Nepal is the Land of Festivals with at least one part of the kingdom celebrating a festival every day of the year. Festivals may be linked with the remembrance of the departed soul, to herald a different season, to mark the beginning or end of the agricultural cycle, to mark national events, or for family celebrations. On a festival day the Nepalese take their ritual bath, worship different gods and goddesses, visit the temple, observe fasting and undertake feasting. The most important aspect of Nepalese culture is the religious harmony and understanding prevailing among the Hindus and Buddhists.
Buddha Jayanti Celebrates in May, Kathmandu.Losar (Tibetan New Year): Held in February, Swayambhunath, Jawlakhel and highland communities
The rich cultural heritage of Nepal is best expressed in the many large and small festivals that occur throughout the year. Though the Nepalese have diverse beliefs and ethnic background, all unite in the celebration of the year’s major festivals.
here are many kinds of festivals: some honor certain Hindu and Buddhist gods or goddesses, some recreate important events from ancient mythology and epic literature, some herald the seasons or mark important times in the agricultural calendar, and others propitiate the minor deities that populated the spirit world of the country.
Festivals such as Dashain and Tihar are of national significance; some such as Bisket or Red Machhendranath Jatra, belong to the traditions of the old Valley towns; and still others, such as Mani Rimdu, are celebrated only in particular countryside community. It has been said that in Nepal, & quot, every other building is a temple and every other day is a festival & quot, whatever time one visits Nepal, there is certain to be a colorful and rewarding festive experience.
The annual dates for the festivals were fixed long ago on specific days of the ancient lunar calendar. Obviously these do not coincide with the solar calendar currently used in Nepal, nor with Gregorian calendar. Calendars are printed each spring at the beginning of the Nepalese year which show all three dates – the lunar, the Nepalese and Gregorian. The Nepalis skip nimbly from one to the next while Westerns flounder in confusion.
Thus, unless one is a learned astrologer, possessed of mathematical genius, there is no way to foretell the exact date for next year’s festivals.
The Nepalese Calendars
The calendar question, in Nepal, is a little complex. Indeed, in addition to the Western (Gregorian) calendar, which is merely tolerated, there are four different ‘time computers’.
a) The official calendar, mandatory in all public acts and correspondence. It is called "Vikram Sambat Era" comes from the name of Vikramaditya, which started on Feb. 23re, 57 B.C. But the year begins in Mid-April.
b) The Newar community, in Kathmandu Valley in particular, are traditionally and sentimentally attached to their own calendar which is, paradoxically, called ‘Nepal Era’. This Nepal Era started in 879-880 A.D. The year begins on the festival called Tihar that takes place on the new moon night of the month of Kartik (Oct./Nov.).
c) The third calendar is the ‘Sakya Era’, which began in 77-78 A.D. under King Raja Nanda Deva, a descendant of King Amsuvarma, the founder of the Licchavi dynasty. This new era is said to have been introduced in commemoration of Nanda Deva’s access to the throne.
The Nepalese New Year’s Day
On this day a popular festival takes place in the 3 rd city of Kathmandu valley Bhaktapur, where a gigantic pole installed with two long flags hanged on the top will be laid down (rooted out) in a great pomp and show. This will last for a week, many chariots festivals of Gods and Goddesses will be celebrated with open joys and cheers.
Red Machhendranath Jatra (April)
This festival is the biggest socio-culture event of Patan. It begins with the chariot journeys of the most widely venerated deity of the Nepal valley, who resides in his twin shrines at Patan and Bungamati. His popular name is Bunga Deo, but non Newars call him also by the name of Red Machhendranath. The wheeled chariot is prepared at Pulchowk and pulled through the town of Patan in several stages until several month later it reaches Jawalakhel for the final celebration of this festival called the Bhoto ekhaune. The two Machhendranath of Patan and Kathmandu form part of same cult of Avalokiteswara in the Mahayan religion.
Buddha Jayanti (May)
This day which falls on the full moon of the month of Baisakh is celebrated to commemorate the birth attainment of enlightenment and the death of Gautam Buddha, the founder preacher of Buddhism, more that 2500 years ago. Prayers are sung and worship is offered by the Buddhists in leading Buddhist shrines throughout the country including Lumbini in the Rupandehi district, which is the birth place of Buddha. There is a great fare held at Lumbini on this day.
Janai Purnima (Rakchshya Bandhan) (August)
The full moon of the month of Shrawan, the day when this festival is observed is considered sacred all over Nepal and is celebrated in different manner by various groups of people of Nepal. However, the most widely accepted mode of celebration is that on this day all the twice-born caster take ritual bath and they change their sacred thread. Everyone gets strings of thread on his wrist from the Brahmans as a protective mark for the whole year. This day is also held sacred for bathing in Gosainkunda. One can also see a pageantry of the Jhankris attired in their traditional costume as they come to bathe at Kumbheshwor at Patan. These Jhankris also visit the temple of Kailinchowk Bhagwati in Dolkhas district where they go to bet for their healing powers as they are the raditional healers of the Nepalese villages.
Gai Jatra (The cow festival) (August)
In this festival teen-aged boys addressed up as cows, parade the streets of the town. This costume springs from the belief that cows help the members of the family who died within that year to travel to heaven smoothly. Some are also dressed up as an ascetic or a fool for achieving the same objective for their dead family members. Groups of mimics improvise short satirical enactment on the current social scenes of the town for the entertainment of the public. The week beginning from Janai Purnima actually unfolds a season of many good religious and cultural activities.
The Buddhist monasteries open their gates to the visitors to view their bronze sculptures and collection of paintings for a week. At Patan, one observes the festival of Mataya at this time. The festivity of Gai Jatra itself lasts for a week enlivened by the performance of dance and drama in the different localities of the town. The spirit of the old festival is being increasingly adapted by cultural centers, newspaper and magazines to fling humor and satire on the Nepalese Social and Political life.
The day is celebrated as the birth anniversary of Krishna, one of the incarnations of Vishnu. Religious fast is observed and Krishna’s temple visited by the devotees on this day. A procession goes around the town displaying the pictures of Lord Krishna, a practice which was started in the recent years by a social organization called the Sanatan Dharma Sewa Samiti.
This is a festival for the ladies. On this day the Nepalese women go to Shiva temple in colorful dresses to worship Shiva. In Kathmandu Valley they go to Pashupatinath and then worship Shiva (Hindu God of Destruction) and whatever they wish that will be fulfilled.
Indra Jatra (September)
Like Gai Jatra, this also heralds a week of religious and cultural festivity in Kathmandu. There is several face of this festival. On the night when this festival begins members of the family in which death has taken place within one year, go round the town limits of Kathmandu burning incense and putting lamps along the route. The same morning a tall wooden pole representing the statue of Indra and large wooden masks of Bhairab are put on display in the bazaar. Several groups of religious dance like the Devinach, Bhairava and Bhakku as well as Mahankalinach come into life during this week. The week also commences with pulling of chariot of Ganesh, Bhairava and Kumari in Kathmandu. On this historical day, King Prithwi Narayan Shah made a victorious march with his troops into the town and ascended the throne of Kantipur the old name for Kathmandu displacing the Malla King Jaya Prakash Malla.
Ghatasthapana – Bada Dashain (Vijaya Dashami) (September – October)
It is truly the national festival of Nepal. Every Nepali is stirred by the prospects of the joy that this festival is supposed to bring with it. The change of mood is also induced psychologically by the turn of autumn season after a long spell of monsoon, introducing clear and brilliant days, an azure blue sky and a green carpet of fields, the climate is also just ideal at this time, it is neither being too cold nor too warm. The Nepalese cherish their Dashain as time for eating well and dressing well. Each house also sets up a shrine to worship the Goddess at this time. Barley seeds are planted on the first day in every household and nurtured for nine days. During this period Goddess Durga Bhawani is worshipped and offered a lot of blood sacrifices. Buffaloes, goats, chickens and ducks are killed by the thousands at the temples at military posts and in every household. One of the main centres that witnesses the animal sacrifice in a large scale at this time is the Hanuman Dhoka palace on the night of the eighth day and morning of the ninth. On the concluding day of the festival called the Tika, the elders of the family give Tika to their junior members and to other relatives who may also come to seek their blessings. The fresh shoots of the barley are also given. Family feasting and feting of guests is a common practice at this time.
Tihar (October - November)
It lasts for five days and is marked by worship to different animals such as crow, the dog and the cow, five various days. The most important day is Laxmi Puja. The most endearing sight of this festival is presented by the illumination of the entire town with rows of tiny flickering lamps on Laxmi Puja. In the evening of this day, the Goddess of Wealth, Laxmi is worshipped at every household and it is in her welcome that myriad of lamps are burnt. On the fifth day sisters show their affection towards their brothers with a puja and feed them with delectable food. They pray for their brother’s long life to Yama, the Hindu God of death.
For one Year after the death, the soul of the dead wanders around awaiting entrance to the underworld and it is the inescapable duty of living relatives to provide it with substance, comfort and peace once or twice each year and Bala Chaturdasi is one of them. The relatives pay homage to Pashupatinath and offer grains while taking a round of the temple.
Shree Panch Prithwi Jayanti (January)
The day is celebrated as the birth anniversary of the great conqueror of Nepal, the first Shah King of United Nepal. The great festivity celebrates particularly around the bronze life size statue of the great monarch in front of the magnificent unique Lion Palace’Singha Durbar’ in Kathmandu. On that day a large procession in its front with a big life size photo of the king in a well-decorated chariot starts from Basantapur in the ancient Royal Palace square and ends in front of Lion Palace. On the same day evening, the ritual bath of White Machhendra takes place at Kel Tole, Kathmandu.
Magh Sankranti (January)
A Sankranti signifies the first day of any month in the Nepali calendar year. The first day of the month of Magh, which falls in January is sacred day in Nepal, because the sun, on this day, is believed to be astrological in a good position. It starts onits northward Journey in its heavenly course on this day, thus announcing the commencement of the Uttarayana. In the Nepalese belief this day marks the division of the Winter and Summer Solstice. Bathing in rivers is prescribed from this day, especially at the river onfluence and feasting with rich foods of special preparation is common in the family.
Madhav Narayan Mela (January)
A religious procession of the devotees fasting for a month ago with a silver statue of Lord Vishnu to Aryaghat, Pashupati, Deopatan, Kathmandu. Thousands of people get together there to take holy bath in the Bagmati river at the time of the submergence of that statue of Lord Vishnu in the Bagmati.
Basanta Panchami (January)
On this day Nepalese people bid farewell to the winter season and look forward to welcome the spring season. Most of the people of Nepal worship Goddess of learning called ‘SARASWATI’. The people of Kathmandu valley go to a little shrine near Swayambhunath to worship this Goddess.
Maha Shivaratri (February)
This is the most famous and celebrated festival of Nepal which attracts large crowds from far flung places both in India & Nepal. The festival is consecrated in honor of Shiva. It is observed by bathing and holding of a religious fast. All Shiva shrines become the places of visit for ‘Darshan’, but the greatest attraction of all is held by the temple of Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. One gets to see many thousands of Hindu devotees coming to visit the temple of Pashupati. Among them are a large number of Sadhus and Naked ascetics. Many people like to keep awake for the whole night keeping vigilance over an oil lamp burnt to please Shiva. Children are seen keeping awake similarly over a bonfire in many localities. In the afternoon an official function is held to celebrate this festival at Tundikhel. The Royal Nepal Army organizes a show in which series of gun fire are sounded. The ceremony is witnessed by His Majesty the King.
Happy Holi (March)
The ancient Hindu festival of Holi falls on late February or on early March. Allegedly named after the mythical demons Holika, it is a day when the feast of colors is celebrated. The festival is of a week. However it’s only the last day that is observed by all with colours. Phagu is another name for Holi where Phagu means the sacred red powder and Pune is the full moon day, on which the festival ends. People can be seen wandering through the streets either on foot or on some vehicle, with a variety of colors smeared over them.
Families and friends get together and celebrate the occasion with a lot of merry making. This spring time celebration is also an outburst of youthful exuberance in which throwing colors and water balloons (lolas) on passer- by is acceptable.
But, the Indian community, that is, the Marwari class who has settled down in Nepal for centuries and the people of Terai celebrate it a day later with more pomp and ceremony.
The days prior to the last don’t have a lot happening except, the installation of the ceremonial pole called “chir’, on the first day. It’s a bamboo pole, fringed with strips of cloth representing good luck charms. It is said to symbolize the tree on which lord Krishna hung the milkmaids’ garments while they were bathing, unseen as they thought, in the Jamuna river of northern India. As the pole is put up in the street at Basantapur, the festivities and worship commences for the week. At the end of which its taken to a bonfire.
The myth following Holi, reveals that a friend named Holika together with her brother, an atheist king by the name of Hiranyakasyapu conspired ways to kill his son Pralhad because Pralhad was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. But their attempts always failed for Lord Vishnu protects those who love him. Finally, Holika who having received a blessing from Lord Bramha to be immune to fire, jumped in with Pralhad. But Brahma’s blessing could only be used for good purposes and so Holika was consumed by the fire where as Pralhad was saved by the grace of the Gods. Thus, Holi is said to be celebrated to rejoice Holika’s extermination and the traditional bonfires are believed to commemorate her death.
According to another story, from the Puranas and the Bhagvat, Kansa sent a female demon named Putna to kill his nephew Lord Krishna. Taking the form of a nurse Putna went to Brindaban where the child Lord Krishna was growing up and tried to feed Him her poisonous milk but the attempt backfired and she was killed. Her body was burnt on the night of Holi. So some consider Holi, the festival of fire also. Holi for everyone is a time for fun and frolic. A day when one forgets the worldly anxieties and just enjoys the finer things in life.
Ghoda Jatra (March)
The festival has two sides of its celebration. Its cultural side involves the Newars of Kathmandu, who celebrates it for several days; the idols of the Gods of many localities are taken in a procession in their area in portable chariots. Every household will be feasting at this time. A demon called ‘Gurumapa’ is also propitiated at Tundikhel. The other \aspects of the festival is provided by the function organized by the Royal Nepalese Army at Tundikhel in the afternoon of the main day. Horse race and acrobatic shows are presented at this time in which His Majesty the King will be present. A meeting of Lumari, Bhadrakali, Kankeshori and Bhairab at Asan on the second day of the main celebration is another highlight of the festival.
Seto Machhendranath Jatra (March)
On this day a popular festival held in honor of the white Machendranath, who is actually the Padmapani Lokeswara, whose permanent shrine is situated at Matsyendra Bahal in Kel Tole in the middle of the bazaar in Kathmandu. A huge chariot of wood supported on four large wheels and carrying tall spire covered with green foliage is made ready for receiving the image of the divinity on this occasion and for dragging in the old town. There is such a spontaneous and heavy turnout of the devotees to pay homage to this God, who is also said to be the ‘Embodiment of Compassion’ at this time.
Ram Nawami (March)
This day celebrates the birth of Rama, one of the incarnation of Vishnu, a prominent Hindu God. Religious fast is observed and worship is offered to Rama. A special celebration takes place at Janakpur temple of Rama and Janaki on this day.
“Mother’s Day”: This religious festival is known as Matatirtha Aunsi. We see mother’s face on this ritual day. It is a special occasion for greeting and paying respect to all mothers by offering a lot of gifts like fruits, cookies, etc. those who have missed their maternal parents are obliged to take a holy bath at Matatirtha Sthan in fond memory of the departed souls.
This is a special Buddhist festival lasting for one month. It lies between the bright half of Shrawan and the dark half of Bhadra. They call it the “Holy Buddhist Month” rather. Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, Swoyamvu and Adinath are the focal points of grand worship this occasion. Public rituals including classical band music and signing of hymns take place early in the morning throughout the entire month. The display of divine images, particularly the ones of the Dipankar Buddha, is displayed in all the ‘bahals’ of the Valley. Gunla is precisely the sacred month of the Newar Buddhist, a time of special prayer and worship exercises.
The month includes events like Pancha Daan the Five Offerings rite, Bahi Dyo Boyegu the Exhibition of the Gods, and Mata-Yaa. Unrelated festivals occur throughout the month as well. It is a month of light field work while significantly many of the pujas require extremely long walks. The Great Stupa of Swayambhunath, illuminated every night this month, is the major center of daily worship for Kathmandu Newars. Patan Buddhists journey to Chobahal and its Adinath Lokeshwor Temple. Devotees begin walking from the city around 2-3:00 a.m., many leaving small oil lamps on the trails and roads to either hill. Women at home fashion votive images from rice flour as well as alluvial black clay each morning, accumulating them throughout the month.
First week it’s Namo Buddha, past Dhulikhel, second week Sankhu’s Khadgayogini Temple (many also detour to Champak Narayan Temple on return), third week Swayambhunath walk, done on the full-moon light (though some folks ride buses to and fro), the other hikes are all on Wednesdays. On the 8th day of the bright moon Patan Buddhists hold the Panch Daan rites, reenacting the days when monks lived solely off the alms of the people. In important bahals in the morning, the Golden Temple (Hiranya-Barna Mahabihar) for one, a high-priest in ceremonials grab asset to receive the Five Offerings unhusked rice, polished rice, lentil seeds, wheat and salt. From the 12the day of the bright moon the Exhibition of the Godly statues begins. Buddhists bihars in Patan, Bhaktapur and the central part of old Kathmandu display their various religious treasures. These may be bronze images, old Buddhas (some wooden), thangkas, gifts from the faithful (including the clothes they intend to wear in Heaven) and painted narratives scrolls.
The latter are mounted on the walls of the bahal and are good specimens of a little-known art form. The best in Patan are found at Guita Bahal, in the eastern quarter, while in Kathmandu two festivals stories are subjects at Itum Bahal it’s the Guru Mapa tale and at Thamels’ Thabahil it’s the saga of Chakandyo. The exhibition runs through the second day of the dark moon. In Kathmandu, Kathesimbhu (Shreegha) and the bahals on the Kumari’s Mata-Ya route are the most interesting. In Patan the Golden Temple’s collection is the easiest to view, but many bahals hold exhibitions and it can be quite a walk of discovery searching them out. On the 13th day of the dark moon Kathmandu Buddhists stage their own Panch Daan, decorating bahals with Buddha portraits and adoring stupas. Sometimes the ceremonials are very elaborately staged and even include khat processions to and from Swayambhunath. On the last morning of Gunla Newar women gather up all their homemade votive images and ritually immerse them in the sacred river. The following day group of devotees come to Swayambhunath Hill for an all-day picnic.
Lhosar (Tibetan New Year)
LHOSAR marks the Happy and Prosperous New Year for all Tibetans (refugees or not) and Bhotia individuals living in Nepal. It is celebrated by the Sherpas, Tamangs, and some Lhasa-Newars comprising the Dhakhwas of Patan and the Tuladhars of Kathmandu as well. The surname of ‘Lama’ applies to both the Tamangs and the Sherpas as a common factor. Thus the overall faith in general practiced by those special-ethnic communities is known as ‘Lamaism.’ It is a high time for feasting, dressing-up, calling on relatives, visiting companions and dancing to the enchantment of some fervent music. The charming occasion signals the unofficial end of the off-season trades and commercial trips too, as it is traditional to be home for Lhosar. It would be disgusting and against the ‘Dharma’ or religion for any of them to miss Lhosar.
Lamas and monks in the ‘gompas’ (Mahayan Buddhist monasteries) perform a week-long Mahankal Puja (worship ceremony) first, an exercise so designed to eliminate all the accumulated defilements of the preceding year. Two days before the new moon from about one’s clock in the afternoon, costumed monks at Swayamvu Stupa (a recognized WORLD HERITAGE SITE) carry out a large idol representing the old year and tote it through the Great Stupa complex and further down around the back to the ‘saddle’ existing between the two knolls of Swayamvu Hill which is sometimes called the Bajra Hill (Dorji Ri) also. There the head Lama whose authentic title goes ‘Rimpoche’ fatherly conducts the rites accompanied by intermittent drumming and horn-blowing by monks all along the ridge. At the conclusion this peculiar idol is set ablaze. The procession returns to the Great Stupa and performs a supplementary rite yet right before the ‘gompa’ namely KARMA-RAJ which virtually ends with the mass hurling of barley-flour known as ‘champaa’.
Lhosar’s ceremonies and celebrations appear private and domestic for the next several days until the bright morning of the fourth day. The big crowds of colorfully robed and ornamented hill citizens gather at Boudha Stupa (a recognized WORLD HERITATE SITE)- the largest shrine of Asia. Tenish a hearty procession of monks escorts an image of the Dalai Lama around and up onto the first level of the Great Stupa. He as the Living Buddha is the Religious Head and the Spiritual Leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community. The phrase of Dalai Lama in the Mongolian language signifies ‘Ocean of Wisdom.’ The present one living in exile is virtually the fourteenth incarnation and His literal Tibetan name goes Tenzing Gyatso one of the winners of the International Peace Award. At the Stupa various persons pay ritual homage for the next half hour or so. The glamorous ceremony concludes with the blast of long trumpets and of course the hurling of ‘champaa.’ Lhosar is indeed the best opportunity to view Himalayan Buddhist peoples in a great primitive and civilized splendor. The Sherpa homelands of Helambu, a location four day trek north of Boudha bazaar, and Solu Khumbu of east Nepal in particular lying adjacent to Mount Everest are pure sceneries of much public merry-making during Lhosar including both religious and folk dances which unanimously contribute to the typical aspects of the ‘Shangri-La’!