Whoever stays in Nepal for any reasonable length of time knows festivals play a large role in the life of the people. Few realize just how rich a source the festival is for discovering all about the living patterns and attitudes of the country. The varieties of cultural expression demonstrated in the Nepalese festival cycle cover every aspect here of life, thought and behavior. By knowing even a little bit of background about what one sees, the spectator will not only be better entertained but better informed, and able to penetrate some of the apparent mystery of this unique environment.
For the Nepalese, the festival cycle is a guide to what to do and when. The festival marks the appropriate seasonal activity, the annual chores, the weather patterns and even nutritional requirements. The festival reminds people to practise certain virtues. It outlines the proper regulations in social intercourse and details the obligations men and women have to their gods and to each other. It provides outlets for unconventional behavior and licenses temporary role reversal. And it ritualizes and underscores the basic solidarity of a community and the unity of the kingdom's diverse ethnic groups.
With so many annual events festival activity in Nepal takes many guises. To the uninformed chaos often seems to rule, with different things happening independently of each other. Actually, each festival follows rules, many of which were formalized under the direction of the medieval Malla kings. The only real confusion is over time, for the rules were flexible enough to allow for delays and some latitude in determining auspicious hours. The day, however, is always fixed, usually according to the lunar calendar.
The Brahmin lunar calendar (to be distinguished from the Newar lunar calendar-see entry for Tihar) divides the month into a dark half, beginning the day after full moon, and a bright half, beginning the day after new moon. Full moon is accordingly the last day of the month. Festival dates are annually fixed for a certain day of the dark or the bright half of the month. For example, Indra Jatra begins on the 12th day of bright Bhadra. This means a new Julian date each year, which makes the schedule harder to determine. Sometimes the moon's critical phase comes at an ambiguous hour, necessitating months when there might be something like two 8th days of the dark/bright fortnight. Also, every few years an intercalary month is inserted, which kicks back the festival dates that year by several Julian days. For these reasons this handbook includes a current calendar of the Western, Julian dates for the festivals
If a festival is dedicated to a certain deity (Shivaratri, Krishna Jayanti) it will begin at the midnight hour. Other festivals commence with a specific public event, such as the raising of a pole (Holi, Indra Jatra) or the drawing of a chariot, the exact timing of which is up to the calculations of the astrologers in charge. The approximate time of day is usually about the same each year, thought, and, where fairly regular, is given in this text.
Many are the types of activity included in the average festival. Several are occasions for great assemblies of people (melas) at a particular temple site. Hundreds, or even thousands, will gather to perform or observe a special worship ceremony (puja) in honor of the day's presiding deity. These are fine times to catch Kathmandu Valley's ethnic kaleidoscope, as the local people adorn themselves in their most colorful and eye - catching clothes and jewelry. One can learn quickly how to identify them on the basis of costume or ornaments, particularly on womenfolk. At some festivals the visitor has a rare view of people from some of the most inaccessible quarters of the Himalayas, such as Nepal's Dolpo, Mustang and Taplejung districts, as well as Bhutan and the Indian districts of Lahul-Spiti, Sikkim and western Arunachal Pradesh.
Bathing rituals are a part of many festivals. Rivers, especially sources and confluences, are considered sacred in Nepal. Their life giving and cleansing properties make appropriate symbols in annual rites held to honor the dead (Gokarna Aunsi and Sorah Sraddah), the gods (Shivaratri, Dasain, Haribodhini Ekadasi), or one's place in the Hindu fold (Janai Purni, Teej Brata). Even the gods take an annual bath with yearly ritual showers for the various Machhendranath idols (Seto Machhendranath Snan, Nala Lokeswar Jatra) and the scrubbing and painting of others (Pahachare for Shiva's, Indra Jatra for Bhairab's).
Often the images are cleaned up or removed from their sanctuaries in preparation for a procession (yatra) through the city. Sometimes this is the only occasion during the year when the image is on public display (Sankhu Jatra, Bisket, Pachali Bhairab). Elaborate rituals often precede its removal, attended by costumed priests, perhaps jhankris (hill shamans) as well, plus any muber of devotees. Sometimes the image is carried manually (Janai Purni, Pachali Bhairab), sometimes hauled in a chariot (Rath Jatra of Rato Machhendranath, Bisket, Indra Jatra), and sometimes mounted in a khat. The latter is a palanquin on two long bamboo poles. The image is set inside the shrine's housing, which is often tiered like a temple and piled high with fruits, vegetables and other offerings. Men hoist the heavy carriage on to their shoulders, one man at each corner, and tote it through the neighborhood. Housewives dart in and out of its usually erratic path to place offerings before the image, an action which often involves some deft manuevering. On some occasions (Thimi's Bal Kumari Jatra, Kathmandu's Pisach Chaturdasi and Indriani Puja) several khats are out at once, their paths intersecting. The khats do tumble over at times and have to be picked up again. These yatras are great fun to follow, especially to see the back alleys and hidden courtyards of the old city.
Other yatras are less frenetic, but equally interesting. For some the processionists scatter grains to feed the souls of their dead (Mata-ya, Bala Chaturdasi). Other festivals feature long files of devotees behind masked dancers representing the gods (Pisach Chaturdasi, Indra Jatra). Still others include a special route which relatives of the recently deceased take to honor their souls (Gai Jatra, Mata-ya, Indra Jatra). The number of such yearly rituals, as well as those in festivals designed to honor members of one's own family, (Mata Tirtha Puja, Teej, Tihar), are evidence of the importance Nepalese religion and society place on kinship solidarity.
The underlying unity of groups larger than the family or the neighborhood, that of a whole town, for example, is on display during the great chariot festivals. Then the rivalry that marks normal intercaste relations is replaced by cooperation. Severally mutually exclusive groups combine to construct the enormous vehicles, while many others have special roles to play as the festival develops. Devotees gripping long ropes haul the creaking, bulky chariots down the old cobblestone streets, with crowds, especially women, watching from the street windows, balconies and rooftops. The hauling can be a little dangerous, especially if the chariot suddenly hits a smooth stretch and picks up speed. People have been injured in the past. The ritual sacrifice of an animal to deity on the prow or wheels, which precedes the drawing, is one designed to ward off chances of disaster by appeasing the bloodthirsty gods ahead of time.
Chariot festivals embrace a large number of related rituals and events. Generally the longest and certainly the most spectacular, they honor the deities most important to the ancient Newar religious consciousness-Machhendranath/Bungadeo in Patan, its counterpart in Kathmandu, Bhairab and Bhadra kali in Bhaktapur and Panauti and the Living Goddess Kumari in Kathmandu. Officiating priests wear special costumes and accompany the deity on board the vehicle. A conductor stands on the prow and gives the 'heave-ho' cry of 'hostay!', to which the crowd on the ropes replies, 'haingsay!', as they jerk the opes to get the chariot rolling.
Religious masked dances, a common festival feature, are sometimes staged in conjunction with chariot drawing (Buddha Jayanti in Patan, Indra Jatra) but are more often a part of those festivals designed to chase away demons (Pisach Chaturdasi, Gai Jatra) or celebrate the triumph of good over evil (Dasain, Yomarhi Punhi). The masks themselves are worshiped like the deities they represent. When the performer dons the mask he is said to go into an immediate trance, his body and brain now taken over by the deity. His limbs shake and, as at any rate there are no holes for the eyes, he must be led along his route by attendants. The performance usually plays out some Tantric drama or a tale from mythology and is permeated by the atmosphere of magic and combat with unseen evil forces. When the dance concludes and the mask is removed, the dancer is said to have no memory of what he did.
Secular dance performers are not possessed during their shows, which often have humorous and satirical themes. Small groups perform in costume, sometimes using pairs of sticks which they beat rhythmically. The shows are quick, partly because they are part of a yatra which must keep moving (Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur, Indra Jatra) but also an opportunity to see a wide range of rare clothes and adornment, not to mention age-old skills, handed down from father to son. Many dances which originated with particular festivals are now part of the 'folk dancing' acts staged in Kathmandu for visitors. One may argue that the performance is more genuine on festival day, but the color and content remain the same. One other point to note is that all dance roles, male and female, are played by boys or men. It is not considered proper for women to dance, except at weddings, though there is one festival (Teej) which incorporates dancing by high-caste women as part of a drama in which they reenact the myth of Parvati's dance before Shiva.
Spontaneous street dancing, of course, is a natural part of big festivals. Festivals. Farmers especially enjoy themselves. Musicians play the tunes peculiar to their own caste, on drums, cymbals, flutes and clarinet-like fleugelots, wandering along the routes taken by khats or chariots. Others gather at one of the innumerable rest - stops (dharmsalas) throughout the city to sing devotional songs, accompanied by the music of harmoniums and tablas. Festivals which include all - night vigils (Bal Kumari Jatra, Shivaratri, Krishna Jayanti, Dasain) feature both kinds of music.
Animal sacrifice is a part of many festivals. Buddhists eschew such rituals and to only some of the Hindu deities are such things appropriate. But Nepalese religion is heavily influenced by ancient Tantric practices, as well as worship through appeasement. In most animal sacrifices the deity is one whose power to destroy or just cause trouble in general (sending disasters, for example) is so fearsome that it is better to sate its blood thirst with animals lest humans become the wrathful god's victims. Bhairab, the malevolent aspect of Lord Shiva, is thus propitiated with blood sacrifices, usually of goats, but Shiva, however, is never worshiped in such a manner. The grandmother sister - goddesses, powerful and fickle deities, must be propitiated because they control the diseases which threaten to ravage the populace each year. But Laxmi, Saraswati and Parvati are not bloodthirsty, so no sacrifices are made to them, nor to Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu pantheon. Ganesh, however, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, does take sacrifices, unlike in India. Buffaloes, representing the buffalo-demon Mahisasura, are killed en masse during Dasain, to symbolize Durga's victory over it. Gorkhalis dispatch the animals with a single khukri stroke, but Newar priests execute them slowly, for the spray of the dying victim's blood is ritually important. For certain sacrifices (Nava Durga dances) masked dancers drink the blood while the animal is expiring. In all animal sacrifices the head usually goes to the priests, the meat returned, with the deities' blessing, to the worshiper.
Public display of special images of the gods and goddesses is another major festival aspect (Bisket, Gunla, Indra Jatra, Pachali Bhairab, Dasain). Besides those of the presiding deity, others are brought out of storage in dusty old bahals and exhibited behind latticed wooden screens. Large gilded Buddhas, usually of Dipankara, a legendary pre-Siddartha Buddha, grace the courtyards of some bahals on the appropriate days, along with a curious variety of religious treasures. Such exhibits acquaint the observer with the range of religious artifacts peculiar to Nepalese religion. They are also rare glimpses of outstanding works of art, especially in bronze. Chaityas and shrines get repainted and, for the duration, decorated with gold crowns, garlands and food. This provides a convenient outlet for neighborhood artistic proclivities, too. Many fashion their own votive images (Seto Machhendranath Snan, Gunla) or carry home - made, lantern-like shrines (Dasain) to the appropriate temples. Often the puja offerings are extremely elaborate, indicating long hours of work arranging the many ingredients. Women specialize in this particular art.
The Living Goddess Kumari appears in public during the most important festivals. A male family relative carries her out of her house and either over to Hanuman Dhoka (Dasain, Pachali Bhairab) or else installs her in a khat, for longer journeys. For Indra Jatra she rides the big chariot housed next door to her quarters. For this week two boys are selected to accompany her, in smaller chariots of their own, as Ganesh, Kumari's brother, and Bhairab, her father. The Kumari's appearance can be quite exciting, especially during Indra Jatra, to watch the interplay between the gushing crowds and the poised little girl with the exotic jewels, tied-up hair and third-eye make-up.
The cult of Kumari seems to be extremely old and peculiar to the Newars. The girl chosen to represent the goddess comes from the Shakyas, a high-ranking Buddhist caste, though she personifies Taleju, a form of the Hindu goddess Durga. Tantric priests make the selection according to physical characteristics-there must be no blemish nor any sign of loss of blood-and special tests given to the final candidates. Accounts vary on the exact nature of these tests, but involve scary acts with severed animals' heads, which frighten off all the finalists but the utterly calm chosen one, whose body Taleju now enters.
A pre-menstrual girl who symbolizes the fully mature mother-goddess Taleju/Durga, the Kumari has a high place in the Newar Pantheon. During the year she lives within the confines of the Kumari House at Durbar Square, the object of elaborate pujas every morning and the visits of devotees coming to consult her on matters relating to their future. She serves in this office until her first loss of blood, either from a tooth loss, cut, nosebleed or menstruation. Usually this happens by the age of ten or eleven, at which time it becomes necessary to choose a new one, and the ex-Kumari returns to normal life.
Though the Kathmandu Royal Kumari is the most important of them, several Newar localities have their own Kumaris. Patan's lives in Gabahal, under much the same restrictions as Kathmandu's, but with far less prestige. Bhaktapur's makes a public appearance only once regularly each year, at Dasain, but does not live such a closeted life. The communities of Bunga, Chabahil, Kilgal and Thamel also have their own Kumaris, who live fairly normal lives, assuming the Kumari role only during a few festivals or special local events.
A Kumari appearance symbolizes the participation of the entire Newar community in the festival. When combined with an appearance of the King of Nepal, such festivals take on a national flavor and symbolize the unity of the Valley's main communities-the indigenous Newars (who form about 60% of the population) and the ruling Gorkhalis (about 30%). Royal appearances are also eagerly anticipated by waiting crowds of Nepal's hill people, whole families of whom trek to Kathmandu for a glimpse of their sovereign. Vast crowds sit patiently for this, for some still believe the King is the earthly incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver of the Kingdom of Nepal. For them the sight of such a symbol is certainly worth the walk and the wait.
According to the Hindu dharma, one of the duties of a king is to promote the religious welfare of the people. Nepal's rulers have historically followed this dictum. The Thakuri kings who founded Kantipur simultaneously inaugurated festivals to give its inhabitants a sense of religious community identity. Medieval Malla kings who restored order to the Valley after havoc of the 14th century invasions included provisions for some of the biggest festivals of all. While the present-day Gorkhali kings of the Shah Dynasty do not, as monarchs of old did, ride to Patan's chariot festival on an elephant, nor on horses to Ghoda Jatra, their attendance at all major festivals, as well as periodic local religious function, indicates how well the tradition has survived changes of dynasty. In Nepal festivals carry on each year in pretty much the same manner as they have since their inception. The festival cycle is still a living, creative entity in the Kingdom of Nepal, faithfully followed by the great majority of its people, of all generations, of all castes, of all walks of life.
This guide can only introduce the curious to some of the many aspects of the Nepalese festival. Hopefully, it contains all the information one needs to both follow events and understand them, as well as the background essential to make further inquiries on one's own. The basic research on most of the festivals listed here was originally done by Mary Anderson. Her 1971 book The Festivals of Nepal (George Allen & Unwin in London and Rupa and Co. in Calcutta) we highly recommend for detailed background, especially accounts of the myths and tales associated with each event. It remains the most comprehensive work so far on the festival cycle as a whole. The information in our own slim volume, which could serve as a companion piece, was based on hers, as verified and supplemented by some years of observation, and participation, in as many festivals as possible. It should, for the time being, be sufficient.
For more background on selected festivals, the people and culture of Nepal and the practice of religion in the Kingdom, we recommend the following works, available locally in either bookstores or libraries:
Language & Literature (440)
Sacred Sites (102)
Tantric Buddhism (84)
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