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IMPORTANT FESTIVALS OF NEPAL

The Nepali calendar is clogged with festivals except during the rice-planting season, which coincides with the monsoon. Some of the important festivals are listed below. One of the most important festivals and celebrated by a majority of Nepalese people is Dashain but the more spectacular are the chariot festivals. The other important festivals are Tihar, Gai Jatra (jatra=festival in the Newari language) Biska Jatra, Buddha Jayanti, Krishna Astami, Tihar, Lhosar, Seto Machhendranath Jatra, Rato Machhendranath Jatra, Indra Jatra and Mani Rimdu. Some festivals are celebrated by the Newars (indigenous people of Kathmandu valley) alone; some by only Buddhists or only Hindus, yet others are generally celebrated by most Nepali people.

Dasain

The Dasain festival takes place around Sept-Oct and is celebrated by most communities in Nepal. This, like Christmas is the time when family members come together regardless of where they are. The festival lasts for ten days and each day is marked with some ritual ceremony. During the course of Dasain many animals are sacrificed and unique to Nepal, there is even a military parade, which is attended by the King and Queen. Many people pass their time gambling, drinking, feasting and merry-making in general. The most important day is the tenth and last day when elders of the family bless their juniors by applying tika on their foreheads. All are dressed in new clothes for the occasion and feasting follows the tika ceremony. Tika however is not restricted to this day as it is not possible to visit all relatives on one day. The tika ceremony can be conducted until the full moon.

Tihar

Dasain is soon followed by Tihar, which is popularly known as the Festival of Lights. The most striking feature of this festival is the lighting up of houses with hundreds of oil-wick lamps. Modernization has replaced the oil-wick lamps with electric bulbs. But many follow tradition and light oil-wick lamps as they still do in the villages. This is a five-day festival with the most important being “Bhai Tika” when sisters put tika on their brothers’ foreheads and give blessings. Each brother is expected to offer his sister a gift and the sister prays for the brother’s protection and long life. The other important day is the day of “Laxmi Puja” when all pray to Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. It is believed that on this day, the Goddess visits all the houses that have been well lit; hence the tradition of lighting oil-wick lamps. Gambling, feasting and going from door to door singing Tihar songs make up the activities during this festival. While going from door to door singing traditional songs, they receive money and in return, they bless the household.

Chhat

For people living in the terai belt (plains), Chhat is one of their important festivals. This is the worship of the Sun God. The first day is spent on preparations as various food stuffs must be prepared for offering the Sun God as well as to consume after a day long fast. The festival takes place by the banks of the rivers where devotees gather to pray to the Sun God. On the first day the gathering takes place in the late afternoon to wait for the sun to sink below the horizon at which time they lay offerings of fruits and other edibles along the banks. Lighted oil-wick lamps are floated on the river, suspended on paper boats. As the sun goes down, the worshippers wash in the river make offerings and pray. The following day the gathering takes place before sun up. There are many who observe penance by prostrating themselves along the way. As the sun comes up, many enter the water to bathe and pray turning several times around in the water. There are huge gatherings along the banks of the rivers during this festival. The offerings are taken home and distributed as prasad (blessed food).

Lhosar

lhosar
An important Buddhist festival is Lhosar, the Tibetan New Year. It usually falls around February and is celebrated by Tibetans, Sherpas, Manangays and some of the Tamangs and Gurungs who live in high altitudes. However, they do not all celebrate on the same day. Lhosar like Dasain also lasts for weeks as families travel to visit relatives over the week following Lhosar. The festival begins with the thorough cleaning of the house and everything in it. Each day is marked by a ritual like the throwing away of evil on the first day. There is much singing and dancing, feasting and there is even an opera like performance at Boudhanath. Drinking alcoholic beverages is a part of the Lhosar Festival, hence there is much merriment. It is also their tradition to sing and dance to entertain visiting relatives, who happily join in. The monks in the monasteries perform rituals for the good of all mankind and hold ceremonies to rid the earth of evil spirits.

Shivaratri

Shivaratri literally means “Night of Lord Shiva” and is celebrated around the temples of Shiva in late February or early March. The most important location is the Pashupatinath temple, which receives hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims during this festival every year. This is a one-day affair but sadhus (holy men) and other devotees start descending on Pashupati from months before the big day. On the day of Shivaratri there are massive crowds who come to pay homage and even the Royal family arrives to pay their respects. Bathing in the holy Bagmati river and laying offerings at Shiva’s shrine, the crowds mill around until evening when bonfires are lit that last until early morning. Pashupati witnesses the biggest crowds during Shivaratri and a large police force is required to maintain order.

Bisket (Biska) Festival

This festival is unique to Bhaktapur and is celebrated during the Nepali New Year, which falls in mid-April. The two striking features are the chariot procession and the tall pole known as lingo that is erected. In fact there are two chariots, one for the God Bhairav and the other for his consort, Bhadrakali also known as Bhairavi. The festival lasts for nine days during which, different shrines of Goddess Durga is visited and offerings laid according to ritual. The 70 ft pole with two large banners of cloth hanging from the top crosspiece is erected near the open shrine of Bhadrakali. The two chariots are also brought here during the coarse of the festival. Huge crowds gather to watch the proceedings. An interesting feature of the celebrations is the tug of war that takes place between residents of the upper city and that of the lower half. This decides to whose half the chariot is pulled to first, and often leads to open hostilities, which can lead to brick throwing and brawls. The bringing down of the pole marks the beginning of the new Nepali year and the end of the festival. The chariots are then pulled back and dismantled.

Holi "The Festival of Colours"

lhosar
This festival marks the beginning of spring and is celebrated by Hindus by dousing each other in coloured water. Many only play with coloured powder, which they rub on each other’s forehead, cheeks and clothes. At Durbar Square in Kathmandu, a Pole bedecked with many multi-coloured cloth pieces is erected. Ethnic Indians living in Nepal pray and perform rituals at the pole lighting fires of cow dung and tying sacred thread around the pole. The playing of colour lasts only for a day and the festivities end when the pole at Durbar Square is brought down. It is then dragged to the open field at Tudikhel where it is ceremoniously burnt. The cinders and ash are then taken by devotees to use as protection as well as to bless their houses. The pieces of cloth from the pole are also worn as arm bands to ward off evil spirits. According to legend, the cloth pieces are said to represent the clothes of the Gopinis (Lord Krishna’s female companions), which Krishna is supposed to have hung on a tree while they bathed in a nearby river.

Buddha Jayanti "Lord Buddha's Birthday"

This is one of the important Buddhist festivals when devotees gather around stupas like Swayambhunath and Boudhanath. The full moon day in late April or May is celebrated as Lord Buddha’s birthday, which is also the day He achieved enlightenment and also the day he attained nirvana. Buddha was born in Lumbini in south Nepal more than 2500 years ago. During the full moon night of Buddha Jayanti, Swayambhunath is lighted up with butter lamps as well as electric lights. Devotees arrive from far and wide. Hundreds of prayer flags are strung up around the stupa strung from the spire. A large number of Buddha images along with a massive gilded image are displayed to the crowds. The devotees offer rice, flowers, coins and light oil wick lamps. Buddhist monks carry the image of Buddha down the steps to a place called Naghal. There the image is worshipped accompanied by elaborate rituals and is finally returned to Swayambhu. In all three cities; Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, images of Buddha, prayer flags and banners are carried through the streets in processions. At special functions to honour Buddha, the story of his life is told and reviewed. There is a special celebration at Bouddhanath where a large image of Buddha is placed on an elephant and paraded around the city.

Seto Machhendranath

The Seto Machhendranath (Seto=white) chariot festival takes place in Kathmandu. This chariot with a long wooden steeple is constructed at Durbar Marg near the statue of King Mahendra. The image of Seto Machhendranath is brought to the chariot from Machhendranath temple at Jana Bahal near Indra Chowk in the heart of Kathmandu. In the following four days the chariot is pulled in a procession from one stop to the next until it finally comes to rest in Lagankhel in the Lalitpur district (Lalitpur is the old name of Patan). At various locations where the chariot halts, people crowd around to pay homage to the deity. Oil wick lamps are lit, offerings are placed as the priests busily distribute prasad (blessed food) and tika to the gathering. At the end of the festival, the image is removed from the chariot and placed in a palanquin. From Lagankhel it is then carried in a procession back to the temple at Jana Bahal in Kathmandu. The chariot is dismantled and put aside for a year.

Rato Machhendranath Festival

This is a long drawn out chariot festival held in Patan. The Rato Machhendranath (rato=red) is the God of rain as well as the God of mercy. The Buddhists refer to him as Lokeshwar. A large chariot is assembled in Patan and is moved in a procession from place to place often taking more than a month to reach its final destination. Legend has it that Lord Machhendranath once resided in Assam and in ancient times a pious King and two officials traveled all the way to fetch him. Using tantric mantras they changed Machhendranath into a bee and brought him to Nepal in a ceremonial vase. As Machhendranath is also known as Bungadeo, a town was built in his honour and named Bungamati. Many years after his arrival in the valley, a special temple was built for Machhendranath at Bungamati, Lalitpur district.

Two chariots are taken out in a procession, the second for Minnath, godson of Machhendranath. The procession of these two chariots gets under way on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of Baishak (April-May). A large enthusiastic crowd, including Newari musicians accompanies the chariots. There, the Living Goddess gives blessings to devotees until late evening. Where the chariot stops, devotees come out to make offerings, mostly of rice as the God ensures rain for its cultivation. Feasting, animal sacrifices and loud music is part of the festival. On the final day of the festival the Bhoto (a bejeweled waistcoat) is displayed to the massive crowd that gathers at Jawalakhel. This sacred waistcoat is held up for all to see and the onlookers includes their majesties the King and Queen. This is popularly known as the “Bhoto Jatra” (jatra=festival) although it is part of the Chariot festival. Every twelve years the Rato Machhendranath festival is celebrated with greater fanfare and the next big one takes place in 2003.

Gai Jatra

The Gai Jatra festival (Gai=cow), which takes place in August is said to be the creation of a king named Pratap Malla who had lost a son. In the hope of consoling his Queen who was overcome with grief, he ordered all his subjects who had lost a member of their family during the past year to bring out a procession in their honour. In this way he hoped his queen would realize that she was not alone in her grief. Many people are seen leading a cow during the procession, hence the name Gai Jatra. Hindus believe that on this day Yamaraj, the God of death will open the gates to let the dead in. The cow being a sacred animal, leads the way.

It is common practice today to dress a young boy as a cow rather than find a real one. In these modern times most families do not own a cow. Other kids are dressed as holy men or a God such as Ram. The most interesting of the celebrations among the three cities takes place in Bhaktapur. Hundreds of drummers take to the streets playing traditional drums. These are followed by flautists and stick dancers neatly turned out in uniform. The carnival atmosphere lasts for several days. There is music and dancing everywhere and weirdly dressed people take to the streets. Some dress as gorillas; some as tourists with fake cameras; other men dressed as women. The funny dresses were originally meant to make the unhappy queen laugh. During Gai Jatra, the Government allows citizens to freely criticize political leaders without fear of a backlash and there are comic plays enacted on the brick platforms around street corners. The festival is celebrated in all three cities.

Krishna Astami

Krishna Astami (astami=eighth) falls on the seventh day of the dark lunar fortnight in August or September. It is the celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. Krishna, one of the popular Hindu Gods is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Series of pictures depicting Krishna’s life are displayed in street corners on this day. The day is marked by processions arriving from everywhere. There are hordes of people carrying idols of Krishna garlanded and decorated for the occasion taking to the streets. Then there are the processions on trucks with portraits of Krishna. To the accompaniment of musical instruments, devotional songs praising Krishna are sung the whole day right through the night.

The Krishna Mandir in Patan Durbar Square becomes the focus of celebrations. This beautifully carved stone temple itself is covered in images glorifying the life of Lord Krishna. Enormous crowds of devotees predominantly women gather here for the festivities and prayers. Krishna is known for his fondness for women and is often depicted surrounded by his gopinis (female cowherds). The temple is covered with oil wick lamps and incense kept alight through the night by vigilant devotees. The temple glows with a new aura from the thousands of lamps. All night one can hear female voices chanting Krishna’s various names like Gopala and Narayan. Long queues of men and women struggle up the steps to receive tika from the temple priest. Arriving on the second floor where the idol is kept, they pay homage to Krishna offering him flowers, food and coins. Lord Krishna it is said was born at midnight and raised by a cowherd, which is why women shower his idol with butter, milk and sweets. The large crowd engulfing the Krishna temple lingers until the early morning. With the coming of dawn the festival is over and the crowd disperses.

Indra Jatra

The Indra Jatra festival lasts for eight days in the month of September. One of the most spectacular festivals, Indra Jatra has many legends intermingled with the acts of various deities and is also one of the rare occasions when Lord Indra is remembered. The festivities get under way with the erection of the ceremonial pole at Durbar Square. This takes place on the twelfth day of the waxing moon in September. The pole is believed to represent a similar flag- pole given to Lord Indra by the God, Vishnu. At Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav mask is brought out of the Bhairav temple and placed in front of the temple. It is then worshipped and covered in beautiful flowers, while sweets and other offerings are placed on it.

Legend has it that Lord Krishna decapitated a Kirati King when he showed an inclination to fight for the opposing side. The king’s head is said to have flown all the way to the Kathmandu valley. His head has since been represented by the enormous blue mask kept in the temple. During the proceedings, masked dancers take to the streets and this dance is known as Lakhe nach. The elephant dance depicting Indra’s steed in search of his lost master is also popular as they chase people around. The chariot procession of the Living Goddess is an integral part of the festival. There is great excitement when she is seen sitting on her chariot. At every stop she is worshipped and the attending priest anoints the devotees and gives them prasad. During this auspicious occasion the monarch of Nepal receives Tika on his forehead from the Kumari. This is said to symbolically give the king the right to rule over her people. The chariots of the Kumari and her two companions on their respective chariots are pulled by two rows of youths for whom it is a great honour.

On the last day of the festival the flag- pole is brought down amid sacrifices and gun salutes. It is then immersed in the Bagmati river before it is finally cut into small pieces and burned inside a shrine.

Mani Rimdu

Mani Rimdu is a festival that is celebrated only in the mountainous regions of Nepal. Celebrated by Sherpas living in high altitudes, the more famous one is held at the Tengboche monastery every year during the full moon period of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar. According to the Gregorian calendar it falls between mid-October and mid-December. However at the Thame monastery it is held in June and at Chiwang, Solu district, it is held in the month of December. Mani=prayers to Chenrisig the God of Compassion of the Buddhists. Ril= the small red pellets that are distributed by lamas and Du= the blessing of the pellets. The Mani Rimdu festival attracts large crowds of both sherpas as well as tourists.

For ten days the lamas pray for the good of all mankind while public events last for only three days. The main events that take place are 1/ the Lama’s blessings 2/ the masked dances and 3/the grand finale with a bonfire. Of greatest interest to tourists are the masked dances performed by the lamas, in which, the central characters are the Gods to whom the lamas have been praying. These dances are the main attraction of Mani Rimdu and the festival comes to a close when the lamas throw offerings into a huge bonfire.

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