Nepal is a multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. As a result the number of festivals exceeds that of the days of a year. For some foreigners, these festivals are mysterious, colorful and pleasant. Moreover they have a great deal more about them. They emerge from the depth of the socio-cultural aspects of life. The festivals have mythological, religious and historical background. The ceremonies, as a whole reflect a way of life, unique in its own place. Nepalese people pay homage to every element of nature; they mark the change of seasons and rejoice sowing seeds and harvesting.
- Indra Jatra
The eight-day long Indra Jatra festival falls in September and is one of the most exciting and revered festivals of the Newari community of the Kathmandu Valley. This also marks the beginning of a month-long festival season of autumn. It begins with the erection of a wooden pole made of pine at Basantapur Sqaure in front of the old Hanuman Dhoka Palace. For the pole-raising ceremony, hundreds of spectators gather at the Palace Square and on the surrounding temples. The chariot of Kumari, the Living Goddess, is taken out in a procession through the main streets of Kathmandu. Masked dancers known as Lakhay take to the streets almost every evening accompanied by loud drums.
The festival commemorates the time when Indra came down from heaven in human form to look for an herb. Each night of Indra Jatra the shrines and ancient palace buildings around Kathmandu Durbar Square are aglow with oil wicks. Each night on the platform in front of the temple of the Living Goddess, there is an enactment depicting the ten earthly incarnations of Lord Vishnu. In the afternoon of the daybefore full moon, ecstatic mobs gather near Hanuman Dhoka Palace for the long-awaited Living Goddess’ chariot procession to catch a glimpse of the revered little Newari girl who has been deified as Kumari. The chariot of the Kumari followed by two other smaller chariots carrying a representative of Ganesh and Bhairav is taken to different parts of the old Kathmandu. The festival of Indra Jatra ends with the lowering of the (lingam) pole bearing Indra’s flag amidst religious ceremonies.
- Bisket Jatra
The official New Year, according to the Solar Calendar is celebrated throughout the country. The day falls in the mid-April the First the month “Baisakh”of Nepalese. People extend best wishes to each other and organize music and dance programs. In Bhaktapur, a historical town 12km, east of Kathmandu the New Year day is celebrated in grand manner observing religious rituals. The festival is called Bisket jatra. It has its origin in the ancient history, legends and mythology. People relate with different stories about the festival; however they are more or less similar.
To sum up the different stories, serpent demons and the marriage of an extraordinary princess believed to have taken place in the pre-historic time. On the day before the New Year, about eighty feet long huge pole, lingam made of a shore tree is erected with the efforts of thousands of people. The symbols of two dead serpents also are hung on the pole. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day an enormous crowd gathers around the pole and feels it amidst great cheers and rejoicing. It symbolizes the end of the old year.
During the month of Kartik (late September and early October), the Nepalese people indulge in the biggest festival of the year, Dashain. Dashain is the longest and the most auspicious festival in the Nepalese annual calendar, celebrated by Nepalese of all caste and creed throughout the country. The fifteen days of celebration occurs during the bright lunar fortnight ending on the day of the full moon. Thorough out the kingdom of Nepal the goddess Durga in all her manifestations are worshiped with innumerable pujas, abundant offerings and thousands of animal sacrifices for the ritual holy bathing, thus drenching the goddess for days in blood.
This festival of lights that falls between October/November is the second biggest festival after Dashain. This festival lasts for five days and people worship Laxmi – the Goddess of Wealth. All the houses are cleaned and decorated with the belief that Goddess Laxmi will enter the house that is the cleanest and people lit candles, oil lamps and other lights and the whole place looks illuminating. During the five days, crows, dogs and cows are worshipped and honored with vermilion, garland and delicious food for what they have done in the lives of humans. Crows are regarded as the messenger that brought news even during the times when there were no postmen and no postal services. Dogs are the most obedient animals and they guard our house as true guardians. Cow is also a symbol of wealth in Hinduism and she is also the national animal of Nepal.
During Tihar, the Newari community in Nepal also observes Mha puja – a ritual of worshipping one’s own body and life. On this very day, the Newari New Year which is also known as Nepal Sambat begins. The festival ends with Bhai Tika – brothers’ day when his sisters worship him for his long and healthy life to safeguard the lives of his sisters. This is also a gambling time in Nepal as gambling is not illegal during this festival.
This is a Hindu married woman’s day for her man. This festival is celebrated in August/September. Women clad in beautiful red saris with shining potes (glass beads), singing and dancing is the sight almost everywhere in Nepal during the festival of Teej.
On this day women observe a fast and pray Lord Shiva for the long, healthy and prosperous life of their husbands and their families. The unmarried women also observe this festival with unabated zeal with the hope that they will get to marry good husbands. From early dawn, women queue up in the multiple lines in Pashupatinath to offer their prayers to Lord Shiva.
- Lhosar (Tibetan New Year)
This is the New Year of the Tibetans and Sherpas of Nepal which falls in February. The Buddhist monasteries in Kathmandu like Boudhanath and Swayambhunath are decorated with eye catching colorful prayer flags pulling the crowd. The people perform their traditional dances and welcome their New Year with feasts and family gatherings wearing all the new clothes and finest jewelries and exchanging gifts.
Shivaratri or the night of Lord Shiva that falls sometime between February/March is one of the major festivals of Nepal. This day is dedicated to the Lord of the Lords – Lord Shiva or Mahadev who lived in Mt. Kailash in the Himalayas. Lord Shiva is the most worshipped God in the Hindu religion. More than 100,000 of Hindu devotees from India and Southeast Asia throng weeks ahead of the festival and gather in and around Pashupatinath temple – one of the holiest shrines of the Hindus in Kathmandu to pay their homage to Lord Shiva on his birthday.
“Pashupatinath” literally means “the Lord of animals” as Lord Shiva is considered as the guardian and protector of everything that exists in the Himalayan Kingdom. On this holy day, worshippers take dip and bath in the holy river at early dawn and fast for the whole day and stay around fire to keep them warm as it is still winter in Nepal. The devotees also freely indulge in using marijuana and other intoxicating substances as these things are believed to please Lord Shiva and marijuana use is legal only on this sacred day.
This festival of water and colors that falls between February/March is also known as “Phagu” in Nepal. This day is observed to rejoice the extermination of female demon Holika who together with her King brother conspired to kill his son Pralhad, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. This day, playful people especially the young ones wander through the streets in groups on foot or vehicles with various colors smeared all over them and the people in houses make merry throwing colors and water balloons at each other and also to these people on the streets.
- Gai Jatra (Cow festivals)
This festival of cow is celebrated every year in August/September. This is one of the most popular festivals in Nepal as it is full of humor, satire, comedy, mockery and shades of sadness too at the same time. And on this day satires and jokes on anybody is legal. As per the tradition, the family who has lost a relative during the past one year must take part in a procession by sending young boys in cow like attire and walk through the streets of Kathmandu lead by a cow. Cow is regarded as a Goddess and it is also the national animal of Nepal. This festival also purges 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 and it also teaches to accept death as a part of life.
- Rato Machhindranath
The festival starts in the last week of May or early June. It is celebrated to offer worships to Machherndranath, the merciful patron god of the valley of Kathmandu and the god of harvests. This spectral festival reflects important aspect of socio-cultural life of the valley and its last for several days. Rath of tremendous size about 48ft tall is prepared at Pulchowk and hauled through the city of Patan in several stages and it is finally taken to Jawalakhel in an auspicious moment carefully calculated by astrologers.
The festival culminates when the sacred waistcoat (BHOTO) is displayed for the entire populace to behold. There are many myths related with the festival, however the most influential is that the festival is celebrated to commemorate the arrival of Lord Machhendranath to protect the people of valley from a fearful draught. The deity is believed to have brought rain with the help of serpent deities.
- Mani Rimdu
This festival is celebrated mostly in Sherpa communities in the month of Ashad (June-July). This merry festival is observed with great enthusiasm in Helambhu and Khumbu region. In this festival, Lamas perform rituals. All the Sherpas including Lama dance with the mixed feelings of solemnity and mirth. This great festival is dedicated to the Lord of the Dance who closely resembles Avalokiteshvara, The Buddha of Compassion. The festival lasts for around 19 days of which only the last three are open to the public. The entire festival can be broken down into creative and destructive parts. The creative period comes to a climax during the full moon when the gate of the monastery is opened to the public to receive blessings (Wong). The next day is the most anticipated part of the festival. Various dances are performed on this day with each one more amazing than the other. Most of the performances symbolize the destruction of negative forces. There are also numerous comical interludes in between. The day after the masked dances, there is a fire ritual (Jinsak) in which evil is destroyed symbolically. The meticulously created mandala is also destroyed during this day.
Dumji is very important festival of Sherpas and commemorates the birth of the legendary Guru Padmasambhava. While in the rest of the world the Guru’s birthday is celebrated in the tenth day of the sixth Tibetan month, here in Khumbu it is celebrated a month earlier and festivities begin on the first day of the fifth month. The first 6 days are usually preparative with the villagers going to the designated organizer’s homes to lend them a hand. The festival proper begins on the seventh day when the flagpole is hoisted in the monastery. In the following days, there are masked dances, fire rituals, changing of prayer flags around the village and most importantly the worship of Khumbila, the patron deity of the entire Khumbu region.
This festival is celebrated in the five communities of Phakding, Namche, Khumjung, Thame, and Pangboche, with the Namche and Khumjung editions deserving a special mention. Very few outsiders get to see this festival though as it happens in June-July when the monsoon is in full swing.