There's a festival in Nepal where people give thanks to their dogs
United Kingdom tends to think of itself as a nation of dog-lovers, and it's an attitude that I understand, since I own two beloved pups myself. In fact, a study conducted by American Express recently showed that, of the approximately 8.5 million dogs owned by people in Great Britain, the population spends an estimated £10.6 billion on their pets. Across the pond in the US, canines are afforded just as much special treatment. According to the American Pet Products Association, total pet industry expenditures totalled $60 billion dollars in 2015.
It's safe to say that in the western world, man's best friend holds a special significance in the animal kingdom. We have bespoke breeds of dogs to suit our personal tastes, and dog shows like Crufts to ascertain which dog is the best-looking, most intelligent, and most obedient.
Nevertheless, when pressed, most of these devoted canine-lovers would baulk at the idea of actually throwing a public holiday just for dogs. Yet in Asia, it's a different story - in the Hindu world, an annual festival which honours society's faithful pooches is a tradition which is stretches back to the very early years of the first millennium. On the second day of Tihar, Nepal's autumnal religious festival, the country's loyal doggies have are commemorated, even worshipped, by the local populace.
Diwali (also known colloquially as the Festival of Lights) is one of the most important dates on the Hindu calendar. It signifies the triumph of light over darkness, truth over lies, good over evil, and falls somewhere between October and November.
The festival comprises five days, and each one bears a number of distinct traditions and practices. Before Diwali begins, people are expected to clean and decorate their homes and work spaces in preparation for the event. On Diwali night, people dress up in their best clothes, light up diyas lamps inside and outside their home and pray to Lakshmi, the goddess of fertility and prosperity, before settling down to watch the fireworks.
In Nepal however, tradition differs somewhat. Here Diwali is known as Tihar, and follows roughly the same practices. But on the second day of Tihar, known as Kukur Tihar, people take time out of their day to pay their respects to the dogs who help them in their own lives, and reward them with love and companionship.
The reason for this is that dogs hold a special significance in Hindu culture, and religious texts are filled with noteworthy dogs. Hindus believe in Sarama, the female dog of the gods, who assisted the god-king Indra in recovering his stolen cattle from a group of malicious demons. Hindus also believe that Yama, the lord and judge of the dead, owns a dog as a guardian and messenger, and a dog is also said to guard the gates of the afterlife.
In addition to this, in the Mahabharata, the ancient epic Sanskrit stories, Yudhishthira (the king of righteousness) refuses to enter paradise unless the devoted stray dog he had adopted earlier is allowed to accompany him. The dog then reveals itself to be the god Yama (also known as Yama Dharmaraja), who takes him to the underworld where he sees his family.
Because of this, it is a common Hindu belief that treating dogs well will help you get into heaven, and thus dogs represent the concept of Dharma, the spiritual path to righteousness and enlightenment which every Hindu must take. It is also believed that, on the day of Kukur Tihar, they gain mystical abilities to sense impending danger, and will warn worshippers about oncoming death and disaster.
Thus, during Kukur Tihar, every dog, whether it's a pet or a stray, is pampered and rewarded from sunrise to sunset. A garland of flowers called a malla is draped around their necks as a mark of respect. It also symbolises the prayers that the dog will pass on to Yama. A red mark, known as a tika is applied to the dog's forehead, using a paste made from abir - a red dye powder, as well as yogurt and rice. The red tika marks the dog as both a devotee of the righteous path, and ensures that the dog is treated with reverence by Hindus for the rest of the day.
Then it's on to the dog's favourite aspect of Kukur Tihar: the mountains of food offerings that they receive. The lucky dogs are fed all manner of tasty treats, including milk, eggs, meat, and good quality dog food. But if you're looking to give your pooch that little bit extra then you're also encouraged to treat the animal with delicious sel roti; a homemade, ring-shaped rice doughnut which is deep-fried in a manner very similar to churros.
Just looking at some of the images of this festival warms my heart. It's nice to see our faithful furry friends get the respect and admiration that they deserve. Although Kukur Tihar is a holiday of deep spiritual significance, perhaps our own culture could benefit from an equivalent? After all: we already have mother's day, father's day and valentine's day set aside to honour our parents and romantic partners: why not have a day where we give thanks to the animals we love and live with? Personally. I think it will be a hit with the dogs, although that probably has more to do with the free food than anything else.