Festivals of Nepal
Festivals are an incredibly important part of Nepali life and there are an incredible number of them - some great countrywide affairs, others confined to a single village or shrine. Most festivals are based on the Nepali calendar, which celebrates New Year in April, although some Buddhist festivals are marked according to the Tibetan Calendar, which celebrates New Year usually in late February.
Virtually every festival honors some deity and is centered around a shrine. Temple courtyards may be filled with people sharing a ritual feast, and the deity is not neglected, its image being buried under offerings of flowers, rice and red powder. Ritual bathing, musicians or masked dancing may be a part of the action or a great procession winding through the streets with the gods riding in palanquins or chariots.
Bisket Jatra (Nepalese New Year)
Celebrated in the second week of April most jubilantly in Bhaktapur where it coincides with a 10-day local festival. Images of Bhairab and Bhadrakali are pulled though the city streets in their chariot and a 25-meter victory pole is hoisted then sent crashing own to dispel evil spirits.
Buddha Jayanti (April - May)
This is the triply auspicious anniversary of Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death (due to discrepancies between solar and lunar calendars. Tibetans celebrate approximately one month later). Prayer flags are replaced, stupas newly whitewashed and every temple thoroughly cleaned. Buddhists gather for morning puja at Swayanbhunath then move to Boudhanath in the afternoon to see a Buddha image paraded on an elephant.
A holy month for Newar Buddhists who celebrate special pujas at Swayambhunath each morning. For one day the Buddhist bahal & Vihar in Kathmandu and Patan display their art treasures and on the same day local people as well as Buddhists come to visit the arts & hold a huge procession holding incense and lights in and around the holy Buddhists places.
Janai Purnima (August)
On this full moon festival high caste Hindu men change their sacred thread. Everyone else receives a protective sacred yellow thread, tie around the wrist, from Brahmans. Festivities center on Patan's Kumbeshwar Mahadev temple where thousands gather to worship the sacred linga.
Gai Jatra (July - August)
The "Cow Festival" is the Nepalese equivalent of Halloween when recently bereaved families honor the soul of their dead by sending a cow out on parade - either real, an effigy or a costumed small boy. Groups of these cows parade the streets accompanied by costumed men and liberal quantities of home brewed alcohol.
Krishna Jayanti (July - August)
Celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna, god of love. Processions display pictures narrating the events of his life and at night women gather at Patan's Krishna Mandir to chant prayers, sing hymns and light lamps
Teej / Rishi Panchami (August - September)
Exclusively women's celebrations known for fasting and purification. Teej begins with a late night communal feast as the women of a household prepare for the following day's strict fast. The fast symbolizes the 3,600 years of austerities performed by the goddess Parvati in order to attract her husband, Shiva. The day begins with women gathering at Pashupatinath for a ritual bath in the Bagmati River then, adorned in their finest wedding sari and jewelry, they dance in praise of Shiva. Two days later they gather again, at the Shiva temple at Teku, for another ritual bath to purify them from the sin of accidentally touching a man while menstruating.
Indra Jatra (August - September)
The quintessential Nepali festival, Indra Janta marks the end of the monsoon and the beginning of harvest. In Kathmandu there are nightly masked dances and costumed dramas and ancient images of the god Bhairab are displayed. Within this festival is the festival of Kumai Jatra when thousands gather to see the arrival of the king and the appearance of the goddess Kumari who is pulled about the city in her gilded chariot on three consecutive nights. At the end she reaffirms the king's right to rule for another year.
Dasain (September - October)
This 10-day festival is a time for gifts, feasting and visits. It is both a harvest festival of thanksgiving and a bloody sacrificial reenergizing of natural powers, symbolized by the victory of the great goddess Durga over the buffalo-headed demon Mahisasura. Each of the festival's nine nights is dedicated to a different form of the goddess. On the eighth evening every family who can afford it will offer an animal to Durga, preferably a black male goat, on the ninth day sacrifices honor the tools of various trades. The offering is then transformed into a feast. Houses are cleaned and repaired, every family member gets a new set of clothes, special food and drink is prepared and everyone tries to return to their family home. Altars are established in every home with grain seeds placed in a darkened vessel to sprout. Temples are crowded with worshippers at dawn and dusk and masked dances are performed in the evenings. On the final day the household shrine is opened and the sprouted grain seeds distributed as a symbol of the goddesses blessings.
Tihar (October - November)
This festival of lights honors Yama, the lord of death. On the third day sacred cows are garlanded, tika-ed and fed and at dusk hundreds of lamps are placed in doors and windows to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. Groups of young girls go from door to door singing and begging for coins and sweets. The following day, which is also Newari New Year, men visit singing rowdier songs and on the final day women perform puja for their brothers' long lives.
Tibetan New Year is a time of prayer, feasting and visits and like Dasain is a family-oriented event. The preceding week is marked by intense rituals. On the mourning of the fourth day Tibetans, dressed in their finest, arrive at Boudhanath to offer incense, string up prayer flags, throw tsampa and drink chang.
Shiva Ratri (February - March)
The night of Shiva draws thousands of Indian pilgrims to Pashupatinath. The temple grounds are transformed into a fair ground with vendors, tea stalls, beggars and pilgrims huddled around campfires. A side attraction are the hundreds of saddhu performing incredible physical austerities. All ritually bathe in the Bagmati and worship the sacred linga.
Holi (March - April)
Riotous throwing of water and colored powder welcomes spring.