An Introduction to The Festivals of Nepal
The cultural diversity of Nepal is as rich as its natural and geographic diversity. Diverse geography is home to even more diverse communities. Each community has its own language, cultural dresses, traditions, beliefs, rituals, and festivals.
Sir Kirk Patrick has stated, ‘Nepal is a country with more temples than houses, more god and goddess than people and more festivals than days in a year.’’
Being a multi-religious, multiethnic and multicultural country, Nepal observes and celebrates a myriad number of festivals. One or more community is celebrating festival every day of the year, which is why Nepal is also known as a land of festivals.
Festivals celebrated in Nepal are more than just the observation, but an integral part of the culture and Nepali customs and traditions. Most of the Nepali festivals have religious associations, some are historical, some are based on ancient myths, and some are seasonal celebrations.
Each festival has its own significance. Majority of festivals are related to gods and goddesses of Hindu and Buddhist. Some are observed to pay respect and honor of the relatives such as mother, father, ancestors, and people who are already dead whilst some are observed to worship nature, plants and animals.
Some of the festivals like Dashain and Tihar are of national significance whereas certain caste and community particularly observe some festivals. Some festivals are celebrated only in a certain region of the country.
Nepal is, now, a secular country. However, the majority of people are Hindu, hence most of the festivals are observed and celebrated by Hindu people. There are some festivals observed only by Buddhists and Muslims. Even though there are very fewer Christians, Christmas is widely celebrated in major cities.
Most of the Nepali festivals fall on different dates every year as the dates for all the festivals are fixed by main astrologers by consulting the lunar calendar. Hence, the specific festival day does not match the solar calendar.
Almost all festivals and celebrations in Nepal are colorful, accompanied by music, song, and dance. Some are even observed with properties and demonstrations.
With all these different festivals that are celebrated in the relation of socio-cultural heritages, people of Nepal have religious tolerance and are living in harmony. Each festival is equally respected as the other, whether or not one is celebrating.
We have mentioned some of the most widely known and celebrated festivals and ceremonies of Nepal.
Dashain is the biggest festival of Hindu and is observed and celebrated almost all over Nepal. As the majority of Nepalese is Hindu (approx. 80%), this is studied as a major festival of the country. It is one long festival, observed for 15 days. The first day of this auspicious festival is Ghatasthapana that marks the beginning of Dashain. It is observed during the lunar fortnight ending of the full moon day (Purnima), also known as Kojagrat Purnima. It is usually celebrated in the month of Ashoj of Nepali calendar that is late September and early October. Hindus worship 9 manifestations of Goddess Durga and Ashta-Matrikas (8 Tantrik Goddesses) in these 15 days. The tenth day of Dashain is also known as Vijaya Dashami, people put Tika and Jamara (Barley saplings sowed on Ghatasthapana) from elders and receive blessings. Vijaya Dashami is celebrated as the victory of Goddess Durga over evil demon Mahisasur. Families get together during Dashain, observe Pujas, organize feasts and celebrate with great rejoice and zeal.
Tihar is the second biggest festival of Nepal. Celebrated for five days, Tihar is a bright and colorful festival of lights and flowers. People worship animals and sisters worship their brothers. In Newar community, they also worship themselves on the fourth day of Tihar and the day is called as Mha Puja. The first day of Tihar is called Kaag Tihar, the day to worship crows. The second day is called as Kukur Tihar, the day to worship dogs. Crows are considered as the messengers (Yamadut) of Yamaraj (God of Death) and dogs are considered as custodian. Third of Tihar is Laxmi Puja; people worship Goddess Laxmi (Goddess of Wealth) and cow. A cow is regarded as a manifestation of Goddess Laxmi. In the evening houses are decorated with dazzling lights (oil lamps, candles, electric lights) and flowers. The fourth day of Tihar is Gobardhan Puja; people worship oxen and the cow dung that is made into the resemblance of Gobardhan Parbat. The fifth day of Tihar is Bhaitika where sisters worship their brothers, put tika and give treats and pray for their good health and long life. Tihar is observed in the month of Kartik of Nepali calendar (October/November).
Buddha Jayanti is the celebration of the birthday of Lord Buddha who was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautam in about 543 B.C. in Kapilvastu of Terai region of Nepal. It is celebrated on the full moon day of Baisakh (late April or early May) called Baisakh Shukla Purnima. The day is also called as Buddha Purnima or Swanya Punhi. Buddha Jayanti commemorates the day Buddha was born, the day he attained enlightenment and the day he passed into Nirvana. It is the greatest festival for Buddhists and celebrated with great splendor and demonstration. Even Hindu people celebrate Buddha Jayanti. The major Buddhist shrines in Kathmandu, Bouddhanath and Swoyambhunath, the birthplace of Lord Buddha – Lumbini and all Buddhist shrines and stupas are decorated with butter lamps and electric lights. Prayer flags are strung up, offerings of rice, flowers, coins, butter lamps and incense are made and prayer ceremonies are carried out throughout the day. Images of Buddha, prayer flags and banners are carries in the processions.
Janai Purnima is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Shrawan of Nepali calendar (August). Hindu men of Brahmin and Chhetri communities celebrate this festival. They perform the annual change of Janai, the sacred thread that is worn across the chest. Only the males who have done Bratabandha (religious ceremony only for males) wear this Janai. Women and children get the sacred thread tied around their wrist by the Brahmins (religious gurus). There is a huge crowd of devotees and worshippers in Gosaikunda, the sacred pond in Rasuwa district. This day is also celebrated as Raksha Bandhan. Sisters tie colorful bands around their brothers’ wrist and brothers promise to protect their sisters throughout their life. The Newar community celebrates the day as Kwati Punhi.
Chhath is one of the most important festivals observed in the Terai and Mithila region of the country. It is celebrated on the seventh day after Tihar (November). This Vedic festival is also known as Chhath Parwa, Chhath Puja or Surya Shasthi and devotees worship the rising and the setting sun. The Sun God is considered as the god of energy and of the life force and is worshipped for well-being and prosperity of family members. Chhath has rigorous rituals observed for four days including holy bathing, staying in a water body for a long time, fasting, prayers, and offerings to the setting and rising sun. The first day is Arba Arbain or Nahan Khan (fasting), the second day is Kharana (reduction of sin), the third day involves going to rivers and ponds singing devotional songs and the fourth day is Paran or Parwan.
Lhosar is celebrated by certain ethnic groups of Nepal, namely Gurung, Tamang, and Sherpa. It is the first day of the New Year and each community has its own way of celebrating Lhosar at different times. Gurung community celebrates Tamu Lhosar (in December), Tamang community celebrates Sonam Lhosar (in February) and Sherpa community celebrates Gyalbo Lhosar (February/March). All three Lhosars have singing, dancing, feasting, and drinking in common. Like Dashain, people visit their relatives and get together for the celebration. The traditions of Lhosar includes cleaning and decorating houses and monasteries, reading prayers, making special foods and offering it to deities and later to family, relatives, friends, and neighbors. People wear their traditional dresses and participate in the celebration and festivities held in different parts of both villages and cities.
Sakela is the main festival of Kirant community. The festival is celebrated two times of the year as Ubhauli and Udhauli. Mundhum (Holy book of Kirant) divides 365 days of years into two phases of Ubhauli (going up) and Udhauli (going down). Sakela Ubhauli is celebrated on full moon day in the month of Baishakh, Baishakh Shukla Purnima (April/May) and Sakela Udhauli are celebrated on full moon day in the month of Mangsir, Mangsir Purnima (October/November). Ubhauli marks the beginning of the farming season and Udhauli marks the harvest season. Kirant people (Rai, Limbu, Sunuwar) worship their ancestors and nature during Sakela and pray for better crops and protection from natural calamities. They wear the traditional dresses, gather in a certain place and perform the dance (Sili) together in a circle in the beats of Dhol and Jhyamta (traditional musical instruments). The sili mirrors the various aspects of human life and their relationship with nature.
Fagu Purnima or Holi is the festival of colors that marks the beginning of the spring season. People celebrate Holi by rubbing and throwing colored powder at each other and dousing each other with the plain or colored water. It is celebrated on the full moon day of Falgun (February/March). Holi is celebrated in Terai region on the second day that is the day after it is celebrated in Kathmandu. Holi is supposedly named after mythical demoness Holika and is the celebration of the death of Holika. She tried to kill Lord Vishnu devotee, Prahlad by taking him into her lap sitting on a pyre. Despite having the power over the fire, Holika was burnt to death while Prahlad came out of fire alive. People burn logs and make bonfires and later smear the ash celebrating the victory of God over evil. Holi is celebrated with great enthusiasm and exuberance.
Teej, also known as Haritalika Teej, is a fasting festival celebrated by the Hindu women. It usually takes place in the month of Bhadra or Bhadau (August/September). The festival is celebrated by married women for marital bliss, the well-being of husband and children commemorating the union of Goddess Parvati with Lord Shiva. Unmarried women take fasting and worship Lord Shiva asking for a good husband. Almost all girls and women are dressed in Red attire and decorate themselves with various ornaments and jewelry. They gather together for singing and dancing. The day before Teej is called Dar Khane Din; women visit their friends and relatives and feast on various sweets and treats.
Mahashivaratri is the celebration of Supreme God of Hindu, lord of the lords, Lord Shiva. Millions of devotees visit Pashupatinath (holiest shrines of Hindu) in Kathmandu; even Hindus from India make their pilgrimage to Pashupatinath to celebrate Mahashivaratri. During Mahashivaratri, Pashupatinath is full of devotees, Sadhus and Yogis paying tribute to Lord Shiva. People visit and worship idols and temples of Shiva, the destroyer of evil. Most common idol of Shiva is Shiva Linga (the phallus of Shiva), which is regarded as the symbol of creation and the beginning of everything. Shivaratri is the night of Lord Shiva when he himself was created by his own divine grace. Hindus celebrate this day with great enthusiasm and passion. This auspicious festival falls on the fourteenth day of the waning moon in the month of Falgun (February/March).
Shree Krishna Janmashtami
Shree Krishna Janmashtami is the celebration of the birth of Lord Shree Krishna who is regarded as the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Lord Krishna is the most important character of Hindu epic, Mahabharat. Hindu devotees visit Krishna temples, mainly the stone Krishna Mandir of Patan Durbar Square. It takes place in the month of Bhadra (August/September).
Maghe Sankranti is the first day of the month Magh (January). This festival celebrates the end of the ill-omened month of Poush when all religious ceremonies are forbidden. It is considered to be the coldest day of the year yet it marks the forthcoming warmer and better days. People take a holy bath, prepare and distribute special treats like Chaku, Til ko laddoo, sweet potatoes, yam, etc. In Terai region, the day is celebrated as Maghi.
The second day after Teej is called Rishi Panchami, women take a holy bath (purification of own body and soul), do pujas and eat foods that are considered to be religiously pure. Women pay homage to the seven saints (Saptarishi) and ask for blessings and forgiveness for all their sins that they were bound to commit during their menstrual period by not following the religious strictures.
Shree Panchami is also known as Saraswati Puja and celebrated as the birthday of Goddess Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge and learning. Children and students and musicians mostly celebrate this day. They worship Goddess Saraswati, their books, reading and writing materials; musicians worship their musical instruments. They believe that worshipping Saraswati widens their knowledge horizon and they will be successful in their studies. This day is also known as Basanta Panchami as it marks the onset of the Basanta (spring season).
Naag Panchami is the Hindu festival where people worship the serpent God, Naag. Hindus have a belief that worshipping Naag protects them from snakebites. Naag Panchami falls in the middle of monsoon (July/August) and people respect serpents as the water guardians and pray for regular rainfall in Kathmandu valley. The belief is that Naag Panchami is the day of welcoming the other festivals.
Bibaha Panchami is celebrated in Janakpur. Sita was a daughter of King Janak of Janakpur. Lord Ram came to Janakpur to marry Sita. This day commemorates the marriage of Lord Ram and Sita. During the celebration, idols of Ram and Sita are brought out in cheerful processions and Hindu wedding ceremony is enacted. Thousands of pilgrims from India come to Janakpur to observe the ceremony.
Shree Ram Nawami
Shree Ram Nawami is celebrated in the month of Chaitra (March/April) to rejoice the birthday of Lord Ram, King of Ayodhya. Lord Ram is regarded as one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. He killed the demon king, Raavan of Lanka and rescued his wife Sita. People celebrate this festival by worshipping Lord Ram and commemorating the victory of truth over evil.
Right after Ram Nawami is Chaite Dashain. Chaite Dashain is also known as small Dashain after the big one in the month of Ashoj. It is almost the last festival in the Nepali calendar. Like Dashain, it is also the celebration of the victory of good over evil.
Gaura Parva is celebrated in the mid and far-western region of Nepal in the month of Bhadra (August/September). Hindu women observe this festival. They worship goddess Gauri, wife of Lord Shiva for their husband’s good health and long life. People perform deuda dance, which is a major part of the festival in the circle, holding each other’s hands in traditional music.
Gokarna Ausi or Kushe Ausi
Gokarna Ausi or Kushe Ausi is also known as Buwa ko Mukh herne din (Father’s day) and falls in September. People give gifts, sweets, and fruits to their father and show their love and respect for him. People who have already lost their father offer alms of rice, fruits, and money to the priest in the name of their father.
Matatirtha Ausi is known as Aama ko much herne din (Mother’s day) in the month of May. Similar to Kuse Ausi, children present gifts, fruits, and sweets to their mother and make her feel special. Those who don’t have their mother they offer their prayers and give alms to the priest in the name of their mother.
Mani Rimdu is the festival celebrated only by Sherpas in the Khumbu region. It is celebrated every year during the full moon period of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar (mid-October to mid-December) at Tengboche Monastery. Lamas pray for the good of all mankind for ten days while public events (lama’s blessing, masked dance, and bonfire) last for only three days.
Tiji is a fascinating three-day festival observed by indigenous community of Lo-Manthang, Upper Mustang. People celebrate the myth of a son who had to save the Mustang kingdom from destruction. ‘Tiji’ is short for ‘Tempa Chirim’, which means ‘Prayer for World Peace’. It usually takes place around mid-May and lasts for three days. The festival consists of Tibetan rituals and the monks perform ritual dances during the celebration.
The Newar community celebrates Yomari Punhi in December. Newari people make Yomari, a dumpling made of flour of newly harvested rice with different fillings. They offer yomaris to the deities and then share with the family, relatives, and neighbors.
Culturally rich Nepal also observes Eid, Christmas and many other festivals. Along with so many festivals, there are many Jatras (carnivals) as well. These Jatras are the historical traditions, cultures, and Hindu and Buddhist legends. Different deities are carried in rath (chariot) with mascots and taken from one part of a city to other in long and exhilarating procession.
Here are some of the Jatras observed in Kathmandu Valley:
Bisket Jatra is celebrated on the first day of the Nepali New Year in the month of Baishakh (14th April). It is only celebrated in Bhaktapur with two striking features; chariot procession and the erection of tall pole known as lingo. There are two chariots of God Bhairav and Bhadrakali also known as Bhairavi. The festival lasts for 9 days, shrines of Goddess Durga are worshipped and the 70 ft. pole is erected near the open shrine of Bhadrakali. The chariot pulling is the most exciting and crazy part of the festival.
Rato Macchindranath Jatra
Rato Macchindranath Jatra is the longest chariot festival observed in Patan that begins on the full moon day of Baishakh. Rato (Red) Macchindranath (the Tantric expression of Lokeshwar) is the God of rain and mercy. A large chariot is assembled and taken from place to place before reaching the final destination. On the final day, the bejeweled ‘bhoto’ (vest) is displayed to the public from the chariot in Jawalakhel and called as Bhoto Jatra. Then the chariot is dismantled and the idol of Machindranath is taken to a temple in Bungmati village.
Seto Machhindranath Jatra
Seto Macchhindranath Jatra is the chariot festival of Seto (White) Macchindranath in Kathmandu. The wooden chariot is constructed at Durbar Marg. The image of Seto Machhindranath is placed in chariot and chariot is pulled in a procession from one stop to another for following four days. It is finally stopped at Lagankhel and the image is removed from the chariot and placed in palanquin at the end of the festival. It is then carried in a procession back to the temple at Jana Bahal in Kathmandu and chariot is dismantled.
Gai Jatra (cow festival) is observed in August in Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kathmandu. King Pratap Malla started the tradition of Gai Jatra to console his wife who was grieving the death of their son. He ordered to bring out the procession in the honor of the lost member of the family. This way he hoped queen would realize that she was not the only one to lose the family member. Cow, the sacred animal leads the procession and also some people are seen dressed as a cow. There are music and dance and so many people dressed in a funny way in the Gai Jatra carnival. Citizens are free to criticize the government and political leaders and make sarcastic acts on this day.
Indra Jatra is celebrated in the month of September for eight days worshipping rain god, Lord Indra. The ceremonial pole is erected at Basantapur Durbar Square on the twelfth day of the waning moon in September. During Indra Jatra, Lord Indra is worshipped and the pole represents the flagpole given to Lord Indra by Lord Vishnu. Men wearing a mask of Vishnu, Bhairav, and Shiva perform dances in front of a public. The living goddess Kumari comes out of her palace in her chariot, which is a rare event. Other chariots of Bhairav and Ganesh are also pulled in the procession with mascots and musical bands.
Ghode Jatra is the horse festival or horse parade that is celebrated in the month of Chaitra (March/April). The legend says that a demon spirit was buried under Tundikhel and the horse parade ensures that it does not return from the burial site. Newar communities have gatherings and feasts on this day. People worship Bhadrakali, Kankeswari, and Bhairav. Traditionally, Nepalese Army performs various parades, horse races, athletics, acrobats, etc. in Tundikhel on the occasion of Ghode Jatra.
- Nepali New Year is first of Baishakh, which is usually 14th of April.
- Every year date of the festivals changes as astrologers fix them after consulting the lunar year.
- It is government holiday on most of the major festivals so things (shops, restaurants, banks, etc.) might be closed down during the festival time.
- If you are a tourist visiting Nepal for the first time, make sure to check the dates and the festivals so that you can plan to attend the festival or avoid the crowd and potential holiday transport problems.
- Jatras are fun and fascinating but be careful because the crowd is insane.
Nepal is the land of festivals with billion deities and innumerable myths and legends. Some festivals are celebrated nationwide and some regionally. Some festivals are observed exclusively by men and some by women. Each festival has its own importance and story behind it. Festivals are one of the factors that unite Nepalese people.
We have not mentioned all of the festivals that are celebrated in Nepal because there are just so many.
Which one is your favorite?
If you have additional info about the above-mentioned festivals, feel free to share with us.