Nepal is not only the land of the mountains; it is also the land of festivals. There are more than 50 festivals celebrated in Nepal every year. While the national festivals have fixed dates, religious festivals are set by astrologers following the lunar calendar. The best part about the festivals in Nepal is that all the events are celebrated with the same enthusiasm and galore the way it used to be hundreds of years ago when people had no other means of entertainment.
Sweta Machhendranalh Snan (January):
Sweta (white) Machhendranalh enjoys a week-long festival in which he is bathed, oiled, perfumed, and painted. The Goddess Kumari visits him at his elaborate temple near Asan Tol. If he is pleased by the music, offerings, and attentions of his devotees, the people of the Valley can look forward to satisfactory rainfall in the planting season.
Swasthani (January -February):
Goddess Swasthani's three eyes burn like the sun. She is the ultimate gift grantor; if insulted, she can make life miserable. By worshipping Swasthani's, Parbati attained Lord Shiva as her husband. In the worship rites of Goddess Swasthani's, outlined by Parbati, the Swasthani's scripture is read every evening for a month. Worshipping Swasthani's will bring together parted relations, remove curses, and result in limitless gifts.
Maghe Sankranti (January):
In the holy month of Magh, the sun enters the southern hemisphere, and the days begin to grow longer and warmer. Lord Vishnu the Preserver is thanked for his efforts. On Maghe Sankranti (the first day of Magh) people take an early morning bath in a holy river, visit the shrines of Vishnu, and present flowers, incense, and food to him. They read the Bhagwad Gita, also known as The Song of the Gods, rub mustard oil over their bodies, and enjoy feasts of rice cooked with lentils, yams or trails - a must - and laddu, sweets made of sesame and a sugarcane paste.
Basanta Panchami and Saraswati Puja (January):
Saraswati Puja or Shree Panchami is a day to celebrate the birthday of Saraswati – the Goddess of Learning. This is a day when people from school students to scholars worship their pens and books to please the Goddess and expect her favor in their studies so they become wise and knowledgeable.
People also throng around the idol of Goddess Saraswati, especially in Swayambhunath and offer flowers, sweets, fruits, etc. On this day, small children are taught to read and write and people write on the stones and slabs with chalks and pencils. This day which falls between January/February is regarded as a very auspicious day for marriages too as it is believed that Goddess Saraswati herself blesses the couples. Normally it is the astrologers who fix the marriage date and time in Nepal.
Maha Shivaratri (February):
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 a 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 is the New Year of the Tibetans and Sherpa 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 jewelry and exchanging gifts.
Holi or Fagu Purnima (March):
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.
Chaitra Dasain (March - April):
Red vermillion powder, family blessings, and goat and duck sacrifices are essential to praise the victory of Ram, a hero of the epic Ramayana, over the evil king Rawan. Mother Goddess Durga, the source of all power, must be supplicated too, for her powers helped Ram achieve his victory.
Ghode Jatra (April):
Visitors are often amazed by the fine horses of the Nepalese army, and Ghode Jatra is a time for the most graceful of these animals to perform before the public eye. Legends relate that this ''horse festival" was begun after the Kathmandu people buried a demon under the soil of Tundikhel showgrounds. They say that he may rise again and cause worry to the world if he is not trampled on by horses each year. So every spring, this victory over evil is celebrated in the Valley by organizing palanquin processions and a grand display of show jumping, motorcycling feats, and gymnastics. Their Majesties the King and Queen, the Living Goddess Kumari, and thousands of people from all over the country are a part of the jatra audience.
Bisket Jatra (April):
During this important festival, the old kingdom of Bhaktapur and its neighboring areas replay a drama passed on over the centuries. Images of wrathful and somewhat demonic deities are placed on tottering chariots. They are offered blood sacrifices, flowers, and coins. Men brimming with youthful vigor and rice beer drag the chariots across brick-paved streets of the town, and wherever these raths stop, lamps are lit and devotees overflow into the surrounding alleys. Other gods and goddesses, too, are put on palanquins and carried around so that they may see the sights. At Bode village, there is a tongue-boring ceremony in which the dedicated may reserve a place in heaven.
Red Machhendranath Jatra (May):
This festival is the biggest socio-cultural event in Patan. The wheeled chariot of a deity know as Bungdyo or Red Machchhendranath is made at Pulchowk and dragged through the city of Patan in several stages till it reaches the appointed destination (lagankhel). The grand finale of the festival is called the 'Bhoto Dekhaune' or the "showing of a vest". A similar kind of chariot festival to Machchhendranath (white) is also held in Kathmandu city in the month of March-April.
Buddha Jayanti (May):
Buddha’s birth anniversary is celebrated every year during May in Nepal. On this day people swarm in Swayambhunath and Boudhanath to pay homage to Lord Buddha and also visit Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini and chant prayers and burn butter lamps. Lord Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautam but he abandoned his luxurious life when he realized the misery of mankind and went in search of enlightenment.
Dumji is one of the sacred ceremonies of the Sherpa community. It is celebrated in the month of July. Dumji is celebrated by the Sherpas in the Namche region. The Sherpas of Kathmandu and Helambu regions also participate in dancing on this day.
The monsoon has arrived, and the fields have been planted. It is time for Kathmandu Valley Buddhists to observe Gunla. The month-long festivities celebrate a ''rains retreat'' initiated twenty-five centuries ago by the Buddha. It is a time for prayer, fasting, meditation, and religious music. Worshippers climb past jungles, stone animals, great statues of the Buddha, and begging monkeys to Swayambhu's hilltop where daily prayers begin before dawn. Oil lamps, prayer flags, religious statues, and scroll paintings adorn the monasteries as temple bells chime and powerful scents fill the air. Important Buddhist statues and monasteries are on display at the monasteries, and the teachings of Lord Buddha are remembered as the rains nurture the rice, Nepal’s most important crop.
Krishna Ashtami (August):
The seventh day after the full moon in the month of Bhadra is celebrated as God Krishna's birthday, sometimes known as Krishnasthanmi.
Janai Purnima and Raksha Bandhan (August):
On Janai Purnima, a full moon day, high-caste Hindus chant the powerful Gayatri Mantra and change their Sacred Thread ('anai), while a Raksha Bandhan, a red or yellow protection cord, is tied around the wrists of other Hindus and Buddhists. Pilgrims journey to the mountains north of Kathmandu. Here they emulate Lord Shiva by bathing in the sacred lake of Gosainkunda. Those unable to make the trek celebrate at Shiva's Kumbheswar Mahadev temple. Here, a pool with an image of Shiva at its center is filled with water believed to have come from Gosainkunda.
Gai Jatra Cow festival! (August):
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. The 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 they are not the only ones who have been bereaved and it also teaches to accept death as a part of life.
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.
Indra Jatra (September):
Indra, King of Heaven and controller of the rains, has once again blessed the Valley. As the end of the monsoon nears, farmers look forward to a rich harvest: everyone is grateful to the deva for his help. For eight days, Kathmandu's Durbar Square is the focus of a great celebration fit to "flatter the King of Heaven." Indra's dhwaj, or flag, is erected on the first day. It is said that many centuries ago, Indra's mother needed specially-scented flowers but could not find them in heaven's gardens. Indra discovered parijat flowers in the Kathmandu Valley and tried to steal them for his mother. He was caught and imprisoned by the Valley people. When Indra's mother came searching for him the people were appalled by what they had done. They released Indra and dedicated one of the most colorful festivals of Nepal to him to appease his anger. Masks and statues representing Vishnu, Bhairab, and Shiva are shown to the public and the Goddess Kumari witnesses the special occasion from her chariot. Indra is thanked for the rains and assured once again that he is respected in the Kathmandu Valley.
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 is worshiped with innumerable pujas, abundant offerings and thousands of animal sacrifices for the ritual holy bathing, thus drenching the goddess for days in blood.
Dashain commemorates a great victory of the gods over the wicked demons. One of the victory stories told is the Ramayan, where the lord Ram after a big struggle slaughtered Ravana, the fiendish king of demons. It is said that lord Ram was successful in the battle only when the goddess Durga was evoked. The main celebration glorifies the triumph of good over evil and is symbolized by goddess Durga slaying the terrible demon Mahisasur, who terrorized the earth in the guise of a brutal water buffalo. The first nine days signify the nine days of ferrous battle between goddess Durga and the demon Mahisasur. The tenth day is the day when Mahisasur was slain and the last five days symbolize the celebration of the victory with the blessing of the goddess. Dashain is celebrated with great rejoice, and the goddess Durga is worshiped throughout the kingdom as the divine mother goddess.
In preparation for Dashain, every home is cleansed and beautifully decorated, painted as an invitation to the mother goddess, so that she may visit and bless the house with good fortune. During this time the reunion of distant and nearby relatives occurs in every household. The market is filled with shoppers seeking new clothing, gifts, luxuries and enormous supplies of temple offering for the gods, as well as foodstuffs for the family feasting. Thousands of sheep, goats, ducks, chicken and water buffalo are prepared for the great slaughter. All types of organizations are closed for ten to fifteen days. Laborers are almost impossible to find; from the poor to the rich, all enjoy the festive mood. Anywhere you go the aroma of 'Vijaya Dashami' is found.
The first nine days of Dashain are called Nawa Ratri when tantric rites are conducted. In Nepal, the life force is embodied in the divine energy and power of the female, depicted as goddess Durga in her many forms. All goddesses who emanated from goddess Durga are known as devices, each with different aspects and powers. In most mother goddess temples the deity is represented simply as a sacred Kalash, carved water jug or multiple handed goddesses holding murderous weapons. During these nine days, people pay their homage to the goddess. If she is properly worshiped and pleased good fortunes are on the way and if angered through neglect then misfortunes are around the corner. A mother goddess is the source of life and everything.
The first day of Dashain is called Ghatasthapana, which literally means pot establishing. On this day the Kalash, (holy water vessel) symbolizing goddess Durga often with her image embossed on the side is placed in the prayer room. The Kalash is filled with holy water and covered with cow dung on to which seeds are sown. A small rectangular sand block is made and the Kalash is put in the center. The surrounding bed of sand is also seeded with grains. The ghatasthapana ritual is performed at a certain auspicious moment determined by the astrologers. At that particular moment, the priest intones a welcome, requesting goddess Durga to bless the vessel with her presence.
The room where the Kalash is established is called 'Dashain Ghar'. Generally, women are not allowed to enter the room where Dashain puja is being carried out. A priest or a household man worships the Kalash every day once in the morning and then in the evening. The Kalash and the sand are sprinkled with holy water every day and it is shielded from direct sunlight. By the tenth day, the seed will have grown to five or six inches long yellow grass. The sacred yellow grass is called 'Jamara'. It is bestowed by the elders atop the heads of those younger to them during the last five days when tika is put on. The jamara is taken as a token of Goddess Durga as well as the elders' blessing.
As days pass by regular rituals are observed till the seventh day. The seventh day is called 'Fulpati'.
In fulpati, the royal Kalash filled with holy water, banana stalks, jamara, and sugar cane tied with red cloth is carried by Brahmans on a decorated palanquin under a gold-tipped and embroidered umbrella. The government officials also join the fulpati parade. With this, the Dashain feasting starts.
The eighth day is called the Maha Asthami: The fervor of worship and sacrifice to Durga and Kali increases. On this day many orthodox Hindus will be fasting. Sacrifices are held in almost every house throughout the day. The night of the eighth day is called 'Kal Ratri', the dark night. Hundreds of goats, sheep, and buffaloes are sacrificed at the mother goddess temples. The sacrifice continues till dawn. While the puja is being carried out great feasts are held in the homes of common people where large amounts of meat are consumed.
The ninth day is called Nawami: Temples of mother goddess are filled with people from dawn till dusk. Animals mostly black buffaloes are slaughtered to honor Durga the goddess of victory and might and to seek her blessing. Military bands play war tunes, guns boom and officers with beautifully decorated medals in full uniform stand there. When the function ends the courtyard is filled ankle deep with blood. On this very day the god Vishwa Karma, the God of creativity is also worshiped. All factories, vehicles, any machinery instruments and anything from which we make a living are worshiped. We also give sacrifices to all moving machinery like cars, airplanes, trucks, etc. to get the blessing from goddess Durga for protection for vehicles and their occupants against accidents during the year. The entire day is colorful.
The tenth day is the Dashami: On this day we take tika and jamara from our elders and receive their blessing. We visit our elders in their homes and get tika from them while our younger ones come to our home to receive blessings from us. The importance of Dasain also lies in the fact that on this day family members from far off and distant relatives come for a visit as well as to receive tika from the head of the family. This function continues for four days. After four days of rushing around and meeting your relatives, Dashain ends on the full moon day, the fifteenth day. On the last day, people stay at home and rest. The full moon day is also called 'Kojagrata' meaning 'who is awake'. The Hindu goddess of wealth Laxmi is worshipped. On this day the goddess Laxmi is given an invitation to visit each and every one.
After Dashain, everyone settles back to normal. After receiving the blessing of the goddess Durga, people are ready to work and acquire virtue, power and wealth. Dashain thus is not only the longest festival but also the most anticipated one among all the festivals of Nepal.
Tihar 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. A 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.
Vibhaha Panchami (November – Dec):
This is a famous festival of Janakpur in the eastern Terai. The occasion commemorates the marriage of Sita to Ram, one of the most venerated Hindu divinities. It attracts thousands of pilgrims from India to Janaki Temple in Jajakpur.
National Democracy Day:
This day is officially observed as Rashtriya Prajatantra Divas or National Democracy Day as a mark of respect to the People's Revolution of 1950-51. It generally falls on February 18, i.e. Phalgun7.
Gaura Parva is another celebration honoring Lord Krishna's birthday. It is celebrated in far western Nepal with much gusto for two days (August/September). Apart from the many ceremonies that happen during this festival, it is the occasion for married women to put on the sacred thread. The deuda dance is a major part of the festivities in which participants hold hands and form a circle as they step to traditional music.
Mani Rimdu:(Full moon of the 9th Tibetan month)
Mani Rimdu is the biggest event of the year for the Sherpas of the Khumbu region. Sherpas from the Khumbu region congregate at Thyangboche Gompa, the picturesque monastery situated on a spur at 3,870 meters from where both Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam can be seen. The three-day celebrations of Mani Rimdu follow the ten days of non-stop prayer sessions addressed to the patron deities seeking blessing from the god of all mankind.
The deity propitiated is Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The ceremony begins with the blowing of horns in the afternoon after which the abbot of the monastery accompanied by other monks chant prayers. The congregation is blessed and given holy water and auspicious pellets for good luck and longevity. An orchestra of cymbals, horns, flutes, and conch shells announces the start of the second day's celebrations. Monks in colorful robes and huge glowering masks perform dances symbolizing the destruction of evil.
On the last day, tormas (figures made of dough) are consigned to a sacred fire. This implies the end of negative forces and the advent of a blessed new year.