FESTIVALS OF NEPAL
Many people wryly comment that Nepal seems to have more festivals than working days and sometimes, especially in Kathmandu, it seems to be true. But then it can also be deemed quite natural what with there being people of major religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and a host of ethnic diversities within a tiny nation of less than 30 million people.
Note: With descriptions of each separate festival, the day(s)/date(s) cannot be given exactly as, according to the official Nepali (Hindu) Calendar, the actual days and dates of festivals change every year as per lunar influences. Only the approximate corresponding month(s) are given here.
Popular Annual Festivals
Mata Tirtha (Mother’s Day)
Falling in the first month of the Nepali year (April/May), this festival celebrates Mother’s Day (not however coinciding with the Mother’s Day marked in many countries in the rest of the world). It is also called Mata TirthaAunsibecause it coincides with the new moon of the month.
Buddha Jayanti (Birth anniversary)
Observed nation-wide to mark the birth of Lord Gautama Buddha in Circa 543 BC on the day/night of the full moon (May/June), this auspicious day is marked not only by Buddhists but also by Hindus. Devotees flock to their local Gomba (Buddhist temple) to offer prayers and to be blessed and to take part in a neighbourhood procession carrying holy Buddhist texts on their heads.
It is universally accepted that Siddhartha Gautam, later Lord Gautama Buddha, an Indian prince, was born to Queen Maya Devi in Lumbini of Nepal while she was on her way to her maternal home to give birth, as was the custom. The religion that Buddha preached became oneof the the world’s greatest faiths and in Nepal enjoys equal status and reverence with Hinduism. In the Kathmandu Valley, home of the unique hybrid religion of Hindusim-Buddhism, Buddha Jayanti is marked with great joy and reverence in the sacred shrines of Swoyambhunath and Bouddhanath, and in the numerous smaller Buddhist temples (‘Gompas”) all over the country.
On this day, all males privileged by caste to wear the “janai”, sacred Hindu “holy” thread, next to their skin, are required to replace the old thread with a new one blessed by priests during obligatory rituals. This event falls during the full moon (poornima).
Simultaneously, the day is also called RakshyaBandhan (Unity of Protective Affection). Sisters tie coloured threads (almost like cotton bangles) on the wrists of their brothers as a sign of affection and unity, and are presented with gifts of money, clothing and sweets.
GaiJatra (Cow festival)
Especially observed in the Kathmandu Valley and some major cities, this festival is full of fun and feasts, and marked largely in honour of deceased family elders. Child participants join processions in the streets dressed in comic costumes aimed to make their ancestors laugh. Various magazines, tabloids and cartoonists take this opportunity to outrageously lampoon the government and political personalities, with absolutely no fear of recriminations. (August/September).
Krishna Janamastami (Birth anniversary)
Marked to celebrate the birth (in prison) of Krishna, worshipped as the incarnation of Lord Vishnu the Preserver. Lots of drum beating, flowers, incense and processional dancing.
GokarnaAunsi (Father’s Day). * “Aunsi” – darkest night of the month.
(Late August/Early September)
A distinctly women-oriented festival in which female employees are given the day off, Teej festival requires married women to fast and pray for their husbands’ well-being and prosperity and unmarried maidens to also fast and pray for a suitable life partner. Largely observed in Kathmandu and other major cities, this event sees an abundance of ladies in red with their ornaments who make great merriment. Many western women visitors in Kathmandu at the time join their Nepali sisters in singing and dancing around the grounds of holy PashupatiNath Temple.
(End August/Early September)
IndraJatra (Mainly in Kathmandu).
Much preparation and great enthusiasm mark this very important Hindu event, held to honourIndra, the God of Rain, in anticipation of the coming months of planting. Kathmandu’s incumbent Kumari or “Living Goddess”, a pre-pubescent virgin, regarded as being the representative of the Valley’s guardian deity, is taken around Kathmandu’s streets in ceremonial procession seated in a colorful wooden chariot. (Late August/Early September)
Widely observed during a nine-day period in the lunar month (late September/Early October), Dashain is Nepal’s most important and most auspicious festival, which, although it has religious connotations, is largely an opportunity for family reunions, bestowing of blessings and gifts, and much drinking, feasting and gambling. It is also regarded by most Nepalis as being an occasion to reaffirm their national identity as Nepalis, regardless of caste, creed or social and economic status.
Purists consider Dashain to be also a celebration of victory of good over evil: the defeat of the demon king Ravana by Hinduism’s greatest epic hero Rama who at the same time rescues his beloved abducted wife Sitafrom the demon’s kingdom of Lanka (now known as Sri Lanka).
Tihar (or Diwali)
Following closely on the heels of Dashain, TiharhonoursLaxmi, Goddess of Prosperity. This festival is highlighted by ritual ceremonies in Hindu temples and the lighting of hundreds of thousands of oil lamps and electric lights in doorways, windows and rooftops: thus “the Festival Lights”.
The occasion is also marked by a ceremonial renewal of fraternal bonds (BhaiTika) between brothers and sisters by coloured and powdered paste on the formers’ foreheads and an exchange of gifts of money, clothes and food. Choirs of singing and dancing celebrants go from house to house to entertain and to be gifted with food and money, very similar to Christmas carol singers.
An interesting feature of Tihar is the honouring and feeding of birds and animals each different day: crows, dogs, the ox, the cow and so on since they are considered to be living members of the Universe. (Late October/Early November)
Celebrated sometime during the Nepali month of Magh (corresponding to mid-January/mid February), one of the coldest of the year, this festival is observed to mark the end of the inauspicious month of Poush (mid-December) during which all forms of religious rituals are prohibited. It also marks the oncoming of warmer days and greater prospects of good health and good fortune. Maghesankranti means a good deal of eating a great variety of yams and home-made sweets.
Falling in January/February, this festival is largely celebrated by students since it honoursSaraswati, the Goddess of Learning, and daughter of Lord Shiva and his chief consort, Durga.
Maha Shiva Ratri (February/March)
Literally translated, Maha Shiva Ratri means “the Great Night of Shiva” on which He, the third but most important of the Hindu Celestial Triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, is believed to visit PashupatiNath temple in Kathmandu and other Shiva temples throughout the Hindu world. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and thousands of “holy men”, many naked, smeared in grey ash and armed with their tiger-skins, tridents and their marijuana pipes, descend on PashupatiNath temple on the banks of the holy river Bagmati.For the first timer, this night can be mind-blowing!
FaguPoornima, or “Holi” (1 March)
The actual length of this festival is a week but the most important day is the last when celebrants throw coloured powders and water on each other to mark the death of the demonessHolika. Foreign visitors in Nepal at this time prefer to call it the “Festival of Colours” and join locals in the mad celebrations with gay abandon.
GhodeJatra ,or the Horse Festival (March/April)
This festival, exclusive to Kathmandu, is largely a colourful military event attended by the top civil and military brass of the country. Army equestrians show off their skills, brass and (Scottish) pipes and drums strut their stuff, young men and women in fancy traditional costumes dance, ancient cannons boom and hordes of civilians throng the capital city’s army pavilion and grounds. Those who wish to get a glimpse of the “Living Goddess”might do so since she also visits the pavilion to enjoy the military spectacle but from a discreet corner.
Bagh (Tiger) Festival
Exclusive to the Lake City of Pokhara, this event was begun some 150 years ago by the Newari people who shifted there from Kathmandu. As the name suggests, it marks the deliverance of of locals from a marauding tiger at some point in time. Men colourfully dressed as hunters and accompanied by traditional musicians, parade the streets of Pokhara for three days until the colourfulmock “slaying” of the “tiger” on the last day. (Early August.)
Guru Poornima (Teachers’ Day)
In Nepal, teachers are greatly revered. This full-moon day sometime in June/July is set aside for students of all levels of academic study to honour their teachers. Homage is also paid on this day to Lord Buddha to mark his conception in his mother Queen Maya Devi’s womb, and to Saint Vyas who wrote the immortal Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.
The locals of the city of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley celebrate this important Newari people’s festival with great gusto, hundreds of young men hauling a massively wheeled wooden chariot about a hundred feet high through the streets, honouring the deity of Rato (Red) Macchindranath, praying for abundant harvests in the coming year. (January)
Mani Rimdu (End October/early November)
A very important Buddhist festival brought into Nepal from Tibet several centuries ago by Sherpa immigrants who settled in the Khumbu Valley of the Everest region. A largely monastic event featuring masked dances and rituals by Buddhist lamas, the main Mani Rimdu event is held annually in the grounds of the world-famous Thyangboche monastery (3870 m) with the majestic Everest and Mount AmaDablam creating an immense backdrop.
Lhosar or Tibetan New Year (February)
Lhosar is celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists (including Sherpas) all over Nepal: in the Khumbu and Helambu of the northern regions and in Bouddhanathin Kathmandu.
Note: Apart from the official (national) New Year’s Day, other “new year’s days”, also known as “lhosar” are also celebrated by various ethnic groups such as the Newars, Gurungs, Tamangs, Rais and Limbus.
Tamu (Gurung) Dhee. (August)
This annual event essentially identifying the Gurung community (from which large numbers of “Gurkhas” for the British and Indian Armies are recruited) is observed in those areas (such as Pokhara, Ghandrung and some enclaves in the southern parts of the Sagarmatha (Everest) Zone. Related to animism, TamuDhee is marked to drive away evil spirits and negative influences that threaten social peace,prosperity and security.
RathYatra or “Chariot procession”(August/September)
This spectacularly colourful procession is held in the Indo-Nepal border town of Biratnagar to honour Krishna’s birth. The procession begins from the temple dedicated to Krishna and his favourite consort Radha, led by a six-meter tall chariot carrying their images and pulled among by devotees.