Hindu Festivals of Nepal
The Hindu Festivals of Nepal listed below follow the lunar cycle and therefore, no fixed yearly date but are determined by monthly phases of the moon.
Magh Sankranti (official government holiday)
mid-January, the first day of the Nepali month of Magh
Winter’s ending is heralded and the sun is honored as it continues approaching northward from the southern hemisphere. Sankranti means `sacred transition’ and people celebrate by taking ritual baths in rivers throughout the country. Devghat, just north of the city of Narayanghat where the Kali Gandaki and Narayani rivers flow together, sees some of the largest crowds. Patan’s Sankhamul Ghat, along the banks of the Bagmati River is Kathmandu Valley’s focal point for ablutions. Due to pollution of the Bagmati, most participants nowadays sprinkle a little water on themselves rather than fully submerging.
Sweets made of sesame and jaggery (unrefined brown sugar) are popular on this day, as is a dish named kitchari (rice and lentil mixture) and foods with ghee, molasses, and yam. Tharu people celebrate this day as their new year with feasts, traditional attire, and song and dance.
Basanta (Shree) Panchami
The birthday of Saraswati, Goddess of Education and Wisdom. This day is especially celebrated by students; they make a point to bathe, wear new clothes and pay respect at a Saraswati Temple. Parents will escort toddlers to a shrine to have them write requests in chalk on temple walls requesting Saraswati’s blessings. On this day, spring’s arrival is foretold at Kathmandu Hanuman Dhoka (and Vajrayana Buddhists take occasion to honor Manjushri, Slayer of Ignorance).
The new moon in February/March
A night consecrated to Shiva and celebrated the night before and day of the new moon in February/March with activities a few days before as well. All-night vigils with sacred bonfires are held at Shiva shrines, and the largest take place at the World Heritage Site of Pashupatinath Temple, which lies along the banks of the Bagmati River in eastern Kathmandu. Pashupati is actually another manifestation of Shiva considered the “protector of animals”. Shaivites and onlookers crowd into the Pashupatinath grounds where a hearty mix of Brahman priests, ash-smeared yogis, wandering ascetics, beggars, vendors, and sight-seers mingle. Rudraksha (seeds of Eleocarpus ganitrus), worn by many followers, are a sign of respect to Shiva.
Ardent Hindus consider it auspicious to visit Pashupatinath Temple at some point during the festival, and pilgrims travel from afar to take place in the rituals, which include fasting, singing, tabla, and sitar music, praying, chanting, reciting of holy text, and meditating, (along with conspicuous consumption of bhang, aka, cannabis, which is overlooked during this devotional time).
Although Pashupatinath is the focal point in Kathmandu, celebrations take place throughout the valley and country. Devotees around Nepal and India enjoy prasad, an offering of food that has been blessed and pays homage to Shiva by building sacred bonfires and holding vigils on this night.
Holi (also known as Fagun Purnima)
Countrywide trench warfare with water balloons. The festival heralds the arrival of spring and the legendary defeat of demoness Holika by Vishnu. Happy Holi or holy hell? Be thee fairly warned, exuberant groups of young people take over and roam about throwing water and brightly colored powder on everybody and bucketfuls of water and water balloons are launched from balconies above the streets.
Being feted with water and colored powder is meant to be an honor. Enjoy the fun or hideaway indoors until it’s over. If you join the raucous free-for-all, wear clothes that can be ruined by color stains and leave valuables in your room or cover them in plastic to keep them from being soaked. The commotion lasts only a day, whereas India undergoes a merciless multi-day event.
Originally a Newari event centered on Kathmandu’s Bhadrakali and Kankeshwari temples, it now showcases a military pageant with horse racing at Tundikhel Parade Ground. According to legend, the pounding of hooves keeps the demonic fiend Gurumaa hidden underground for another year. Other activities at Tundikhel include mounted mock warfare and acrobatics on horseback.
Dasai is celebrated biannually. This much smaller version of the 10-day fall affair features a public ceremony at Kathmandu’s Durbar Square where goats and water buffalo are ceremonially decapitated by the Nepal Army. The rites begin around 8 am and end a few hours later when military banners are doused with sacrificial blood.
Rato (Red) Machhindranath
April/May, the first day of the Nepali month of Baisakh
Rato Machhindranath is considered a God of Rain and Crops and has ties to Tantric Buddhism. The idol is ritually bathed and put on a chariot and honored as it is pulled by manpower throughout the city of Patan. The chariot is three stories high and tremendously heavy, requiring up to a hundred or more people to move it. Music with drums and cymbals accompany the chariot which stops overnight at four symbolic locations. People offer plates of food to the icon, signifying gratefulness for harvest blessings. The festival is a vibrant jamboree with feasts and merrymaking. Kathmandu has a similar chariot procession, Seto (White) Machhindranath, presided over by Kumari, the living goddess who resides in Durbar Square.
Mostly a Newari festival for boys. Ancient in origin, it commemorates the victory over Ghantakarna, a demon that was vanquished by the natives of Kathmandu Valley. On this day, effigies of Ghantakarna are erected along walkways and roadsides and groups of boys take a toll from passersby for the demon’s mock funeral. In the evening, the figure is beaten and dragged to a river where it is burned and thrown into the water whereupon the boys sing and celebrate the victory on the way home.
The full moon of July/August
The name refers to a sacred thread worn by higher castes (Brahmin and Chhetri). A fresh thread is put on at this time, representing renewal and cleansing of body and mind. The cord is three-ply, with separate strands representing energies of Brahma (creative), Vishnu (preservative), and Shiva (destructive). People also wrap the thread around a wrist as protection from harm until Laxmi Puja (the third day of Tihaar, see below), when it is removed and, if possible, tied to the tail of a cow for good fortune. The thread was traditionally soaked overnight in 108 herbs by a priest. Nowadays, turmeric is used which turns the cord golden and has antiseptic properties.
At this time, many people take part in the celebrations and not just the high caste. Devotees make a pilgrimage to a sacred location, often a high altitude lake such as Gosainkunda (4,381 m, 14,374 ft) where one form of piety is to take a plunge into the chilly waters.
New moon of July/August
Usually falls on the first two days of the new moon of July/August and is marked by a procession from the palace squares of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. `Gai’ means ‘cow’ and `Jatra’ means ‘journey’. Gai Jatra is a celebration of cows (which represent the deity Laxmi) leading a procession to heaven for the deceased to follow. Entertainers paint their faces and join parades to amuse onlookers with satire, drama, and comedy. Some of the performers are hired by relatives of recently deceased people. They are joined by accomplices in masks and wearing unusual garments who represent departed souls in need of guidance by the celestial cows.
Krishna Janmashtami (also known as Krishnashtami)
A celebration of the birth of Krishna, a hero of the classic Mahabharata, and regarded as an avatar of Vishnu. He is often depicted with blue-hued skin, a reminder to followers that he is as unending as the blue sky above. Devotees celebrate by flocking to Patan’s Krishna Temple in Durbar Square (as well as Krishna temples across the nation) and sing hymns.
Teej (transliteration, tip (also known as Hari Talika)
According to legend, Parvat Raj, Lord of the Himalaya decreed that his daughter Parvati would join Vishnu in matrimony. Parvati’s heart was elsewhere and the night before her nuptials, friends spirited her away to a forest where Shiva was abiding. Shiva became enamored with her but only after trials to verify that the love was mutual.
Single women fast on this day in the hopes of being blessed with a suitable husband while married women also fast and wear red (the color of matrimony) saris. They pray and perform rites for marital harmony and the well-being of their families. Pashupatinath and other Shiva temples are especially crowded on Teej. It has become a modern tradition for female friends to get together and celebrate with each other just prior to Teej.
Ganesh Chaturthi or Chatha- Hindu Festivals of Nepal celebrate in mostly Terai Region
Celebrated as the birthday of Ganesh (“the elephant god”), son of Shiva and Parvati. Ganesh is beloved as a divinity auguring good luck and removing obstacles.
The King of the Gods, Indra, is celebrated by the raising of a victory banner in his honor (this happens in Kathmandu at Hanuman Dhoka temple). Among other duties, Indra is also considered the controller of rain and harvests and is especially important to people whose livelihood depends on a successful growing season. Indra is known to have gathered flowers in Kathmandu Valley for his mother and is a slayer of demons which represent natural disasters. The festival lasts eight days highlighted by appearances from the Living Goddess Kumari. The massive idol of Bhairav, a form of Shiva, in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, also figures prominently in the proceedings which involve chariot processions, singing, and masked dancing.
Dashain (The main and popular Hindu festivals of Nepal)
Dashin is a Hindu festival that commemorates the legendary victory of the goddess Durga (Kali) over the demon-buffalo, Mahishasura and symbolizes the triumph of Good over Evil. This is Nepal’s grandest festival and generally coincides with the end of monsoon and is a time of family reunions. The holiday pervades the nation and lasts for ten days beginning in late September or early October depending on the lunar cycle. Schools, shops and government offices are closed for up to two weeks during Dashain, and all transportation is overcrowded and difficult to book. There is much feasting as friends and families unite, gifts are exchanged and blessings imparted. Bamboo swings are set up around the country and city skies are filled with kites.
The festival begins with Ghatasthapana, the ceremonial setting of a jar of water in a place of worship in one’s house, and symbolizes Shakti, the primordial force of femininity or Universal Mother. A prominent feature of Dashain is the ritual decapitating of buffaloes at the koT (fort) near Kathmandu Hanuman Dhoka in Durbar Square on the ninth day of the festival. Throughout the nation, goats and sheep are sacrificed and festive banquets are held.
The tenth day, called Vijaya Dasami, celebrates Durga’s victory, and Tikaa is given (a vermilion mark of religious as well as decorative significance placed on the forehead during the festival and generally at religious ceremonies and other occasions; giving someone Tikaa express good wishes, friendship, and honor). In rural areas, village leaders administer Tikaa to the public. On this occasion, before the monarchy was dismantled in 2008, the former King and Queen received citizens at the royal palace.
Tihaar (aka, Diwali, Deepawali, Bhai Tikka, and Laxmi Puja)
Tihaar is a five-day ‘festival of lights’ in late October or November. The lights represent Knowledge and its victory over Ignorance. During the five days of Tihaar special rites are performed and during days one to four, certain animals receive worship and positive attention with special offerings of food and sometimes flower garlands and Tikaa.
Day 1: crows, messengers of Yama Raj, King of the Dead
Day 2: dogs, general protectors and especially guardians of homes; also the vehicle of Bhairav, an emanation of Shiva revered by the Valley’s Newars
Day 3: cows, divine representations of Laxmi
Day 4: bulls, sacred animals for many reasons in Hinduism, chiefly as Nandi, Shiva’s transport and foremost devotee. Nandi is also guardian at Shiva and Parvati’s abode.
Day 5: The final day, Bhai Tikka. Sisters ceremonially give younger brothers Tikaa and wish them prosperity and long life, and brothers offer a gift in return, usually money or clothing.
The third day of this festival is also known as Laxmi Puja, dedicated to Laxmi, goddess of wealth. Houses and shops are given a thorough cleaning. Buildings are trimmed with marigold flowers, and hundreds of tiny oil lamps and candles light up Kathmandu as dusk falls with the hopes that Laxmi herself will visit the cleanest and brightest homes. During Tihaar, public gambling is condoned, and crowds gather around groups of juwaa (cowry shell) players or card players. Among the Newar community, Tihaar marks the beginning of the New Year.
Kirat Prabh (Ubhauli Parba)
This festival is celebrated by Limbu and Rai ethnic groups, mainly in eastern Nepal to express gratefulness for harvest blessings. The term Udhauli means a migration of birds between climes, and Udhauli is also celebrated during the planting season in May/April.
Full moon in December
Yomari is a Newar delicacy and the word simply means “pastry that is liked”. In this event, the delicious confection is prepared with rice flour and the standard filling is khuwa, a milk product, brown sugar and sesame seeds. The dumpling is steamed and an offering is made to the goddess of harvests.
Additionally, yomari are important in Newari culture on the birthday of youngsters. A garland is made with the number of yomari in the necklet representing the child’s age especially important for the second birthday.