There is hardly a week without some festival
in Katmandu. Most festivals are associated
with Hindu or Buddhist divinities
and all festivals are celebrated by both religions.
Annual religious festivals are an important part of life in
Nepal. As the Nepalese calendar does not match the Christian calendar. it is
difficult to give a precise equivalent date, so festivals have been arranged
according to month.
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This festival at the end of January celebrates the arrival of
spring. On this day, the goddess of learning, Saraswati, is worshipped,
especially by students about to take exams. Many people go to the Saraswati shrine in Swayambhu, and later picnic on the slopes below the stupa.
At Hanuman Dhoka, the king goes in procession to the Nasal Chowk to hear the
recital of the song to spring, in which prayers are offered for good crops in
the midst of a colorful ceremony.
From the end of February to the beginning of March is a
spectacular festival that attracts people from all over Nepal
and northern India. A great fair is held in Pashupati, to which thousands of
people pay homage at this important Hindu shrine. They arrive the
night before to prepare for a ritual bath in the Bagmati River in front of the
temple. Thousands queue to offer flowers to Pashupati. The rest of the day
is spent feasting, singing and dancing. Pashupati is teeming with
people and street traders. The road is lined with beggars and
there is usually a colorful group of sadhus from India, in loincloths and ashes
with uncut hair piled high upon their heads.
Visit Pashupatinath shortly after dawn, as the color provided by the
worshippers as they shed their clothes and plunge into the waters to
put on their beautiful red and gold saris before paying homage is a
beautiful sight, especially when the sun penetrates the mist rising off the
river. In the evening, bonfires are lit at the major crossroads to ward off evil spirits.
In mid-March is the Festival of Color, of Indian
Hindu tradition. It is a week of fun, especially among children, who
shower each other with colored water. The week
culminates in a day when projectiles filled with colored water are
thrown at unsuspecting passers-by! In Basantapur Square, a bamboo pole is
erected and decorated with a colorful mass of
streamers at the beginning of the week. At the end of the festival, this
pole is burned.
In mid-March, a Newari festival centers around feasting and
worshipping Bhadrakali and Kankeswari, two deities that are paraded through the
narrow streets of Asan the night before the festival. At the same time, the
Demon Gurumpa is feasted on the Tundikhel. On the day of Ghodajatra sports
such as horse racing and cycling and a display by the army take place on
the Tundikhel. It is becoming a military pageant.
Chaitra Dasain and Seto Matsyandranath
Two separate festivals occur at the same time, in the third
week of March. The Chaitra Dasain is timed to be exactly six months before the
Maha Astami day during the festival of Dasain in late September. Sacrificial
offerings are made to Durga at mid-day. It is also the start of the Katmandu
Rath festival. The Seto Machhendra image is taken from its shrine off Asan Tol
and is placed in a towering chariot.
This festival takes four days, the chariot
stopping each night where the image is worshipped and cared for by the local
Nepalese. The chariot, towed on 2 meter wheels by hundreds of
young boys, is spectacular, as it dwarfs the streets. It is moved in the
early evening. On the fourth or final day the chariot is dragged around a tree
in Lagan Khel, after which the deity is transported back to its temple on a
The festival is special to Bhaktapur and may be the most exciting
and frenetic festival. During the mid-April week-long celebrations, the
goddesses of Bhairab and Bhadrakali are paraded in chariots throughout the town.
The revels start with a major challenge between the inhabitants of the eastern
and western halves of the town, who confront one another in a tug of war of
surprising dimensions beginning in the square beneath the Nyatapola Temple
around dusk. The challenge is to ascertain who is to become hosts to the main
deity during the festivities.
A chariot is erected in the centre of
the square and two long ropes, attached to each end of the chariot, run out
along the main streets of the square. The deity is installed and, while
protected by her guardian priests, each half of the town endeavors forcibly to
drag the chariot into its territory. This battle continues throughout the night
until one side accepts defeat. To witness this
festival, it is best to go in the company of a local as, often, the
participants get a bit out of control in their endeavors to win the honor of
hosting the god.
The second stage is to escort the deity to the river banks down
a steep, twisting road. This is difficult and often hampered by
the surging crowds or a collapsed building. Once the chariot reaches the
river, a huge pole is hoisted to commemorate victory during the great battle of
Mahabharata. The following day the pole is
felled to signify the Nepalese new year. To give the losers of
the tug of war a chance to absolve themselves from the ignominy of their earlier
defeat, a return match is held at the end of the festival by which time, it is
hoped, their opponents will be handicapped by excessive feasting.
Rato Machhendranath Jatra
This chariot festival in late April, is a major festival of Patan and similar
to the Rath Festival in Katmandu. The difference is that it takes a month to
complete and the chariot is much larger. The deity is shared with the village of
Bungamati, close to Patan, and every twelfth year the chariot itself has to be
taken to Bungamati. This is a major undertaking as the road is hilly and rough.
Each year the deity spends three months in Bungamati.
The festival begins in Pulchok where the chariot is built, and for about a
month it wends its way through the streets of Patan. Because of its immense
size, members of the army are called upon to assist in pulling the chariot. The
culmination of the festival is at Jawalakhel when the bejewelled tunic, supposedly
belonging to a serpent king, is publicly displayed, on a selected day,
in front of the king. The purpose of the festival is to ensure a
satisfactory monsoon for the rice crop in the fields.
Lord Buddha's birthday is celebrated
throughout the country in mid-May. Ceremonies take place in the
major Buddhist sites of Swayambhu and Baudha, with both processions
and large prayer gatherings in the neighboring monasteries. The pilgrims from
all over Nepal make a colorful scene when they come to these sites to celebrate Buddha Jayanti.
This festival in early August mainly concerns the Brahmins but most Hindus
will nevertheless participate. The Brahmins bathe in the sacred rivers of the
Vishnumati and Bagmati, after which they change the sacred thread worn
across their chest. Other people have yellow sacred threads tied round their
wrist to protect them from dangers. On this day, thousands of people
visit the Kumbheswar Temple in Patan where they bathe in the
sacred waters which supposedly come from the holy lakes in Gosainkund.
courtyard around Kumbheswar is a colorful sight during this festival as, after their symbolically
cleansing bath, the throngs of people pay homage to the beautiful gold and
silver linga, usually kept in the temple but which on this day is placed on a
platform in the middle of the tank reached only along a narrow plank.
In early August, this festival, like a carnival, takes place in
Katmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur.
Families in which deaths have occurred during the previous year will send a cow,
or a young child masquerading as a cow, in procession around the streets of the
city as a tribute to the deceased. This
procession takes place during the morning and is followed in the afternoon with
a more carnival-like procession when participants mimic the social and
political scene of the day.
The processions staged in Bhaktapur are perhaps the
most extensive and amusing, with a wide range of tableaux typifying all aspects
of the people’ culture. The festival lasts about eight days, the first and
second day being the most important. On the second day, an important Buddhist
festival known as Mataya takes place when all the viharas (Buddist monasteries)
of Patan are visited in sequence. As there are as many as 150 viharas, this is a
formidable undertaking. Offerings are made by the pilgrims and butter lamps are
lit along the route.
This three-day festival, held at the end of August, is more
women. It consists of a period of fasting together with a ritual cleansing in
the Bagmati River. Women, dressed in their finery, go to Pashupati to bathe
in the river and worship at the shrine of Pashupati, creating a
colorful spectacle on the river bank.
At the beginning of September is a spectacular festival,
celebrated by both Hindus and Buddhists. The festival lasts for about
eight days during which time there is dancing and ceremony. On the
first day, a long pole is erected close to Hanuman Dhoka to propitiate Indra,
the god of rain. Then a display of classical dancing by masked dancers.
On the third day, the living goddess Kumari comes into the streets in her
chariot, accompanied by her attendants, Ganesh and Bhairab, represented
by two boys. On this day the king attends the festivities, is
entertained by the masked dancers and pays homage to Kumari. Throughout the
cities, many wooden masks of Bhairab are exhibited and at certain times of the
day local beer pours forth from their mouths through a spout to revive the local
revelers. Indra, with his arms outstretched, can also be seen at vantage points,
atop a high platform. On this day King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Katmandu
and unified Nepal. Throughout the festival, many displays of classical dancing
and religious tableaux can be seen in Katmandu Durbar Square.
From the end of September to the beginning of October is
Durga Puja - the
national festival of Nepal and lasts for fifteen days. It is a time for
family reunion and for rejoicing, therefore most of the festival’ activities
take place within the family groups as it is often the only time throughout the
year when the whole family is together. The basic theme is the
conquest of evil ; legend has it that during this time Ram
Chandra vanquished Ravana of Lanka. On Phulpati, the day of flowers, there is a
colorful procession to Hanuman Dhoka, attended by the king.
The following day, Maha Astami, Durga is feted and thousands
of buffaloes and goats are sacrificed at shrines all over the country symbolizing
the cleansing of the soul. On this day, the Taleju shrines in the main cities are
opened to the faithful and throughout the night thousands of pilgrims
pay homage. The following days are for family gatherings, and on Bijaya
Dasami relatives visit the house of their elders to receive their blessing and
Over five days in late October, animals and gods are worshipped
and houses are lit with hundreds of candles (sadly, these are being replaced with
electric lights). On the first day the crow, symbolizing Yama Duta, the
messenger of death, is called to the house and fed. Dogs are feted and garlanded
on the second day, as they are the mounts of Bhairab.
On the third day, the
cow - an incarnation of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity - is
worshipped, and on the last day brothers are feted by their sisters with
garlands and sweetmeats and they are rewarded with money. Every evening Laxmi is
given special attention and her footprints traced by worshippers. During this
the Newari new year is celebrated with feasting.