Nepal is a country of festivals. In fact, the Nepalese are said to observe more festivals than there are days in the year. Hardly a day passes without some festivities, ceremonial observances or pilgrimages occurring in some part of the country or the other. The following is a brief description of the major festivals observed in the country.
On the first day, ceremonies begin around dusk outside the Bhairab Temple in Tarumadhi Tole where a huge 4-wheeled wooden chariot has been readied. The chariot, carrying the shrine of Bhairab and Bhadrakali, is paraded through the town. And during a break, residents from the eastern and western halves of the town rally for possession of the chariot in a mammoth tug-of –war. The winning side gets the privilege of taking care of the deities for the next seven days.
At the end of the seventh day, the chariot is then taken down a steep alleyway to the banks of the Hanumante River where an enormous 25-meter pole is raised. The next day again there is a tug-of-war in the feeling of the pole to signify the beginning of the New Year.
In the nearby town of Thimi, the Balkumari Jatra takes place, during which the people of Thimi honor the goddess Balkumari, one of Bhairab’s consorts. All through the day devotees gather outside the Balkumari temple and in the evening hundreds of oil lamps are lit. The following day the townsmen parade 32 different dieted in palanquins around the temple where saffron and vermilion powders are tossed towards them. It is a colorful scene, a sea of humanity bathed in sacred colors. The festival reaches its climax when the palanquin bearing Ganesh, brought from the village of Nade, makes a dash to return home and gets chased by all the other palanquins. Should they manage to catch Ganesh, the festival gets prolonged a little longer but eventually Ganesh does return to Nade after which the procession moves on to the Taleju Temple.
Following this event, sacrifices are made to the Balkumari in the neighboring village of Bode where there are only seven deities borne on palanquins. In Bode takes place an event which might seem bizarre to outsiders. A volunteer in a spiritual trance gets his tongue pierced with an iron spike. Good fortune to the village and to the volunteer will follow should he succeed in spending the whole day thus spiked.
RATO MACCHENDRA NATH RATH
This is the longest as well as the most important festival of Patan. It begins with several days of ceremonies and the fabrication of a wooden-wheeled chariot at Pulchowk, near the Ashoka Stupa. The chariot bears the shrine of the Rato (Red) Macchendranath (the Tantric expression of Lokeshwar) and carries a very tall spire fabricated from bamboo poles tied together from four ends of the chariot. This unwieldy spire is around 10 meters tall and on account of which, the chariot balances precariously. It is said that calamity is certain to strike the land in the event of the chariot overturning or breaking down during the course of this festival (Quite often, the chariot does collapse and break down.)
Following the construction, the chariot is towed through the streets of Patan by throngs of devotees every day. Each day, it is put to rest in one of the many venerated spots in the city. This goes on for a month until it comes to rest on the big field outside zoo and end with the Bhoto Jatra, another major festival, during which the jewel-studded bhoto (vest) of Machhendranath is displayed to the public.
The spring full moon day when the Buddha was born is celebrated as Buddha Jayanti or Swanya Punhi. The day is thrice blessed since it commemorates the three important events in the Buddha’s life: his birth, the day he attained enlightenment, and the day he passed into Nirvana.
In Kathmandu, celebrations marking Buddha Jauanti are concentrated around the stupa of Swayambhunath, the most sacred among all Buddhist monuments in Nepal. Devotees gather from early morning to worship and walk around the shrine in ritual circumambularion. Offerings of butter lamps, rice, coins and flower, and prayer ceremonies go on throughout the day. Religious scroll paintings (Paubha) and images of the Buddha are put on display.
The Buddha Jayanti celebrations are equally fascinating at Boudhanath. An image of the Buddha is mounted on an elephant at the head of a procession that circles the stupa and then proceeds to another stupa and then proceeds to another stupa at Chabahil. Large symbolic lotus petals are painted on the stupa with yellow dye of saffron. Prayer flags flutter in the air, and as night falls, the stupa and the monasteries are illuminated with the light thousands of butter lamps.
MATA TIRTHA-MOTHER’S DAY
The Mata Tirtha festival seeks to highlight two unique aspects of Nepalese culture. One that of the worship of the mother as representing the Divine female energy, a culture in itself, and the other of holding one’s parents, elders and ancestors in high esteem.
On this day, men and women offer ritual food, sweetmeats and other gifts to their mothers. It is common to see men, women and children dressed in their finery carrying gifts of food and going to meet their mother to bow and touch her feet as a mark of veneration. The mother in return, touches the forehead of her offspring as a gesture of blessing.
For those mothers have passed away, it is their sacred duty to visit the Mata Tirtha Ponds, a sacred pilgrimage spot about 8 km southwest of Kathmandu, just off the Thankot road. The rituals there are usually associated with a holy bath of one of the two adjacent ponds, followed by a Shraddha (annual rites performed in honor of the dead.)
In Hinduism, Naag (the divine serpent) is glorified as the provider of rain. Naag is worshiped to provide a good harvest during the monsoon season, and Naag Panchami, the fifth day of the bright lunar fortnight, is set aside for worshiping serpents. Devotees on this day paste pictures of Naag over their doorways with cow-dung. As part of the rituals to propitiate the divine serpents, milk, their favorite drink is offered to the pictures. Failure to appease them may invite droughts and disaster in the days ahead.
Devotees also throng Taudaha, a pond six kilometers to the south of Kathmandu. There they worship Karkotak Naag, the serpent-king. Karkotak moved to this dwelling when Manjushree drained the lake that used to cover the Valley. Pilgrims also visit the rural Newar Township of Dhapakhyo in Lalitpur, where at Ngadha, they pay homage to the serpent-gods.
JANAI PURNIMA, RISHI TARPANI OR GUNHI PUNHI
On this day, Brahmins and Chettris have their annual ritual of changing their sacred thread called the Janai. Rishi Tarpani is the day to pay ablution to Rishis, as the hermits practicing self-denial are known. The full moon day thus sees hordes of Hindu priests with their clean-shaven heads taking dips in the holy water to purify their bodies before they get on with their business of offering sacred yellow threads to their clients. The native Newars of the Kathmandu Valley call this festival Gunhi Punhi, Kwati, soup of nine different sprouted beans, is prepared in Newar households as the specials dish on the day’s menu.
In the Kathmandu Valley, the biggest celebration takes place at the Kumbeswar Temple in Patan. A richly decorated lingam, the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva, is placed on a raised platform in the middle of the historic Kumbheswar Pond for devotees to worship. Another ceremony that takes place here is called Byanja Nakegu in which rice is offered to frogs. Since the water in the pond is believed to come from Gosainkunda, via an underground channel, a bath in Kumbhewar is considered as meritorious as one in Gosainkunda . However, the more devout Hindus trek to the sacred lake at an altitude of 4,298 meters and take a dip in the freezing of coins and coconuts too Shiva and Parvati.
Literally meaning Cow Festival, this is a jovial festival that lasts for eight days. Dancing, singing, pantomime anything that causes mirth and laughter is part of the festival’s highlights. On the first day of the festival, people whose family members have died during the year parade a decorated cow around the city together their young ones dressed as cows or hermits.
The sacred animal helps departed souls cross the cosmic ocean in their journey into the after-world. Family members join the cow procession to ensure smooth passage for their loved ones because the gates of the after-world are open only on this day.
Gai Jatra sees the streets of three cities of the Valley filled with musical bands, children in costumes made to resemble cows, and cows gaily ornamented with colorful paper fans tied to their horns and garlands of flowers around their necks. People stand at the crossroads to offer sweets and drinks to the participants. In Kathmandu, the festival route passes by the Durbar Sqaure, so this is a good place to observe this festivals.
Humorous and satirical affairs are held to cheer the bereaved families. There are street events and stage shows making fun of government officials and some people come dressed out like lunatics roaming around the city to make people laugh. In Nepal’s pre-democracy days, only on this particular day were newspapers permitted to criticize the functioning of the government.
In Kathmandu, the bereaved families proceed along the festival route individually. In Patan, all the participants first gather at the Durbar Square and then move out together. However, it is the celebration in Bhaktapur that is the most interesting. Tall bamboo contraptions, wrapped in cloth and topped with horns fashioned of straw, are carried around the city in memory of the dead. Palanquins bearing clay figures of cows are also paraded around. One prime attraction during this festival are processions of weirdly made up Ghintang-gishi dancers gyrating to the rhythm of boisterous music. Gai Jatra is also celebrated in all other hill towns of Nepal where there are large Newar communities.
The birth anniversary of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is one of the greatest Hindu festivals for the Hindus of Nepal. Krishna’s exploits as a child when he subdued fierce demons and performed miraculous feats specially endear him to his devotees. In his boyhood, Krishna exploits as a child when he subdued fierce demons and performed miraculous feats specially endear him to his devotees. In his boyhood, Krishna killed the evil king Kansa, his maternal uncle, to liberate the people from his atrocities. During the 18-day war depicted in the great Hindu epic Mahabharat, Krishna served as the de facto commander and strategist for the righteous Pandavas.
In Kathmandu Valley, the focal point of this festival is the Krishna Mandir in Patan Durbar Square. Men and women from afar gather around the 17th-century temple and sit in a vigil waiting for the midnight hour – the hour of Krishna’s birth. Euphoric prayers and incantations fill the air, and small oil lamps are lit as a mark of devotion. At midnight, the chanting becomes more frenzied, and people rush to worship the impressive image of Krishna inside the temple.
A blissful conjugal life, progress and prosperity for her husband, good fortune for herself, and purification of her own body and soul: these are what an ideal Hindu woman is supposed to aspire for. Teej, the lively festival exclusively for womenfolk, is a spiritual endeavor towards the realization of their aspirations. For an unmarried woman, compliance with the age-old tradition ensures a good, loving and caring husband.
The festival combines both sumptuous feasts and tormenting fasts. On the first day of the three-day celebration, groups of women, both married and unmarried, congregate at one place in their finest attires. Amidst laughter, songs and music, the grand feasts begin. The merry making goes on till midnight, from which time onwards the women undergo a 24-hour fast.
The next day sees these women, in their crimson saris, singing and dancing on the streets leading to Shiva shrines. The main activities revolve around the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. On this special day, the temple remains closed for all males, except the Brahmin priests. Female devotees, as a mark of total devotion to Shiva the Destroyer, circumambulate the lingam, the phallic symbol of the Almighty, making offerings of flowers, sweets and coins, and praying for their husband’s longevity, progress and prosperity.
The third and last day of the festival is called Rishi Panchami, which is the fifth day of the waxing moon. On this day, women who have undergone the agonizing fast pay homage to various deities situated on the banks of sacred rivers. After a holy bath in the rivers, they use a piece of Datiwan (a sacred plant with religious and medicinal significance), to sprinkle holy water all over their body 360 times. The ritual helps then secure exoneration for all sins they might have committed in the past year.
Indra Jatra is the festival dedicated to Indra, the god of rain. Only observed in the city Kathmandu, it is celebrated for eight days. This is the only time when the Royal Kumari is paraded through the city of Kathmandu. Installed upon a decorated chariot, the Kumari is pulled through the street by devotees. The celebration is confined to the traditional market and residential areas of the old Kathmandu lying within the periphery of Hanuman Dhoka. Throughout the festival period, the streets and alleys come alive to the beat of drums and the jingle of bells on the Lakhe dancers’ legs as they leap about their dance steps in the darkness.
Dasain glorifies the triumph of Good over Evil, of Goddess Durga’s slaying of the terrible demon Mahisasura, who roamed the guise of a ferocious water buffalo. Ten days of intense sacrificial and joyous worship celebrate fertility and the victory of good over evil, as represented by the goddess Durga Bhawani and the various gods who fights the demons.
The first day of Dasain is called Ghatasthapana, which means establishing of the holy water vessel, which represents the Goddess Durga. Barley seeds are planted in it.
The seventh day or Phulpati is the offering of flowers and leaves, carried by runners from Gorkha, the ancestral home of the Shah Kings of Nepal, and received by the King in Kathmandu. On Maha Ashthami, the eighth day, the fervor of worship and sacrifice to Kali and Durga increases. Animal sacrifices highlight events of the ninth night to appease Durga, the Goddess of Victory and Might.
Dasain takes its name from Vijaya Dashami, the Great Tenth Day of Victory. This is the day when Lord Rama slew the demon Ravana and when Durga vanquished the demon Mahisasura. On this day tika is received from elders. The tika symbolizing victory is a blessing of good fortune.
TIHAR & LAKSHMI PUJA
Tihar is known as the festival of lights and is celebrated for five days. On the occasion of Laxmi Puja houses are illuminated at night. An assortment of special sweets are prepared and offered to guests. At this time certain animals are also favored with food and garlands. The first day of Tihar is dedicated to the crow, the second to the dog, the third to the cow and the fourth to the ox. On the fifth day, women who have brothers offer them Tika and special food. In return the brother gives his sister a token of appreciation usually in the form of money and renews his commitment to protect her honor.
Maghe Sankranti is the first day of the month of Magh. Magh is a sacred month so the first day is celebrated with a feast at home that particularly constitutes of yam, butter and brown sugar. Lord Vishnu the Preserver is worshipped and thanked for the return of the warm season once more. Through the month of Magh, people busy themselves with religious activities such as taking an early morning bath in holy rivers, visiting the shrines of Vishnu and offering flowers, incense and food, and reading the Bhagavad Gita.
Losar is the Tibetan New Year. All the Tibetan- speaking populations most impressively observe this festival in the month of February. They organize folk songs and dances on this occasion. These dances can be seen in Khumbu, Helembu and other northern regions of Nepal and also at Boudhanath in Kathmandu.
Maha Shivaratri, or the Great Night of Lord Shiva, is observed in honor of Lord Shiva’s day of birth. A great fair takes place at the Pashupatinath Temple as thousands of pilgrims from all parts of Nepal and India congregate in celebration.
FAGU PURNIMA OR HOLI
This is a colorful occasion when people smear each other with colored powder and splash water balloons onto one another. The Chir pole is erected at the Kathmandu Durbar Square gaily decorated with colorful flags. That is the formal announcement to everybody to hide all his or her good clothes and to join in the revelry.