A YEAR IN NEPAL:
A KALEIDOSCOPE OF COLOUR & CULTURE
After having lived for long periods of time in both Japan, where the inauguration of the reign of a new emperor triggers a new cycle of years (currently Reiwa 3), and Thailand, which uses a Buddhist Era date (now B.E.2564), it did not totally surprise me to find myself in the year 2074 when I first travelled to Nepal in early April 2018 — although I was a little taken aback to find it was already 2075 when I left a mere three weeks later. A few cursory questions to my shy and reticent guide did little to enlighten me on the issue and it has been only recently, after the acquisition of a Nepali partner, a home and two lockdowns-worth of experience due to the COVID pandemic that I have started to familiarize myself with the ins and outs of the Nepali calendar.
Nepali years are calculated using the Bikram Sambat, the historical Hindu calendar. Bikram derives from the name of the legendary Indian emperor, Vikramaditya ,who introduced the sambat (short for Sanskrit samvatsara or calendar) following his victory over the nomadic Saka people in 56 B.C. The Nepali version of the Bikram Sambat was formally adopted as the national calendar in 1901 A.D. during the Rana Dynasty (1846–1951). Technically lunisolar, the Bikram Sambat (B.S.) calendar is 56.7 years ahead of the solar Gregorian calendar: so the year 2078 BS began in Nepal in mid-April 2021 A.D., and will end in mid-April 2022 A.D.
It is this 56.7 year figure which explains why, unlike new years in both Japan and Thailand which both begin on 1 January in conformity with international norms, a new calendar year in Nepal starts on either 13 or 14 April. If there can said to be a formula for converting a Nepali to a Gregorian date it would be something like “subtract 56 years, 8 months and 17 days”: an irksome if not impossible task.
The next issue to grapple with is the fact that although, thankfully, the Nepali year also has twelve months, the length of any one month is not fixed: each month has a plus/minus one factor, the shortest possible being 29 days and the longest 32 days, depending on the lunisolar calendar. This means that there is no direct, hard and fast, correlation between a date in the Gregorian and Bikram Sambat calendars.
The Nepali raashi (zodiac) follows the Nepali months, with the first day of the new zodiac ‘house’ falling on the first day (ek gatei) of a new month: e.g. Falgun 1 is also Khumba Shankranti, celebrating the arrival of a new raashi sign (Aquarius). However, although the symbols associated with the twelve Nepali raashi are the same as for the Western — or more correctly Babylonian — zodiac, there is an approximate three week discrepancy in their starting dates e.g. Khumbha/Aquarius begins on/around 13 February in the Nepal raashi whereas in the Western system Aquarius is entered on 20 January. This incongruity is because a Western zodiac sign is solar, dictated by the movements of the sun, whereas a raashi sign, like most Hindu systems, is lunar, based on the moon’s cycle and movements.
Nepal has more festivals and holidays than any country I have ever come across and so the following overview of the Nepali year focuses on just one or two key events per month rather than attempting to be inclusive. It should also be noted that some festivals may sometimes fall in different months to those given and also that the Tibetan regions of Nepal like Mustang also follow a slightly different calendar for Buddhist celebrations.
1. Baishakh(बैशाख) April/May
The Nepali year starts in mid-April with Baishakh: the first of the month is celebrated as New Year, or Naya Barsa, and is a time for families to get together and enjoy a special meal.
Mata tirtha aunsi also known as Aama ko mukh herne din, which roughly translates as “Gazing at Mother’s Face Day,” is Nepali Mother’s Day, on which children visit and pay respect to their mothers. Those whose mothers have already passed away go to pray for their souls to have eternal peace either at Mata Tirtha, in Chandragiri Municipality, western Kathmandu, or the famed Pashupatinath Temple. According to legend, it was at Mata Tirtha pond that a shepherd, mourning his beloved mother, saw her face whilst gazing in the water.
The translation of the special mantra for this day explains the significance of going to Mata Tirtha.:
“The person who bathes in the Mata Tirtha pond on Baisakh Krishna Aunsi, has no need to re-enter the mother’s womb to be reborn: they are released from the cycle of rebirth and attain moksha.” (Moksha: freedom from death and rebirth or samsara).
2. Jeth (जेठ) May/June
Jeth marks the beginning of Summer, with daytime temperatures in the Kathmandu Valley frequently rising to over 30c. It is also normally the time when the showy Jacaranda trees are in full bloom, beautifully purpling the streets and pavements of Kathmandu.
Vesak Day, celebrated throughout the Buddhist world to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of Shakyamuni Buddha, is known in Nepal as Buddha Jayanti, jayanti being Sanskrit for ‘victorious’. The day has a special significance here for, as proudly proclaimed by the colourful tailgates of hundreds and thousands of Nepali trucks and lorries, ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’. Inevitably the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha, as he was then, in Lumbini near the modern-day border with India, is especially associated with Buddha Jayanti celebrations.
Elsewhere it is a time for doing kora — clockwise circumambulation — of holy sites and stupas, particularly Swayambunath and Boudhanath for the citizens of Kathmandu, lighting butter lamps and praying with special fervour as all good deeds are multiplied a thousand fold on this holy day.
3. Asar (असार) June/July
The monsoon usually arrives in Nepal in late Jeth or at the very beginning of Asar making conditions optimal for rice cultivation: undoubtedly it was with this in mind that in 2004 the government designated 15 Asar as National Paddy Day, known in Nepali as Rastriya Dhanropai Diwas. It is a time for villages to celebrate their ethnic identity through their costume and songs, eat traditional food — especially curd and beaten rice — as well as prepare the rice paddies for cultivation.
4. Shrawan (श्रावण) July/August
The rain-drenched month of Shrawan overflows with festivals. Prime among them is Naag Panchami, the day for paying respects to snake gods. In legendary times, the nagas used their influence to prevent the rain falling on Nepal and agriculture suffered as a result. To counter this, the king used his Tantric powers to force the nagas to loosen their control of the rain and, to honour their strength and skill, decreed that the day of his victory should also celebrate the nagas. To mark this day, people flock to the Naga temples of the Kathmandu Valley, especially Nagpokhari, Taudaha and Nagdaha. They also use cow dung to stick a holy image of a naga and sacred kusha grass above the entrance to their homes. Food offerings are also left in gardens and paddies for the snakes to eat
Soon after Naag Panchami is the double celebration of Janai Purnima and Raksha Bandhan which falls on the month’s full moon day (purnima). On Janai Purnima — roughly translated as the Sacred Thread Festival — after ritual purification Hindu men perform the annual change the janai which they have worn across their chest since their initiation into manhood.
On the same day as Janai Purnima and closely linked to it is Rakshya Bandhan (rakshya/protect; bandhan/bond) for which a sacred thread (doro or sometimes janai) is tied around the wrist (usually right for males and left for females) by a pandit. It is believed that the doro, which brings good fortune and protection, should not be removed until Lakshmi Puja during Tihar (see Mangsir below) and then, if possible tied to the tail of an ox during the following Goru/Govardhan Puja rituals. In Hindu belief, after death mortals have to cross the Baitarni River to reach heaven: if they have observed the Rakshya Bandhan/Goru Puja rituals, a cow/ox will allow them to cling to her tail and pull them safely to the other side of the river.
5. Bhadra (भाद्र) August/September
Bhadra is in many ways a transition month from the endless weeks of cloud and rain to the onset of Autumn. Not that rain is unwanted: indeed, one of the oldest and most important festivals in Nepal falls in this month: Indra Jatra or Yenya. In one of his manifestations Indra is the God of Rain and, in a country in which agriculture is paramount, it is important that he should be propitiated. Excessive rainfall leads to flooding and devastation; not enough and the result is drought and crop failure. The festival also acts as a blessing for the forthcoming harvest. And hereby hangs a tale.
One day, according to the legend, Indra came to the Kathmandu Valley to pluck a flower that his mother, Dagini, wished to use in a ritual. However, he was caught in the act and accused of stealing. His mother quickly descended to earth to explain what had happened and Indra was released. In return Dagini promised that she would drench the crops with life-giving dew every morning and would take up to heaven the souls of those who had passed away in the previous year.
Many fruits start to ripen at this time — nashpati (Asian pear) and, in places like Dolpa, walnuts and apples: very much the shape of things to come.
6. Asoj (असोज) September/October
By the time Asoj arrives the monsoon has either completely finished or is fast receding and Autumn is about to start, heralding cooler, dry days, blue skies and sunshine. It is also the month in which Nepal celebrates the first of its two major back-to-back festivals, Bada Dashain. (In some years this can straddle Asoj and Karthik or even fall completely in Karthik.)
Bada Dashain is the country’s longest Hindu festival, from beginning to end lasting almost two weeks. Held in honour of Durga, the Universal Mother Goddess created from the Shakti (combined energy) of all the gods, it is a time for family reunions, trips back home to small villages and towns, and for elaborate pujas involving the slaughter of countless animals, especially goats.
The main days of Dashain are as follows:
Ghatasthapana — Day 1: The first day of Dashain is marked by a puja which involves the sewing of jamara, a mixture of grain seeds, in a special pot which represents Durga: the goddess is beseeched to bless the vessel. The ritual takes place in a room known as the Dashain Ghar (home) and the jamara are tended every morning and evening: whether the seeds sprout and flourish or not is believed to foretell the family’s fortunes for the year ahead.
Phool Pati — Day 7: At the end of a procession at Rani Pokhari sacred gifts are taken to the prayer room of Hanuman Dhoka Palace (part of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square).
Maha Ashtami — Day 8: A day of fasting while temples dedicated to Durga prepare for the Kalratri (black night) and animal sacrifices.
Maha Naovami — Day 9: Durga Temple (Taleju) in Durbar Square is open to the public on this one day of the year only.
Vijaya Dashami — Day 10: The main day of Dashain on which people receive a rice tika (either uncoloured or tinted red) on their foreheads from respected family elders this day as well as sprigs of the newly harvested jamara.
Kojagrat Purnima — Final evening: On the night of the full moon people talk and eat the night away, staying up until midnight to receive a blessing from Lakshmi.
7. Karthik (कार्तिक) October/November
The second month of Autumn sees the second major Nepali festival, Tihar, the equivalent of the Indian Deepawali, the Festival of Lights. (As with Dashain this can sometimes span the end of the month and the beginning of the next or be wholly in Mangsir.) If Dashain is a time for sacrifice and seriousness, Tihar is more an occasion for beauty and light.
Although the festival in both India and Nepal have many things in common, like the lighting of diya (earthenware votive lamps) both inside and outside the home, unlike the Indian Deepawali, the Nepali Tihar is also a celebration in honour of the lord of death, Yama, and therefore includes paying respect to four animals associated with him. (It should be noted that different combinations of pujas on the same day can occur due to the auspices and divinations for a particular year.)
Kaag Tihar: Crows (kaag) and ravens are regarded as the messengers of Yama so on this day they are appeased by offering them food on the rooftops in an effort to stave off death and suffering in the coming year.
Kukur Tihar: Dogs (kukur) are regarded in Hinduism not only as loyal friends but also as messengers of Yama and incarnations of the god Bhairab. In the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, Yudishthira is accompanied by his four brothers, his wife and his dog as he climbs to the abode of the gods, Syarga. By the time he reaches the gates of Syarga only his dog remains by his side and in order to pay respect to his faithful companion, Yudishthira refuses to enter Syarga without him. At that point the dog reveals himself to be none other than Yama himself.
To honour this close bond between dogs and humans, on Kukur Tihar all dogs, regardless of whether they are well-loved family pets or street dogs, are given treats, a tika on their forehead and a marigold garland.
Lakshmi Puja: Without a doubt this is the most magical, the best-loved day of Tihar. To honour Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, colourful mandalas are created on the ground in front of the doorways of homes, shop and hotels alike, with markers placed to ensure that Lakshmi enters the premises. When darkness falls the wicks in the diya incorporated into the mandalas and incense sticks are lit and, as a concession to modernity, strings of coloured lights draped over windows, doors and even whole buildings are plugged in so that the Kathmandu Valley is transformed into a beautiful, twinkling fairyland.
Goru/Govardhan Puja: The fourth day of Tihar is devoted to paying respect to cows/oxen, the vahana (vehicle) of Lakshmi. Cows/oxen are regarded as sacred in Hinduism and revered as animals which give more than they take: milk and its byproducts curd, cheese and ghee; dung for fuel and fertilizer etc. As with Kukur Tihar, cows and oxen are honoured by being given tasty treats, marigold garlands and a tika on their foreheads.
Bhai Tika: Bhai Tika is the final and another much-loved part of Tihar as sisters pay respect to their brothers and vice versa. According to legend, Yama, the God of Death, came to claim Yamuna’s brother when he was critically ill. Yamuna implored Yama to wait not only until she had finished her puja but also, with great guile, until the tika on his forehead had faded; the oil sprinkled on his body had dried; and the makamali phool ko mala (globe amaranth garland) around his neck had wilted and shriveled: the small purple flower is renowned for keeping its freshness and colour. Thus Yamuna’s skill and astuteness saved her brother.
The Bhai Tika day rituals echo Yamuna’s puja, including a seven-coloured tika being placed on the forehead, the makamali phool ko mala put around the neck, the offering of special food to the brother and a gift presented to the sister.
8. Mangsir (मङ्सिर) November/December
Mangsir is regarded as the onset of Winter when temperatures in the Kathmandu Valley start to plunge, particularly at nighttime. If Dashain and Tihar occur late in any particular year, then Mangsir sees the celebration of Haribodhini Ekadashi, the day on which Lord Vishnu awakes from a four-month cosmic sleep. On awakening, Vishnu, in the form of a black shaligram stone, is ritually wedded to a tulsi (holy basil) plant, a representation of Lakshmi, in a ritual known as Tulsi Vivah. Haribodhini Ekadashi denotes the end of the period in which it is regarded as inauspicious to perform many key rituals like marriage and initiation of building a new house. To mark the occasion pilgrims flock to Vishnu temples — particularly those collectively known as Char Narayan or the Four Narayan Temples of the Kathmandu Valley — to do puja and pray. The day is also regarded as the start of the wedding season in Nepal.
9. Paush (पौष) December/January
Paush is the coldest month of the Nepali year with temperatures dropping to zero or even a little below at night even in the Kathmandu Valley.
Inevitably, as in all societies, the younger, trend-setters in Kathmandu have latched on to Christmas and New Year’s Eve as times to celebrate to the full, somewhat to the detriment of local customs and traditions. The first of a series of ethnic new years, Tamu Lhosar, celebrated by the Gurung people, usually falls on 30 December in the Gregorian calendar, close enough to become merged with the Western New Year’s Eve. The date is also regarded as a symbol of mid-Winter and for many it is a time to go to the gompa (lamasery) to pray and receive blessings from the lamas for their health and prosperity.
10. Magh (माघ) January/February
As already mentioned, the various Mongol ethnic groups in Nepal celebrate their traditional New Years on different dates. One of the biggest of these celebrations is Sonam Lhosar (lhosar = new year) observed by the Tamang community, one of the most populous groups in this category. The date coincides with what has become universally — and rather exclusively — known as Chinese New Year: how much more appropriate it is to refer generically to all the celebrations on this day as Asian Lunar New Year!
The focus of the Sonam Lhosar celebrations in Kathmandu is Tundikhel, a fast-dwindling open plot of land in the middle of the city, which throngs with thousands of people come to see and be seen, whether wearing the distinctive traditional Tamang costume or trendy jeans and T-shirts.
11. Falgun (फाल्गुन) February/March
Falgun marks the end of Winter, the beginning of Spring and the start of warmer days. Several major festivals occur in the month: Gyalpo or “King’s” Lhosar, celebrated by the Sherpa people; Holi, which falls on Fagu — or Falgun — Purnima, the month’s full moon day; and Maha Shivaratri, “The Great Night of Shiva.”
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the night on which the stars in the Northern Hemisphere are in their optimal positions to elevate spiritual energy as well as the convergence of Shiva and Shakti — divine or cosmic energy personified as a god’s female consort.
The prime focus of the Maha Shivaratri celebrations is Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple which is regarded as the spiritual protector of not only the Kathmandu Valley but all Nepal. It is estimated that under normal circumstances over a million Hindu pilgrims from all over the world — primarily India — flock to Pashupatinath for the festival, including hundreds of colourful, even outrageous, pandits and sadhus, in various degrees of nakedness. Notoriously, during the festival a blind eye is turned to the smoking of cannabis/marijuana.
12. Chaitra (चैत्र) March/April
Chaitra is the final month in the Bikram Sambat and Spring has well and truly arrived. Chaitra Dashain, much smaller in scale and significance than Bada Dashain, is virtually the last festival of the year. Like Bada Dashain, Chaitra Dashain is dedicated to Durga but also involves Lord Ram. The first day of this two-day event is known as Ram Naovami: it celebrates Ram’s return to his palace in Ayodhaya where his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana await him. Previously, Durga had helped Ram to kill the ten-headed Ravan, King of Lanka, after he had abducted Sita, thus creating a bond between them. The second day of Chaitra Dashain, Dashimi, is dedicated to Durga.
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And so another year has rolled by with a heady mix of festivals, rituals and traditions, sometimes confusing and baffling, always intriguing and enthralling. How many years would it take to experience and understand them all? Maybe it is not possible in a single lifetime!
All images and text © Louisa Kamal