Guide to the Cultural Festivals of Nepal

by Jules on September 16, 2013

The tiny mountain nation of Nepal packs a multitude of colourful and traditional festivals into its annual calendar based around Hindu and Buddhist deities.

Dashain – 5–19 October 2013

For 15 days each year, both Nepalese Hindus and Buddhists celebrate Dashain which is also known as Bijaya Dashami. Each year in late September or early October is the month of ‘Kartik’ which is honoured in the Bikram Sambat calendar. Dashain is certainly the biggest and longest festival of the Nepalese calendar and is the most celebrated Hindu festival on earth. Festivities end on the day of the full moon, known as Kojagrat Purnima. Dashain celebrates the triumphs of the gods and goddesses over the evil demons – basically good over evil. The main focus of the fifteen day extravaganza is spending time with family and a coming together of traditional communities.

Tihar – 1-5 November 2013

The five day Tihar festival is also known as ‘Dipewali’, which is the Hindu and Buddhist ‘Festival of Lights’. As you’d expect candles are lit inside and outside to honour Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth. Tihar follows just after Dashain and signals the start of KartikaIt, the eighteen month of the lunar calendar. The first day is known as Kag Tihar, worships of the crow, the second is Kukur Tihar, worship of the dogs and the third is known as Gai Tihar, worship of the cow. Day four has three different pujas (rituals) depending on specific cultures and day five Bhai Tika where brothers wear a tika (elongated jewellery decoration) on the forehead and sisters receive gifts or money.

Gaijatra

The ‘Festival of Cows’, aka Gaijatra takes place during the traditionally Nepalese month of Bhadram which falls in August/September. This is the biggest and most celebrated Hindu festivals within Nepal and its roots can be traced back to medieval times, when Yamaraj, the God of Death was highly revered and worshiped. Gaijatra honours Yamaraj with a procession of cows through the center of Kathmandu each year. Every family that has experienced a death in the last year leads a cow along the procession,  hence the ‘festivals of cows’ moniker. Tradition states that if the family does not have a cow they can send a young boy dressed as a cow instead!

Shree Panchami

The Hindu and Sikh Festival of Kites, aka Shree Panchami is celebrated during mid Magh, which falls in January/February. The ‘Festival of Kites’ celebrates the revered Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati, who was the daughter of Durga and Shiva. She is represented in a pristine white robe whilst seated on a lotus flower. The alternative name in Nepal is Martyr’s Day to pay respects to said martyrs.

Fagu Purnima – 17 March 2014

Also known as Holi or the ‘Festival of Colours’, Fagu Purnima is celebrated by Hindus within India and Nepal each March. The ancient festival is reportedly named after Holika, a demon from ancient mythology which exists in traditional culture. Celebrations start on Phalgun Purnima (full moon) and it’s a lively and colorful affair, where people throw scented paints and perfumes at each other. All ages, genders and castes come together to celebrate as one, which usually lasts two days.

Lhosar

Tibetan Buddhists observe ‘Lhosar’ each February/March time, in what is known locally as the Tibetan New Year. Tibetan populations across the world celebrate by singing traditional folk songs within their communities. The traditional cultural dances are most often seen in northern Nepal such as Khumbu and Helambu and also in Kathmandu’s Boudhanath district. Each year is assigned an element and animal (much like the Chinese calendar) and this year is female water Snake.

Krishna Janmashtami

The Hindu festival of ‘Sri Krishna Janmastami’ honours Lord Sri Krishna’s birth who is widely regarded to be Lord Vishnu’s manifestation. Shree Krishna Janmastami falls on Bhadrapada, Ashtami which is August/September. Devotees undertake fasting and praying to pay respects.

Indra Jatra – 16-23 September 2013

The Yenyā festival is celebrated with a giant street part in Kathmandu only. Festivities include masked dances, tableau and ancient chariot processions. Indra Jatra falls within Bhadra around August/September time. Legend tells us that Indra was the Hindu God King of Heaven and both Hindus and Buddhists come together to enjoy the event.

Maha Shiva Ratri

This festival is in dedication of the highly revered Lord Shiva and is held on ‘Trayodashi day’ during the Fagun month, which is around February or March time. Devotees gather to worship in the Hindu temples across Kathmandu and Nepal. In fact each year thousands arrive in the capital to celebrate the festival and pay thanks to Lord Pashupatinath.

Ghode Jatra

The grand parade of Ghode Jatra is also known as ‘Horse Racing Day’ and lands on the Darhsa Shrad Aunsi day in Chaitra month which is March or April time. The festival is centered around an elaborate horse parade at the Nepalese Army Pavilion, Tudikhel in Kathmandu. Legend says that Ghode Jatra was born out of the victory over an evil demon called Tundi. Watch the YouTube video below from Nepal News which shows the Ghode Jatra 2013 – from the 40 second point, it shows daring horse rides:  a man standing atop two horses, one foot on each.

Rato Macchendranath Jatra

Residents of the major Nepalese city of Patan, in Lalitpur, celebrate Rato Macchendranath Jatra which pays respects to the God of Rain. Celebrated by booth Hindus and Buddhists, the festivities begin on the day of the full moon during Baisakh in April or May. Rato Macchendranath Jatra, aka the Chariot festival, is the most principal festival in the city of Patan. It’s timed to fall just before the start of the monsoon season when the rains nourish the crops. The centerpiece is a 60 foot tall chariot with wooden wheels which is constructed in Pulchowk, close to the ornate Ashoka Stupa. Celebrations last for several days and ends at the town of Jawalakhel, where the ‘bhoto’, a traditional Nepalese vest is displayed for all the locals to admire.

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