Festivals in Nepal
Festivals in Nepal begin with religion, ending as social event. There are more than 50 major festivals in a year celebrated by Nepalese. Although most of these festivals are religious some have historical significance, while others are seasonal and legendary celebrations. The dates of most festivals are fixed by famous astrologers after consulting the lunar calendar. The biggest and most popular festivals are: Dashain, a celebration of Goddess Durga victory over evil Mahisashur; and Tihar, a celebration of lights dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi. It is not hard to catch colorful processions in different streets of the Valley almost every other day of the week. Cultural acts of dances and songs are integral parts of some celebrations while some celebrations are just quiet family gatherings. Grand celebrations like Ghode Jatra and Gai Jatra entertain participants and spectators every year.
List of Festivals
Swasthani (Jan – Feb)
The Swasthani Festival takes place between January and February. The Goddess Swasthani’s three eyes burn like the sun. She is the ultimate giver of gifts although if insulted, she can make life miserable. By worshipping Swasthani, Parbati attained Lord Shiva as her husband. In the worship rites of Swasthani (as set out by Parbati) the Swasthani Scripture is read every evening for one month. Worshipping Swasthani is believed to remove curses, unite parted relatives and could result in limitless gifts.
Maghe Sankranti (Jan – Feb)
Maghe Sankranti is the beginning of the holy month of Magh, usually the mid of January. It brings an end to the ill-omened month of Poush (mid-December) when all religious ceremonies are forbidden. Even if it is considered the coldest day of the year, it marks the coming of warmer weather and better days of health and fortune. This day is said to be the most significant day for holy bathing despite the weather. This ritual usually takes place at the union of sacred rivers and streams. Sankhamole, on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, below Patan, is thought to be amongst the most sacred sites for this purpose, though there has been a decline in the fulfillment of this ritual in the recent years due to water pollution in the river. But people still go in the wee hours of dawn just to sprinkle themselves with the water. They pay homage to various deities specially the temple of Red Machhendranath and Agnimata. In addition to holy bathing and worship of shrines, certain auspicious foods like till laddoos (sea same seeds ball cakes), chaku (molasys), ghee (clarified butter), sweet potatoes, khichari (mixture of rice and lentils) and green leaf spinach are taken on this day. Families come together and share these delights. Married daughters and families are invited to parental homes for festivities and blessings. Yet another occasion to renew family ties. Many homes have pujas (religious ceremonies) conducted by priests with chanting from holy books, for which they receive alms. Like any other holy celebration Maghi Sankranti also has a legend of its own. It recalls that once a merchant from the town of Bhadgoan despite of his thriving business noticed that his supply of sea same seeds hadn’t diminished. When looking into the matter he found an idol of the Lord Vishnu hidden deep beneath the seeds. Since, then on this day the Til Mahadev idol is worshipped with the belief that god will continue to be generous in the supply of food and wealth on the Bhadgoan community. It’s also the day commemorating the death of Viswapitamaha, the elderly grandfather of two families of Pandavas and Kauravas, between whom the famous battle of Mahabharata took place. He was determined not to die until the way to the region of gods opened. While lying on the bed of arrows he discovered words of wisdom on life and death. Eventually, through his free will he succumbed to death. Hence it’s believed that those who die on this day go to heaven, released from the burden of rebirth. Maghi Sankranti is yet another occasion which renews the faith of Nepalese people in the heavenly powers.
Saraswati Puja (Jan – Feb)
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 falls between January/February which 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.
Lhosar (Tibetan New Year) (Jan – Feb)
This is the New Year of the Tibetans and Sherpa of Nepal which falls in the month of January, 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. These dances can also be seen in Khumbu, Helambu and other northern regions on Nepal.
Shivaratri / Maha Shivaratri (Feb – Mar)
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 ho 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 Nepal. 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. In the afternoon an official function is held to celebrate this festival at Tundikhel. The Nepal Army organises a show in which series of gun fire are sounded. 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.
Fagu Purnima / Holi (Feb – Mar)
This festival of water and colors that falls between February/March is also known as “Fagu” 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 they and the people in houses make merry throwing colors and water balloons at each other and also to these people on the streets.
Sweta Machhendranath Snan (Jan)
The Sweta (or white) Machhendranath festival takes place during a week each January. The image of Sweta Machhendranath is bathed, oiled, perfumed and painted. The living goddess Kumari visits him at his elaborate temple near Ason Tol. If Sweta Machhendranath is pleased by the music, offerings and attentions paid by his devotees, the people of the Kathmandu Valley can look forward to satisfactory rainfall during the planting season.
Ghode Jatra (Festival of Horses) (Mar – Apr)
This horse racing festival takes place between March/April and a grand horse parade takes place at Tundikhel. Although this festival does not have much of religious aspects, a large number of people, even from outside Kathmandu flock around Kathmandu to witness the horse race and other exciting sports activities performed by the Army.
Legends relate that this horse festival was begun after the Kathmandu people buried a demon under the soil of Tudikhel show grounds. They say that he may rise again and cause worry to the world if horses do not trample him on each year. So, every spring, this victory over evil is celebrated in the valley by organizing palanquin process and a fantastic display of show jumping, motorcycling feats and gymnastics.
Chaite Dashain (Apr)
Also known as small Dasain, in contrast with big Dasain in the month of Kartik, this Festival is celebrated on the eighth day of the lunar month of Chaitra and takes place exactly six month prior to the main Dasain. Goddess Durga is worshipped on this day.
The Chaitie Dasain festival also is the time to start Seto (White) Machhendra Nath Chariot festival. The festival starts with removing the image from the Temple at Kel tole and placing it on a towering wooden chariot or Rath. For the next four evenings the chariot proceeds from one historic location to another location, eventually arriving at Lagan tole in the south of Kathmandu- the place of mother of Machhendra Nath.
There the image is taken down from chariot and carried back to its starting point in palanquin.
Ram Nawami (Apr)
Ram Nawami is celebrated as Lord Ram’s Birthday and festival to worship Lord Ram. It is celebrated with much pomp at Janaki temple in Janakpur city, which lies in southern Nepal. Huge processions of elephants, bullock carts and sometimes up to 100,000 pilgrims go through the city, dancing and singing the lord’s praises. In Kathmandu many people go to the temples to pay homage to Ram, while symposiums are held to exalt the ideal life he lived. In Bhaktapur, the neighboring town of Kathmandu, the people go to the banks of the river Hanumante, where a temple bearing the idols of Ram and his loyal servant Hanuman is situated. Thus, Ram Nawami is celebrated throughout the great fanfare.
Navavarsha (Nepali New Year) (Apr – May)
Nepal has its official calendar that begins from the first day of the first month Baishak. It is known as “Navavarsha” in Nepal. This very first day is observed as Nepali New Year which usually falls in the first/second week of April. People go for picnics, have get-togethers and celebrate the day socializing in various ways as this day is also a national holiday.
Bisket Jatra (Apr – May)
“Bisyau” jatra meaning the festival celebrated in the memory of slaying of serpents. In the passage of time the term changed from ‘Bisyau’ to Bisket jatra. The festival is celebrated at Bhaktapur, a medieval town from 12th century, still maintained in the same manner and only 13km East of Kathmandu. Since the Bisket begins in the last days of the Nepalese year and ends in the beginning days of the New Year it is regarded as the New year festival as well. During the seven days of the festival chariots of God. Bhairava and Goddess Bhadrakali are pulled with lot of merriment within the town limits. At a place called Lyasinkhel a lyasin or a tall pole is erected with two long embroidered cloths hanging from it. These cloths represent two evil serpents who in the past had troubled the royal family by mysteriouly killing every suitor to the princess at night. Ultimately a brave prince with the blessings of Goddess Bhadrakali came along and killed them even as they appeared from the nostrils of the sleeping princess and began to enlarge themselves. Thus, to show the townspeople the cause of previuos suitors’ death they were hung from the pole and at present the cloths represent them.
Buddha Jayanti (Apr – May)
Buddha’s birth anniversary is celebrated every year during full moon day of May in Nepal. On this day people swarm in Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Patan to pay homage to Lord Buddha and also visit Buddha’s birth place 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.
Rato Machhendranath Rath Jatra (Apr – May)
This festival is the biggest socio – cultural event of Patan. The wheeled chariot of deity known as Bungdyo or Red Machhendranath is made at Pulchowk and dragged through the city of Patan is several stages till in reaches the appointed destination. The grand finale of the festival is called the Bhoto Dekhaune or the showing of a vest” A similar kind of chariot festival to Machhendranath is also held in Kathmandu city in the month of March April.
Gokarna Aunsi (Father’s day)
The Nepali religion, tradition and culture hold a lot of reverence for a father. He is considered the pillar of strength, respect and support of a family. The most auspicious day to honor one’s father is Gokarna Aunsi. It falls on the dark fortnight in August or in early September. A day when children show their gratitude and appreciation for his guidance and teachings in life. Sons and daughters, near or far, come with presents and confections to spend the day with their fathers. Children spend their hoarded coins on presents, which expresses honor and love in their own special ways. The streets are a happy scene with married daughters scene of married daughters on their way to their parents’ home with delicacies. After the offering of gifts, they touch their father’s feet with their foreheads, this act of veneration is done by the sons only , the daughters touch the hand. The ceremony is also known as “looking upon father’s face”.
People with or without fathers worship the Gokarneswor Mahadev on this day. It is a sacred shrine of lord Shiva, renowned for his singularly close communion with the souls of dead. The shrine lies in Gokarna village, five miles east of Kathmandu. The fatherless people honor the memory of their fathers and promote welfare of his soul here.
Guru Purnima (June – July)
Teachers come second (after the gods) in the Hindu hierarchy of respect. The full moon day of the month June/July is set aside for students to pay homage to their teachers and receive blessings from them in return. Worshipping a guru is like worshipping truth, knowledge and invaluable experiences. Gu means darkness and Ru means the remover of that darkness. A true Guru removes darkness (Maya or worldly desires) and shows the way to peace and sanctity of the conscious mind. On this day students and disciples visit their elders, teachers and guides in order to show respect to them with gifts of coconuts, flowers and sweets. These gifts are called ‘Gurudakshina’. This day is also commemorated in the name of the famous sage Ved Vyas. The occasion is also known as Vyas Purnima. The sage Ved Vyas is considered the original Guru of the Hindu Dharma. At a place called Vyas on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, special worship is performed to Maharishi Vyas, the saint who wrote the great Hindu epic, Mahabharat. For Buddhists, the occasion (Dilla Punhi) is sacred as the day when the Buddha-to-be entered the womb of Queen Mayadevi. Religious functions are held at monasteries and temples to commemorate the event.
Nag Panchami (Aug)
On this day Snakes (Nagas) are honored, since it is believed that they possess all sorts of magical power, especially power over monsoon rain. Pictures of the Nagas are hung over the doorways of houses and this not only propitiates the snakes but also keeps harm away from the household.
Gai Jatra (Cow festival) (Aug – Sep)
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.
Krishna Janmastami (Aug– Sep)
This is the birthday of Lord Krishna. Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu and his daring exploits; good nature and general of a good time endear him to many people. The famous Krishna temple in Patan is the centre of the celebration and vigil is kept at the temple on the night before his birthday. Oil lamps light the temple and signing continues throughout the night in the Patan area.
Teej (Aug – Sep)
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 (Sept – Oct)
This festival named after Lord Indra- the God of Rain and also the King of Heaven is celebrated by both the Buddhists and Hindus in Nepal in August/September. This festival lasts for eight days with singing, mask dancing and rejoicing. The chariot of Kumari – the Living Goddess is taken through the main streets of Kathmandu with much fanfare. On the first day, the King of Nepal also pays homage to Goddess Kumari. The crowd of excited people from performers to spectators engulfs the streets of Kathmandu during this festival. People get to enjoy various classical dances like elephant dance, lakhe – a very popular dance of a man with a mask.
Dashain (Vijaya Dashami) (Sept – Oct)
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. It is truly the national festival of Nepal. 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 too cold nor too warm. The Nepalese cherish their Dashain as time for eating well and dressing well.
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. Buffaloes, goats, chickens and ducks are killed by the thousands at the temples at military posts and in every household. One of the main centers that witnesses the animal sacrifice in a large scale at this time is the Hanuman Dhoka palace on 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’s are also given. Family feasting and feting of guests is a common practice at this time.
Harishyani / Haribodhini Ekadashi:
This Ekadashi is the 11th day of the new moon, and it is a common practice to fast on this day. Therefore, once a fortnight, in principle, Hindus observe a fast. Of all the Ekadashi, the Harishyani and Haribodhini Ekadashi have special significance, and are called the Thuli (Greater) Ekadeshi. On Ekadashi, the seedlings are transplanted to pots or lands being accompanied by religious rites. Traditionally, it is done by men only, not by women. For four months, beginning with Harishyani Ekadashi, the bright moon of Ashad (June/July), the plant is worshipped with special prayers, arati (butter lamps), circumambulations, and other rituals. During the month of Kartik (October/ November), on the eleventh day of the bright moon (called Haribodhani Ekadashi), the basil plant is married to the Shaligram, a fossil found in the Kali Gandaki river. Three days later, devotees offer one thousand basil’s leaves to a sacred river or water.
Tihar (Deepawali) (Oct – Nov)
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 Lakshmi – the Goddess of Wealth. All the houses are cleaned and decorated with the belief that Goddess Lakshmi 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.
As the rice crop is gathered in December, farmers in the Kathmandu Valley prepare to give thanks for the harvest during Yomari Punhi. The Yomari is a special cake make from the flour of new rice. A shell of dough is filled with melted raw sugar and sealed. After the cake is steamed, it is presented to the gods as an offering. Later, the Yomari is eaten as blessed food. So it is that each year when the storerooms are full and the farmers’ toil has been rewarded, the gods are thanked for their benevolence and generosity.
Mother’s Day (Mata Tirtha Puja)
The Nepalese people have always been family oriented. They take great pride in their ancient tradition of closely-knit family unit. This sort of kinship is not only the result of religious teachings, but also due to various festivals and ceremonies, which brings the family together and strengthens the family ties in the Nepalese society.
Such is the festival of “Mata Tritha Puja” which in English is “Mother’s day”. This festival falls on the last day of the dark fortnight of April or early May. It is a day when one shows appreciation and gratitude to his/her mother for her unconditional love and undying support. On this day, each house bustles with activities and everyone, regardless of age, participates. There aren’t much religious ceremonies but the fact that it is a day for mothers, calls for celebrations for she is the one who keeps the family together through ups and downs in life. Even the small children dig into their savings to buy gifts for their mothers. Sons and daughters living separately, come with presents and delicacies to spend time with their mother. It is a day of reunion for married daughters with their mothers. The entire day is filled with festivities and merry making. Those who don’t have a mother pay obeisance to Mata Tirtha, which is a sacred site of pilgrimage and holy bathing. It lies six miles south – west of central Katmandu, consisting of two pools-the larger for bathing and the smaller is famous as the place where one “looks upon one’s mother’s face”.
Rishi Panchami (Bhadropad Shukl Panchami)
The fast on this day is undertaken by man and women alike. Its effect is to wash away sin done voluntarily or involuntarily. After a bath in the sacred water, clean your hands 108 times, wash your mouth 108 times and listen to the story of Ganesa, Navagreh, Saptarishi and worship Arundati. Eat only fruit one time in the day. Give oblation to the Brahmin. A certain king Sitasale asked Brahma to tell him the fast, which is of utmost bliss and bestows quick result. Brahma replied that Rishi Panchami fast was the one such by virtue of which all sins are washed away. He narrated the story of a virtuous Brahmin Utank of Vidharba region. His wife was a devoted wife Shusila. They had two children, a son and daughter. The daughter was married to a young capable boy, but unfortunately became a widow soon. The parents made a cottage on the bank of Ganges and lived there with their widow daughter. One day while asleep the ants covered the body of the daughter. The parents were perplexed. The Brahmin through meditation found out that in previous birth, she had entered the kitchen on the day of menstruation. The routine is that on the first day of menstruation, the woman is Chandalini (demon), on second day Brahmdhatini (wizard), on third day a washer woman, and on fourth day after bath, she becomes purified. Women undertaking Rishi Panchami fast do not suffer from attack of worms and in all future births remain happy.