Festivals in Nepal
Nepal is inseparable from festivals. With more than hundred ethnic groups and almost all with different language of their own, Nepal celebrates as many big and small festivals all through the year which help to get across the rich cultural heritage of Nepal. Nepal has always been rich in culture. Festivals help you get more familiar with the culture celebrated by particular community or country and have at least some idea about how and why they are celebrated. Every festival is celebrated with so much of enthusiasm and most of the festivals have religious origins and interweave cultural and religious importance in traditional activities. Some are even of national significance and often there are most favorite festivals of Nepal. Most of the festivals in Nepal are observed according to the lunar calendar so the festivals do not have the specific day matching solar calendar or English calendar’s date.
Among many celebrated festivals in Nepal, mentioned below are few most significant:
New Year is the time at which a new calendar year begins and in Nepali calendar, New Year begins in the first day of the first Nepali month Baisakh that usually falls in mid April. History of Nepalese New Year relates to history of Bikram Samvat and origin of Nepali calendar relates to period of king Vikramaditya. In other words, history of Vikram Samvat relates to ancient king Vikramaditya. Celebrating New Year begins in the evening by gathering, feasting and drinking until midnight. Like all around the world, New Year here too begins with resolutions followed by social gathering, family tours, picnics or even a day out. Marked as a national holiday, New Year is a time to exchange greetings and definitely spend some quality time among each other while some even exchange gifts. Nepali people celebrate New Year with an anticipation to spend rest of the coming days even better than the year that’s gone by.
Buddha Jayanti in Nepal is one of the religious festivals celebrated to rejoice Lord Buddha’s birthday. Lord Buddha was also known as “the light of Asia”. Buddha Jayanti falls in the month of May or Nepali month of Baisakh, on a full moon day, therefore Buddha Jayanti is also known as Buddha Purnima or Baisakh Purnima. Purnima in Nepali is known as full moon. Buddha Jayanti is considered thrice-blessed day for the Buddhists as on this day, Buddha was born, enlightened, and attained Nirvana. On Buddha Jayanti, people all across Nepal pay homage to Lord Buddha by gathering at different Buddhist monasteries and especially in Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, there is a huge crowd. On Buddha Jayanti, people lit butter lamps and chant prayers. There are processions held by different organizations and schools and also speeches on the life of Gautam Buddha, some religious discourses, continuous meditations and worship of the statue of Buddha. This day can be turned into an opportunity to visit Buddha’s birth place Lumbini where all sorts of events and fairs are held to honor Lord Buddha. Born as a prince to the king Suddhodhana and queen Mayadevi, Buddha left all the luxuries and worldly materials in search of understanding and finally when Buddha was enlightened, he dedicated the rest of his life preaching people. We not only celebrate this day to rejoice his birthday but also to stop the violence, follow the right living, follow the right action and speech.
Gai Jatra (Cow Festival)
The festival of Gai jatra is one of the most popular festivals that usually fall in the month of August/September. Gai Jatra is the festival of cow. Gai in Nepali means cow and Jatra means festival procession. Cow being the national animal of Nepal is also regarded very holy and are deeply worshipped. The festival of Gai Jatra was initiated by the king Pratap Malla to make his queen happy who was deeply saddened by her son’s death. He then came up with an idea to formulate a procession by putting together a person from each home that have lost their beloved ones and make her realize that she was not the only to have lost a loved one. The tradition of Gai Jatra is followed by taking part in the procession by those people who have lost a family member in the past one year. The process of taking part in the procession is a must where a young boy dresses in comically and paints his face and leading a cow, walks in the streets of Kathmandu and they are handed over with some homemade foods, fruits water etc by those people also mourning the death of their loved ones for a year. This festival purge many who have lost their loved ones as they get to console themselves as to they are not the only ones who have been bereaved. The festival also teaches to remind that death is inevitable and accept death as a part of life. Gai jatra is also all about humor, satire, comedy and mockery. Gai Jatra is considered as the day when people have the right to talk, point and satire the system, government and the leaders through various ways like magazines, articles, comedy shows, television etc.
Krishna Janmastami is the festival dedicated to Hindu god, Lord Krishna – an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu. This day is celebrated as Lord Krishna’s birthday in both Nepal and India. This festival usually falls in the month of August/September and its history dates back to thousand years ago. The Hindu devotees from all over the world assemble at nearby Krishna temple to worship the lord. In Nepal too, the devotees gather at the temples of Lord Krishna particularly at Krishna Mandir, the ancient Krishna Temple in Patan Durbar Square. The temples are well decorated and the devotees pray and chant hymns and they offer butter lamps, incenses, flowers, sweets, food and mainly curd as this is the most favorite food of Lord Krishna. Devotees also pay tribute by fasting and even start to pray and chant hymns on an evening before the main festival and waking up until midnight. The actual celebration takes place in the midnight since Lord Krishna was said to be born in the midnight. They devote all night in the name of Lord Krishna. The main importance of Janmashtami is to maintain kindness and to discourage any bad will. The festival of Krishnashtami brings much joy and feeling of unity and faith.
The grand Hindu festival of Indra Jatra is dedicated to Hindu God Indra – the god of rain. This festival falls in the month of August/September and celebrated particularly in Kathmandu by Hindus and Buddhists. This is a street festival that lasts for eight long days with mask dancing, chariot procession, grand feasting and drinking, prayers and rituals etc. There is a religious reason for celebrating this festival. As per the legend, Lord Indra appeared down on earth in search of the flower called Parijat (night jasmie), as per his mother’s demand because he could not find the flower in heaven and was told that he could find it in Kathmandu Valley. But soon he was detained by the people and tied him with rope. When his mother came down looking for her son, after being absent for long, people then realized their mistake. They immediately released him and to calm down his anger, people dedicated one of the grandest festivals and began celebrating Indra Jatra.
The first day of Indra Jatra begins with much of enthusiasm by erecting a pole known as Yosin or Linga with the banner of Indra followed by another event on the same day know as Upaku Wanegu where people pay tribute to the departed souls by visiting temples with lighted incense and also placing ssome butter lamps on the streets. This grand festival then continue with different mask dances like Elephant dance, Majipa Lakhe dance, Bhairav dance that take place around the streets of Kathmandu. You will hear a lot of drums beating and bells jingling around this time. Then there is a chariot procession where three chariots of the living goddess Kumari and her two attendants Ganesh and Bhairav are taken around different streets in Kathmandu in different days. At Haumandhoka Darbar Square, there are various interesting activities taking place and people gather in large number to witness. This festival is celebrated with great excitement and zeal especially in Newar community and they call this festival in Newari is known as Yenya. The area of Kathmandu Durbar Square seems to be severely crowded and come alive during Indra Jatra.
The Hindu festival of Teej also known as Hritalika Teej is celebrated only by female - both married women and girls - in August/September. Teej is considered really an important day to attain the blessings for happy married life. Though the significance of festival is mainly for married women, even unmarried girls celebrate Teej with equal enthusiasm and joy. Women dedicate this festival to their husbands. On this day, married women fast and worship Lord Shiva for the good health, wealth and longevity of their husbands while unmarried ones ask to be blessed with perfect husband. Teej is basically celebrated for three days. The first day is all about eating and merry making. It starts in the evening and continues until midnight. People invite each other and enjoy large and delicious feast until midnight. The next day which is also the main day begins with taking a bath and worshipping lord Shiva by offering butter lamps, flowers etc. One of the holiest Shiva temples called Pashupatinath is entirely crowded with girls and women and each one draped in beautiful red saree and fully ornamented. This is also the day when the devotees observe fast called “Nirjala Vrat” meaning fast without water!! The whole day women dance and sing at temples, home or even in some public places. This is quite a common sight to see on this day. As evening approaches, people begin to go home and worship their husbands as well. They break their fast by drinking water from their husband and eat very simple food while some even choose not to break their fast. The third or the last day is called Rishi Pachami. On this day, ladies go to Holy River and take dips, bathe and perform some rituals to conclude the fast. Many women actually choose this day to break their fast. Teej is celebrated in some parts of India as well. The process of celebration may differ depending on places and their influences.
Dashain or Vijaya Dashami is one of the biggest and the major Hindu festivals celebrated all over the country followed by another equally important Hindu festival called Tihar. Dashain is the longest celebrated festival (fifteen long days) that usually falls at the end of September or early October. Ghatasthapana marks the beginning of Dashain and ends with Vijaya Dashami. "Vijayadashami" is derived from the Sanskrit vijaya-dashami (victory on the dashami: the tenth day of the Hindu month). The day marks the victory of goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura so the festival is dedicated to Hindu goddess Durga and mainly celebrated to cherish the good over evil. The goddess fought with evil for ten days and nine nights. The festival is all about shopping, feast, rituals and prayers. Dashain is the time when people take time out to get in touch with family and friends so lots of social gathering can be expected. Many Hindus also observe the festival by food offerings and animal sacrifices to the gods at home and in temples throughout Nepal. The first day of Dashain is called Ghatasthapana, which literally means establishing of pot. On this day the kalasha is filled with holy water which is then covered with cow dung and sewn with barley seeds. Then the kalasha is put in the center of a rectangular sand block. The remaining bed of sand is also seeded with grains. It is then left as it is with small ritual every morning. This ritual of Ghatasthapana is performed at a certain auspicious moment after determined by the priests. Fulpati is followed nearly after a week. On this day, the royal Kalash is brought to Kathmandu after waking for three days from Gorkha district and the Fulpati parade is held where hundreds of government official also witness the event. The 8th, 9th and 10th days –identified as Astami, Maha Navami and Vijaya Dashami respectively are the main events. The 8th and the 9th day are full of rituals and animal sacrifices in different temples. The 10th or the last day known as Vijayadashami is celebrated as Tika. As a rule, on this particular day, the younger ones put tika from their elders along with jamara and some money as a part and gesture of blessing. People visit all their possible relatives and even friends’ home to seek blessings and exchange happiness. The actual social gathering begins from the 10th day and Tika is formally celebrated until full moon.
Tihar is the five-day festival mentioned as Yama Panchak in Hindu scriptures. It is commonly known as Dipawali and also as the festival of lights and you will know why it is called so. Tihar is usually celebrated between October/November and there is a gap of 15-16 days after Dashain and before Tihar. Each day of Tihar possess its significance and the main day being Laxmi Puja. The first day of Tihar begin by worshipping crow. The cawing of the crows symbolizes sadness and grief in the Hindu mythology, so the devotees offer the crows food to avert grief and deaths in their homes. The crows are worshipped by performing small ritual and people leave some food for the crow in some open spaces or on their roofs. The second day is followed by worshipping the dog. Dog is believed to be messenger of Lord Yamaraj - the god of death. People put vermillion and garland to their pet dogs and offer foods as well. Some people even worship the street dogs. This day is also basically a reminder to appreciate the dogs. Laxmi puja is celebrated on the third day along with worshipping the cow since cow is regarded as holy in Hinduism. Laxmi is the Goddess of wealth and during Laxmi Puja, no stone is left unturned in cleaning and decorating the house. Each home welcomes the goddess by offering everything new and also offers huge feast specially sweets. During this festival, everywhere oil-lit lamp burns bright, the streets looks lovely as every nook and corner of the streets seems to be decorated magnificently. While the bursts of the crackers add fun unlimited, it would be better to avoid it since the bursting of crackers has been banned. It would also be best not to purchase any kind of crackers during Tihar. By doing this, you will be helping to keep the environment clean and avoid any kind of unwanted accidents. Another significant day is Mha Puja – a day to worship oneself which is common only in Newar community while others worship and make offerings to an Ox. Tihar comes to an end with the celebration of Bhai tika – a day totally dedicated for brother and sister bonding. Sisters literally worship their brothers with some significant rituals and pray for their longevity and good health. Sisters even cook delicious food and bestow their brothers with attractive hamper filled with tidbits, fruits and sweets. In return of their sisters’ gestures, brothers too have some return gifts as a token of love and blessings. All brothers and sisters do make a great effort to make one another feel loved and happy.
Lhosar (Tibetan New Year)
Lhosar or Losar is a Tibetan word which means New Year. The word is composed of two characters: lo and sar. Lo means 'year' and sar means 'new'. So, Lhosar is a Tibetan new year that usually falls in the month of February and celebrated by the ethnic group of Nepal called Tibetans and Sherpas. Since the Tibetans follow a lunar calendar, the date of Lhosar varies from year to year. Lhosar is the festival that mixes sacred and secular practices. It is welcomed with great enthusiasm and traditional dances followed by grand feasts and family gatherings prayers, ceremonies that continue for days. People also look forward to new clothes, jewelries and exchanging gifts. Losar is celebrated for 15 days, with the main celebrations on the first three days. It is the most widely celebrated and this is also an occasion when everything is purified and renewed. The Buddhist monasteries in Kathmandu like Bouddhanath and Swayambhunath are festooned with eye catching colorful prayer flags and evening looks beautiful with butter-lit lamps all around. Lhosar rituals are related to establish a basis for a good and prosperous new year.
Saraswati Puja is also known as Basanta Panchami or Shree Panchami. This festival falls between January/February is dedicated to Hindu Goddess Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge. On this day, as a mark of respect to books and pens, all teachers, students, officers, writers, craftsmen or anyone gather to worship in a temple and pay tribute to the goddess and seek her blessings for wisdom and knowledge. The idol of the goddess Saraswati behind Swayambhunath is especially crowded on this day with all worshippers and especially students. People worship the goddess with fresh flowers and incense and write anything on the walls of the temple with chalks which is some kind of custom. People also fast on this day and as a part of tradition, this day is also considered very auspicious to piercings of new-born or anyone. On this day, people let their kids take an initiation on learning and writing and adults also choose to get married without having to seek any guidance from the priests. Schools and communities organize programs to celebrate this day in both religious and delightful way. Saraswati Puja is the day that also concurs with the arrival of spring.
Shivaratri (Maha Shivaratri)
Maha Shivaratri is another significant Hindu festival celebrated largely in Nepal. The festival is celebrated on the new moon day in the month of Maagha according to the Hindu calendar, i.e. sometime between February/March. As the name suggests, this festival is dedicated to lord Shiva who is one of the most worshipped gods belonging to one among Trimurti Gods: Brahma, Bishnu and Maheswor where lord Shiva is known as Maheswor. He is also popularly identified as “the lord of destruction” due to his extreme rage. According to the mythology, there are various reasons why we celebrate Maha Shivaratri but one of the popular beliefs says that this festival was celebrated to pay tribute to the lord Shiva as on this day, he saved the world from being poisoned by drinking the poison himself. This day is also considered to celebrate the marriage of lord Shiva and his wife goddess Parvati. On Shivaratri, people in Nepal gather at the Shiva temples all across Nepal. People also from all over India gather especially at the temple of Pashupatinath which is regarded as one of the holiest temples for the Hindus all over the world. People settle in queue all through the night to worship the lord and have his blessings bestow on them. Pashupatinath temple is extremely crowed on this day. People take a dip and bathe in the holy river at early dawn and fast for the whole day. Also the sight of Sadhus with ashes rubbed in all over their body is a common sight. In most communities, people collect some money and woods and at night they gather around fire to cook food and eat as a holy food. This is also the day when the devotees freely indulge in using marijuana as marijuana is considered sacred and lord Shiva’s favorite.
Holi is a spring festival celebrated by the Hindus that fall in between February/March on a full moon day. It is celebrated both in India and Nepal with great excitement and rapture. Holi in Nepal is also known by the other name called Phagu and though it has a religious significance, it is purely a celebration celebrated to express the joy of extermination of an ogress named Holika when she along her king brother Hiranyakashyap – also an ogre- conspired to kill his son Pralhad, a dedicated disciple of Lord Vishnu. Hence Holi is also marked as the victory of good over evil. In Nepal, There is a tradition of erecting a long bamboo stick locally called lingo at Basantapur Durbar Square, just a week before the main day of Holi. The bamboo would be covered in cloths also known as Chir, of various colors. The Lingo reminds that the colorful festival is just around the corner and one can spot different types of water guns, balloons and colors in the market already. A day before the main festival, there is a small occasion in the evening where the lingo is taken down and the cloth is burned down and this process is known as Chir Haran or an extermination of Holika. Since Holi is the festival mainly of color and water, the street on this day is all filled with colors and people throw balloons filled with water at each other. People make their own group and roam around the streets by dancing and singing and relish festival delicacies. People also indulge in hemp mixed with different kinds of sweets. On this day people also choose to forgive and forget and start a new beginning by putting color on each other. The end of Holi also signifies bright summer days ahead.
Ghode Jatra (Festival of Horses)
Ghode Jatra is the festival of horses that falls in between late March or early April. Ghode or Ghoda in local language means a horse and Jatra mean parade or procession. Like many other festivals in Nepal, Ghode Jatra too possesses its religious significance especially in Newar community from Kathmandu therefore celebrated with enthusiasm in Kathmandu. For those who do not celebrate Ghode Jatra, this is purely an event of horse parade that happens in a place called Tundikhel which is a huge meadow in Kathmandu and this parade at Tundikhel is believed to keep the demon’s spirit away. On this particular day of Ghode Jatra many people from outside valley also come to Kathmandu to gather at Tundikhel to witness the horse parade and also some other exciting sports activities performed by the Army in presence of some government officials. The public completely enjoys the crowd and the parade while there are some grand rituals performed followed by invitation and large feasts in Newar community.