With more than 40 indigenous ethnic groups inhabiting Nepal, the country enjoys numerous colorful and spectacular festivals. Festive celebrations often take place on the streets and squares, providing days of entertainment to visitors. Many of these elaborate festivals follow ancient traditions and are celebrated predominantly by the Newar community. Most festivals are either Hindu or Buddhist, but many deities are common to both religions while indigenous groups celebrate their own unique festivals. Chariot processions, masked dances and tribal dances are some of the more colorful aspects of Nepali festivals. Given below are some important festivals of Nepal.
Shree Panchami: Shree Panchami also known as Basanta Panchami is a festival celebrating the birthday of the Hindu goddess Saraswati. The festival is especially important to students who pray to her on this day. Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom.
Lhosar: Various ethnic groups in Nepal including the Gurungs, Tamangs, Sherpas, Manangés and Tibetans celebrate Lhosar, their New Year festival on different days around February/March. Worshippers pray to Lord Buddha and visit Buddhist shrines. There are many days of celebrations with feasting, singing and dancing as they visit various relatives. Large numbers gather at Boudhanath in Kathmandu, where masked dances are also performed.
Maha Shivarati: Maha Shivaratri is celebrated as the Night of Shiva, one of the most revered Hindu gods. This important festival attracts a large number of pilgrims from India along with the hordes of Nepali Hindus. On this day, thousands of devotees congregate at the Pashupatinath temple queuing up to enter Lord Shiva’s holiest shrine where they pray and make an offering. People take a holy dip in the river and stay up all night lighting bonfires.
Fagu Poornima or Holi: Fagu Poornima, popularly known as Holi, is the festival of colors, and is a celebration of the death of the Demoness Holika. It falls either in late February or early March. Hindus douse each other with colored powder or colored water during this day. For this festival, a wooden pole is erected at Basantapur. Sacred thread is tied around this pole; women pray and light oil lamps. On the final day, the pole is dragged to the Tudikhel ground where it is lit up in a bonfire. The ashes are taken home by revelers as it is believed it will protect them from evil spirits.
Ghode Jatra: Ghode Jatra is literally the Horse Festival and celebrated with a grand parade at the Tundikhel grounds (central Kathmandu). The Nepali army plays a central role by holding an equestrian display, a horse race and drills such as parachuting. A large crowd of onlookers gathers around the Tundikhel.
Seto Machhendranath: A chariot procession starts from Durbar Marg in Kathmandu with the idol of the Seto Machhendranath (also Avalokiteswara) inside the chariot. The chariot comes to a halt at various locations around the old part of Kathmandu city, where devotees come to pay homage and to receive Prasad (blessed food) which is distributed from the chariot. The Living Goddess Kumari is also brought out on her chariot and worshipped by devotees. The idol of Seto Machhendranath is eventually returned to its temple in Machhendra Bahal near Indra Chowk, where it stays for the rest of the year.
Ram Nawami: Ram Nawami is the birthday of Lord Ram, a popular Hindu God and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu – God of Protection. Hindus visit temples dedicated to Lord Ram, and large crowds gather at the Janaki Mandir in Janakpur, southern Nepal.
Chaite Dashain: Chaite Dashain is dedicated to Goddess Durga, consort of Lord Shiva and also dedicated to Lord Ram. On this day, Goddess Durga is said to have slain two demons, Sur and Maishur in order to save the earth and its people. It is also believed that on this day, Lord Ram killed the demon Rawan, a symbolic victory of good over evil.
Nepali New Year: The first day of the Nepali year is a public holiday. Celebrations begin from the eve and continue on to New Year’s Day. Many Nepalis hold pujas in their homes to welcome in the New Year. Hordes of people go out for a picnic to their favorite destinations while others celebrate with elaborate parties.
Bisket Jatra: Bisket Jatra is a spectacular nine-day festival unique to Bhaktapur as it is not celebrated in the other cities. The central characters in the festival are Bhairav and Bhairavi whose images are taken around the city on two chariots. At a place called Yashinkhel, a 70-foot pole is erected and later brought down to mark the Nepali New Year. The chariots are brought here and many rituals follow before they are pulled back to the temple of Bharavnath from where the processon started. Each day people worship at various Astamatrika shrines around the city. The devotees from upper and lower parts of the city fight for the right to pull the chariot to their half first. There is much music, dancing and revelry to enliven the atmosphere.
Rato Machhindranath Jatra: This is a Newari festival unique to Lalitpur and dedicated to Rato Machhindranath, god of plenty and rain, also known as Bunga Dya (Newari).To Buddhists, the god is Avalokiteswara of the Mahayana sect. The image of Macchindranath is brought from the god’s temple in the village of Bungamati, and placed on a wooden chariot at Pulchowk in Patan. A smaller chariot carries the image of Minnath. The chariot is then taken around Patan city for more than a month, coming to rest at various traditional points where worshippers flock. It is left on one spot for many days. It finally comes to rest at Jawalakhel, where an ancient jewel-studded vest is displayed. The Living Goddess Kumari of Patan also attends this ceremony. After the festival, the idol is taken back to Bungamati where is remains for the rest of the year.
Matri Aunsi: Matri Aunsi often known as “Aamako Mukh Herne” is Mother’s Day in the Nepalese calendar. People pay homage to their mothers by offering sweets, gifts and delicious foods. People whose mothers have passed away, visit Mata Tirtha where they bathe and pray for the eternal peace of their mother’s soul. Some erect statues in their mother’s likeness.
Baishak Purnima/ Buddha Jayanti: Buddha Jayanti is a full moon day dedicated to Lord Buddha to mark his triple anniversary – Birthday, Enlightenment and Death. Buddhist devotees visit various stupas and chaityas especially at Swayambhunath, Bouddhanath and Lumbini. In Patan, local Buddhists take a small chariot around the city mostly to courtyards where there are Buddhist vihars (monasteries). A Grand National festival is organized at Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, where many Nepalese and foreigners pay homage.
Guru Poornima: Guru Poornima is a full moon (Poornima) day dedicated to teachers (Guru) in the month of June or July. Among Hindus, teachers are highly respected, second only to the gods and it is believed that a student who does not respect his/her teacher can never succeed in his/her life. On this day, students pay homage to their teachers and receive blessings from them. The ashram known as Vyas of Maharishi Vyas (the sage who wrote the great Hindu epic ‘Mahabharat’) situated on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway is also visited by Hindus. This is an auspicious day when Lord Buddha entered the womb of Queen Mayadevi and Buddhists celebrate this day as Dilla Punhi.
Ghanta Karna Chaturdasi: This festival, also known as Gathemangal, is celebrated in the month of July or August on the occasion of the death of a demon called Ghanta Karna. Later in the evening, an effigy of Ghanta Karna is made and set on fire symbolizing his death. People wear special metal rings on this day.
Janai Poornima (Rakshya Bandhan): Janai is the sacred thread worn by some Hindus. After undergoing a ritual called Bratabandha, they wear a Janai around their body, which is sanctified with various chants, believed to protect one from any evil. On Janai Poornima, a festival dedicated to Lord Shiva, Hindus bathe in a holy river, and then change their janai. A Brahmin then ties a thread around their right wrist. On this day, some Hindu women bathe in the holy river and tie this sacred thread to their left wrists. Janai Poornima is also known as Rakshya Bandhan and on this occasion, sisters tie a sacred band around their brothers’ wrists worshipping Lord Shiva for protection against any evil, accidents or death. The major areas of celebration of this festival are Gosainkunda in the Himalaya and Kumbheshwar Mahadev temple in Patan where an idol of Lord Shiva is placed on a platform in the middle of the pond created by blocking off the outlets. It is believed that the water that flows from the waterspouts of Kumbeshwar originate in Gosainkunda.
Gai Jatra: Gai Jatra is a festival in honour of family members who passed away during the year or the year before. Families that lost a loved one during the year or previous year, bring out some of their children dressed up to represent cows. These children visit temples around the city where they are given food. Cows are held sacred by Hindus and are believed to be the reincarnation of Goddess Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth; hence feeding a cow is seen as auspicious. Some families take along a real cow. For onlookers, this is entertainment as they watch the procession of cows followed by people dressed in funny outfits, masked dancers and musicians. It is celebrated all over the valley, but the festivities in Bhakrapur are far more elaborate as the festival carries on for eight days. It was during the reign of King Jaya Prakash Malla, that the festival was born. When the royal couple lost their son, the Queen went into a deep depression, mourning endlessly. She could not come to terms with it and became weaker as her misery worsened. In order to console her, the King came up with the idea of showing her that she was not the only one who had lost a loved one. He commanded his subjects to start a procession to honour all the dead, and to worship Yamaraj, the God of death, who would thus take care of the departed souls. Thus the festival was born.
Matayaa: Matayaa is a day-long festival unique to Patan and is always held the day after Gaijatra. Devotees visit all the Buddhist shrines in the city, tossing rice grains, flowers and lighting candles. Just as they did on the day of Gaijatra, some wear funny attires and masked dancers also join the procession.
Krishnaastami, Rath Yatra and Gaur Parva: Krishnaastami is the celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. He is one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the festival is celebrated countrywide by all Hindus. Devotees visit Krishna temples around the cities; women devotees fast and stay up all night chanting bhajans. The largest number of devotees can be seen at the famous Krishna Mandir of Patan where they pay homage to the god. In Biratnagar – a tarai city in eastern Nepal, Krishnaastami is celebrated with a ‘Rath Yatra’, the pulling of a spectacular 6meter-tall chariot carrying idols of Radha and Krishna. Starting from the Radha Krishna temple, it is taken around the city. In Western Nepal, Krishnastami is celebrated as ‘Gaur Parva’ and locals perform a traditional dance called Deuda (where participants dance in a circle) and married women put on a sacred thread.
Teej: Teej is the time for a Hindu woman to fast and pray to Lord Shiva, asking for a long and healthy life for her husband, and the purification of her own body and soul for marital bliss. The day prior to Teej is called Dar Khane Din, when married women are invited to their parents’ homes to have meals and other delicious food, along with singing and dancing all night long. During Teej, the women fast, refraining from eating or drinking anything; not even water, until they finish their Puja in the evening and receive tika from their husbands.
Gokarna Aunsi: Gokarna Aunsi is Father’s Day according to the Nepalese calendar. It’s a day to honor one’s father, offering him delicious food, sweets and gifts. Those who have lost their fathers visit Gokarna, where they pray and offer “Pinda” – food for the departed soul, praying for his eternal peace. It is believed that if a son offers Pinda at a holy pond of Gokarna after conducting a puja, his departed father will eat it and find peace.
Indra Jatra: Indra Jatra, a festival dedicated to Lord Indra, god of rain and King of the gods is celebrated in Kathmandu. It is said that Indra came down from heaven to look for a special herb ordered by his mother. Seeing a stranger amidst them, the locals captured him. When eventually his true identity was known, they released him and established a chariot procession to appease him and his mother. In this grand procession, there are three chariots carrying two young boys representing Lord Indra and Lord Ganesh and a third larger one carrying the Living Goddess Kumari – the incarnation of goddess Taleju. They are taken around old Kathmandu and worshipped by thousands of devotees. Indra Jatra is also famous for the masked dances.
Neel Barahai Pyakhan: Neel Barahi Pyakhan, or Neel Barahi dance is a local festival of Bode, a place near Thimi, 8 km east of Kathmandu. It is dedicated to Neel Barahi, the incarnation of Goddess Durga, consort of Lord Shiva. The masked dance is performed for four consecutive days during the month of August or September when nineteen dancers represent the city guardians accompanied by a local orchestra playing traditional Newari music. It is believed that this festival calls for peace and harmony among people. The temple of Neel Barahi is located in a jungle just outside Bode.
Dashain: Dashain is the biggest festival celebrated by most Nepalese people. It is a time for family members to come together to receive blessings from their elders. The festival commemorates the victories of Goddess Durga over the demons Sur and Mahisasur and of Lord Ram over the demon Rawan. It is believed that on this day – Dashain, the tenth day of the war between God and demons, god was victorious, symbolizing the victory of good over evil. It is also on the tenth day that elders put tika on the foreheads of their junior family members. People wear new clothes and paint their houses. Dashain is the longest Nepalese festival, lasting fifteen days. Temples of the goddess Durga are visited, and goats, chicken, ducks and buffalos are sacrificed at her shrines. This is the time for all people to come home and be with their loved ones. During this entire period, gambling is legal and people spend much of their time eating, drinking and gambling.
Tihar: Another big festival of Hindus, Tihar also known as Diwali is a five-day festival of lights when Nepalese homes are lit up with oil lamps, candles and electric lights. Tihar starts with Kag tihar, when the crow is worshipped and offered food followed by Kukur tihar, the day when dogs are worshipped. Then comes Laxmi Puja, the third and main day of Tihar when goddess Laxmi, goddess of wealth and consort of Lord Vishnu is worshipped. From this day people decorate their houses with garlands, purify the entrance by applying red soil and cow dung, putting auspicious signs on the entrance of the house. Footsteps of goddess Laxmi are made with rice paste starting from the home entrance to the room where the image of the goddess is established symbolizing that the goddess has visited one’s home. In the evening, after conducting a puja or ritual, oil lamps and candles are lit up to welcome the arrival of the goddess. Laxmi Puja is followed by Gobardhan puja when the cow is worshipped – Hindus believe cow dung to be sacred. The last day of Tihar is Bhai Tika – brother’s day when sisters put tika on their brothers and worship Yamaraj, god of death praying for the long and healthy life of their brothers.
Chhat: Immediately on the heels of Tihar (a week after Laxmi puja) comes Chhat Puja celebrated by the Madhesi people of the tarai. During this two day festival, devotees worship the sun god. A large number of worshippers, mostly women gather at the banks of holy rivers and lakes (Bagmati and Rani Pokhari in Kathmandu/ Lakes Ganga Sagar and Dhanush Sagar in Janakpur). On the first day, just as the sun goes down at sunset, many enter the river or lake to pray, facing the sun. Offerings of fruits and lamps are made. The ritual is repeated the next day, but this time just as the sun is coming up on the horizon. A lovely sight to behold is the multitude of lamps floating on the surface of the river.
Mani Rimdu: Mani Rimdu is the biggest festival of the year for Sherpas living in the Khumbu region held during the full moon in October/November. Sherpas from this Himalayan region congregate at Thyangboche Monastery (gompa), the monastery that lies on a picturesque spur at 3,870 meters from where both Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam can be seen. The other Mani Rimdu is celebrated at Chiwong with slightly different rituals and takes place at a different time of the year. The festival is attended by a high ranking lama, a rinpoche whose blessings are sought by all after a weeklong puja by the monks. The highlight of the festival is the masked dances by the monastery’s monks.
Maghe Sankranti: Maghe Sankranti is the first day of the month of Magh, which is considered to be a holy day as this brings to an end the ill-omened month of Poush when any religious festival is forbidden. It is celebrated all around Nepal and people take baths in the holy rivers like Bagmati, worship deities and have delicious food to celebrate the beginning of warmer and better days. The special foods eaten on this day are Gheu – Nepali butter, Chaku – form of sweet, Til ko Laddu – Sesame sweet, Tilaura – Sesame sweet and Tarul – a form of a potato.
Bibaha Panchami: This festival is celebrated as the marriage week of Lord Ram and his consort Sita in Janakpur. Many Nepalese and Indian pilgrims visit Janaki Mandir during this week to observe the festival. The idols of Lord Ram and Goddess Sita are worshipped and adorned and the marriage ceremony is conducted with the idols of the god and goddess in a grand manner.