhist and Christian minorities.

The Hindus celebrate Diwali as the victory of the god Rama over a demon named Ravana; “Tihar” is the Nepali-language term for the five-day festival.

The Sanyasi family came to the U.S. through the refugee resettlement program seven years ago, after being evicted by the Bhutanese government and spending decades in camps in Nepal. Mani and Mon, along with their daughters Reha, 16, and Amisha, 20, have since become American citizens.

Today, Mani works at a meat processing plant while Mon is a homemaker.

“I like America, but my heart misses Nepal and Bhutan during the holidays,” Mon said in Nepali. “In Nepal, nearly every home is celebrating, lit up with lights. But here, we’re the only Nepalis in our complex — it’s like we’re celebrating alone.”

In Nepal and Bhutan, families gather for feasts of chicken and goat, and make special rice-flour doughnuts called selroti, she explained.

Brothers offer gifts to their sisters in exchange for blessings, and groups of carolers go door-to-door to perform call-and-response songs.

 “It’s kinda like Halloween, but instead of candy you get money,” Amisha said.

People also feed crows and place vermillion powder on cattle during the holiday.

Dogs are worshipped because they are the gatekeepers for Yama, the god of death. 

As Mani butchered a chicken for dinner using a cleaver, Mon prepared for Rocky’s ritual by lighting incense and a butter lamp. She sprinkled rice grains by the family’s altar, which has images of the god Shiva and goddesses Laxmi and Parvati.

Then Amisha held Rocky, who was surprisingly cooperative, while her mother rubbed red vermillion powder onto his forehead as a symbol of respect. Mani brought out a plastic flower garland, purchased from a local Nepali grocery, and placed it on Rocky’s shoulders.

The canine, who is just a year old, looked a little confused, but not unhappy.

“Good boy,” Amisha said.