Nepal is a multilingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. As a result, the number of festivals observed exceed by far the number of days in a calendar year. For Some foreigners, these festivals are mysterious yet colorful and vibrant. The celebrations have legendary, religious and historical backgrounds and they emerge from the depth of socio-cultural parts of normal life. The ceremonies, as a whole, reflect a way of life. They mirror the value system established by age long socio-cultural and religious conventions; they strengthen the social and family values; they show the reverence of the mythical and mythological power; they also demonstrate how Nepalese pay homage to force of nature and its various elements.
The dates for the festivals are fixed according to the lunar calendars these do not coincide with solar and angorian calendars. Some important festivals are as follows.
Nava Barsa (New Year Day) and Bisket Jatra of Bhaktapur
The official New Year, as per solar calendar, is praised all through the nation with cheer and exchange of the best wishes. The solar calendar, more than 2000 years old is based on Bikram Sambat (Era), and named after Bikramaditya, an emperor of Indian sub-continent.
In Bhaktapur, a historical town 12Km. east of Kathmandu, the New Year Day is celebrated in grand manner observing several religious rituals. The festival is called Bisket and it has its origin in the ancient history and mythology. Linguists believe in the word Bisket to have originated from two Newari words – ‘bi’ for snake and ‘syako’ for slaughter. People relate different stories about the festival-more or less similar to one another. These stories narrate the saga of a brave prince, who with the blessing of Goddess Bhadrakali, killed the evil serpents which had till then mysteriously killed every suitor to the princess.
One day before the New Year a lingam, (about eighty feet long huge pole made of shore tree) is erected and the symbols of two dead serpents are hung on the pole. In the afternoon the next day an enormous crowed gathers around the pole and tries to pull it towards their side amidst cheers and rejoicing. The festival symbolizes the end of the old year.
Mata Thirtha Puja
Mata Thirtha falls on the last day of dark fortnight in April or early May. As it is the day to show respect, affection and reverence to the mother formally sons and daughters offer her delicacies and bow with deep respect and affection and receive her blessings in return. She blesses them touching their foreheads with her hand. The festival also provides an opportunity for sons staying elsewhere, and daughters who have been married off, to visit their original homes for a happy reunion. Elegant dressed men and women carrying baskets of delicious foods are seen everywhere.
Rato Machhendranath (The chariot ride of Red Machhendranath)
The festivals starts on the last week of May or early June. It is celebrated to offer homage to Machhendranath, the merciful patron god of the Valley of Kathmandu and the god of harvests. This spectral festival which lasts of several days, reflects important aspects of socio-cultural life of the valley. The Rath (chariot) of tremendous size, about 48ft tall, is prepaid at Pulchok and hauled through the city of Patan in several stages. It is finally taken to Jawalakhel in an auspicious moment calculated by astrologers. The festivals culminates when the sacred waistcoat (Bhoto) is displayed to an angst gathering compromising of the Head of the stage, diplomats and general public alike. There are many myths related with the festival, however the most influential one suggests the festival is celebrated to commemorate the arrival of Lord Machhendranath to protect the people of valley from draught. The deity is believed to have brought rain with the help of serpents deities.
Baishak Purnima (The full moon of Lord Buddha’s Birth)
Purnima, the full moon day in late April or early May, is the greatest festival of the Buddhists and most of the Hindus, as the day is accepted to have proclaimed the triple blessings -‘Buddha’s birth, his enlightenment and his entering to Nirvana. The stupa at Swoyambhunath in Kathmandu, raised approximately 2000 years prior by a Buddhist Monk, turns into the Center of formal exercises amid the celebration. Spread lights and electric knobs enlighten the entire range. A large number of sincere Buddhists from the distinctive parts of nation arrive at the spot to invest night fasting in Buddha's name and chanting prayers for the enlightenment. Solemn procession of monks and devotees take Buddha’s idols around the city and later return these to respective shrines. Such processions can be observed throughout the country.
Naga Panchami (The day of the Snake Gods)
The day of the serpents, the snake gods, falls on the fifth of the brightening lunar fortnight late in July or early August. It is celebrated by worshipping and showing reverence to the serpent god believed to be dwelling down in Patal, the nether world. This festival is observed because of the belief that the snake gods, when assuaged, bring sufficient rains, prevent water fountains and taps from drying up, cure diseases, and guard treasures. Special offerings of milk, ghee are made to please the snake deities near water spouts, pools, springs, and streams. Pictures of snake deities are pasted on the front doors of residences on the occasion.
Janai Purnima or Raksha Bandhan (The sacred thread festival)
Janai Purnima, commencing on the full moon day of August, is the day when the annual changing of sacred thread, a yellow string worn around the shoulder and underarm beneath the clothing of higher caste Hindus-Brahman, the learned priestly class, Chhetri, originally rural and warriors takes place. The wearers observe certain religious rituals and undergo fasting to make themselves clean and worthy enough to receive the sacred thread, since wearing the thread symbolizes the person has control over body. The priest in the wake of chanting mantras as indicated by Vedic conventions offers the thread to wearers. In any case, ladies are not permitted to wear it. Around the same time men, ladies and children of every caste, Hindus and Buddhists alike-wear the sacred yellow thread on their wrists. The thread is called Raksha Bandhan- Raksha meaning protection and Bandhan, meaning bond- about wrist.
Gai jatra (The procession of Sacred cows)
Gai Jatra, all that much like a carnival, starts on the after full moon day of August-September. According to legend, Pratap Malla, a king of Mall dynasty, is said to have started the festivals in the 18 century to console his queen, bereaved by the death of her son. Legend said he ordered all households who had a member of the family died during the one year period to show up wearing fancy dress to cheer the queen up. The eight day celebration starts when the householders whose relative have passed on inside of the year send a little parade comprising of individuals impersonating cows, a priest and a band of customary artists.Along the traditionally prescribed path, the small team of gorgeously costumed boys representing cows closely followed by the family priest and a band of musicians.
The cows procession is sent thus to assist the departed soul into the heavenly abode as Baitarani, the river of fire, blood and pus, religious text quote is to be crossed before reaching the heavens doors. One should, it is believed, cross the river with the help of cows. Every one of the householders in transit offer home-blended beer, breads and coins to the members of the parades as it goes by introducing pantomimes of different exercises like planting rice, sowing seeds, working area and so forth in the midst of the characterizing choir of conventional musical instruments.
Krishnasthmi (Krishna’s eight)
The eight day of the dark lunar fortnight in August or early September is the birthday of Lord Krishna, the eight incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who together with Brahma and Shiva, finish the Hindu Trinity. The festival begins on the seventh day of the dark lunar fortnight as the Hindu devotees throughout the country participate in processions carrying ornately clothed idols of Krishna. They sing hymns delineating his extraordinary conception, additional standard youth, divine love and different deeds of valor of Krishna. Priests read out the deeds of Krishna from the religious scriptures to the devotees. In the evening, people gather in around the templesdedicated to Lord Krishna to observe the festival. Singing melodious hymns, they keep vigil through the glorious night of his birth. Krishna Temple of Patan is the center of such religious activities in the valley. Tens of thousands men women and children keep vigil-singing songs of vanquish of evil and lessons of selfness performance of the earthly duties.
Teej Brata The fasting festival (women only)
This three-day festival starts on the third day of waxing moon. This is the biggest festival of women in Nepal. Feasting on the first day is followed by rigorous fasting of 24 hours the next day. The fasting, which called Teej is Fasting, is performed for the well-being of one’s husband. Even unmarried girls take part in the rites with great enthusiasm because of the belief that the great god Shiva will bless them to find a good life partner. According to Hindu mythology, Goddess Parvati performed severe penance on the occasion and she got great Shiva as her husband. Women, dressed in the bright red saris and ornaments offer worship to Shiva Linga, the sacred phallus. This also includes the atonement of female sins. The standards for puja is accepted to be recommended by the forgiving goddess Parvati herself.
Indra Jatra and Kumari Jatra (Procession of king of gods and Kumari)
The eight-day festival formally begins on the twelfth day of the waxing moon in September. On the night this festival begins Members of family in which death has stricken within one year ago around the town limits of Kathmandu burning incense and putting lamps along the routes. In the morning of the first day, priest and the court astrologers direct people to erect a tall pole as the symbol of Indra’s standard in front of the Hanumandhoka Palace and worship it. Soldiers in ancient costumes and those donning regular uniforms are also present on the occasion. As the pole is tugged and pulled, gun salute is offered amid music played cheered on by thousands of onlookers. Idols of Indra are brought from the temples and places on high scaffolds. Similarly, large wooden marks of vairava are displayed. Religious dances like Devi Nach, Lajipat lakhe, Vairava and Bhakku and Mahakali Nach are performed according to the religious rituals. In the same week, chariots of Ganesh, Vairava and Living Goddess Kumari are hauled in the streets of Kathmandu. This is the one of the very few times, Kumari, the living Goddess is taken out her regular adobe on a chariot.
Bada Dashain (Durga Puja)
Dashain, likewise called Vijaya Dashami and celebrated during the bright lunar fortnight, is the best and greatest of all the festivals in Nepal. People of all caste and creed celebrate it with the equal enthusiasm. The festival is celebrated to commemorate the victory of goddess Durga over hideous demon Mahisasur. Hindu sacred texts likewise portray the adventure of Rama, who defeated the devil ruler Ravana on this very day. Rama, it is said, gained the required power to defeat Ravana by worshipping Goddess Durga. Thus, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. During the celebration different signs of Goddess Durga are worshiped, animal sacrifices are made, blessing from elderly kinsfolk sought and public parades, ancient processions and traditional pageants are held. Ghatasthapana, the first day of the festival, holy pot symbolizing Durga and sowing barley seeds in the dark moist place. By the 10th day these seeds grow into yellow spouts called Jamara. On this and the 8th days that follow various forms of Durga, Bhavani, symbol of power, are worshipped. The tenth day is the Vijaya Dashami when people receive tika and jamara from the elders of the family and relatives with blessings.
Tihar and Laxmi Puja (Festival of Light)
Tihar, also known as Diwali and Yama Panchak, is celebrated for five days. Dip means oil-fed lights, so the festival is also called Festival of Lights. All Houses and even the street corners are illuminated by oil fed or butter lamps (nowadays electric lights are much in use). The five days are collectively called Yama Panchak because the whole period is dedicated to the worship of Yama, the God of Death. During the festivals, various animals are also worshipped. The festival begins with worship of crow on the very first day and concludes with Bhai Puja on the Last (5th) day (worshipping one’s brothers).
The first day of Tihar, also called Kaag Bali, is the day of the crow, as crow is believed to be the messenger of Yama. Every householder offers various delicacies to this bird. Dogs get to be focus of consideration on the second day. Dogs are loved by religious custom applying tika and demonstrating adoration to this faithful animal by offering garlands and delicacies. The holy cow is worshipped on the morning of the third day and Laxmi, the goddess wealth, in the evening. This is followed by Gobardhan Puja performed on honor Krishna's lifting of mountain Gobardhan to protect his people from a shocking rain and flood. The festival concludes when sisters pray Yamaraj for the longevity of their brothers and put tika consisting of seven colors on the brother’s foreheads and garland made of Marigold on their necks. The brothers are also offered sweets and delicacies and the brothers give gifts to their sisters.
Losar, the Tibetan New Year’s Day, falls on the first day of the bright lunar fortnight in the months of late January or February according to the Tibetan calendar. Sherpas perform ancient forms of dances that have unusually beautiful rhythm. The festival continues for weeks with fun, merriment, and hearty feasts.
Sri Panchami or Basanta Panchami
Sri Panchami speaks to the appearance of spring season in Nepal. It falls on the 5thday of the bright lunar fortnight in the month Magh (January/February). On this day, Basanta Srawan, a religious function, is held at the courtyard of Hanumandhoka Palace wherein Geet Govinda is recited by the priest to an illustrious audience comprising also of the head of the state. It is also the festival celebrated to honor Saraswoti, the goddess of knowledge. A large number of school and undergrads offer loves to the goddess. Books, pens, musical instruments, ink and turning wheels are worshiped on the occasion. Saraswoti temples of swoyambhu and Gairidhara are the focal point of exercises in Kathmandu. Earlier, this was also the day when children were initiated into formal education by gifting them books, copies and pencils.
Maha Shiva Ratri (The Holy Night of Lord Shiva)
Shiva Ratri, virtually meaning ‘the night dedicated to Lord Shiva’, falls on the fourteenth day of the waning moon in late February early March. On this occasion, Hindu devotees throng the Shiva shrines in the country. Flowers offered are margossa leaves. They take bath in holy rivers, perform penance and keep vigil throughout the night singing ancient hymns and offering prayers to Lord Shiva.
The temple of Pashupatinath in Kathmandu is visited by hundreds of thousands devotees from different parts of Nepal and India. Jogis, the saffron clad ascetics, half or fully naked and smeared with ash. The area also one of the prime attractions in an around the Pashupatinath area. The religious fervor intensifies as the night falls. Oil-fed lamps and electric bulbs illuminate the whole area. The sweet smell of incense, rhythm of hymns and the never diminishing crowed together create an overwhelming impression. In the afternoon, an official program is organized at Tundikhel, the Nepal Army ground, with various games and parades.
Fagu (Holi) (The festival of color)
The eight-day-long festival begins with the installation of chir (a tall bamboo pole tapped with their umbrella-like tires, each fingered with colorful pieces of cloth) on the eighth day of the waxing moon in March and concludes on the full moon day. The eighth day sees the entire city turn into a sea of colors as people smear each other’s face with color throw water balloons. The main color is the vermilion. According to Hindu mythology, the festival is observed to celebrate the extermination of demoness Holika who had tried to burn Prahlad, a devout devotee of Lord Vishnu.