Stumbling onto a local festival may prove to be the highlight of your travels in Nepal – and given the sheer number of them, you’d be unlucky not to. Though most are religious in nature, merrymaking, not solemnity, is the order of the day, and onlookers are always welcome. Festivals may be Hindu, Buddhist, animist or a hybrid of all three.
Hindu events can take the form of huge pilgrimages and fairs (mela), or more introspective gatherings such as ritual bathings at sacred confluences (tribeni) or special acts of worship (puja) at temples. Many see animal sacrifices followed by family feasts, with priests and musicians usually on hand. Parades and processions (jaatra) are common, especially in the Kathmandu Valley.
Buddhist festivals are no less colourful, typically bringing together maroon-robed clergy and lay pilgrims to walk and prostrate themselves around stupas (dome-shaped monuments, usually repainted specially for the occasion).
Many of Nepal’s animist peoples follow the Hindu calendar, but local nature-worshipping rites take place across the hills throughout the year. Shamanic rites usually take place at home, at the request of a particular family, although shamans themselves have their own calendar of fairs (mela) at which they converge on a particular holy spot. You’ll have to travel widely and sensitively to have the chance to witness a shaman in action.
Jubilant Nepali weddings are always scheduled on astrologically auspicious days, which fall in the greatest numbers during the months of Magh, Phaagun and Baisaakh. The approach of a wedding party is often heralded by a hired band baajaa or brass band and open-air feasts go on until the early hours. The bride usually wears red, and for the rest of her married life she will colour the parting of her hair with red sindur.
Funeral processions should be left in peace. The body is normally carried to the cremation site within hours of death by white-shrouded friends and relatives; white is the colour of mourning for Hindus, and the eldest son is expected to shave his head and wear white for a year following the death of a parent. Many of the hill tribes conduct special shamanic rites to guide the deceased’s soul to the land of the dead.
Knowing when and where festivals are held will not only enliven your time in Nepal, but should also help you avoid annoyances such as closed offices and booked-up buses. Unfortunately, as most are governed by the lunar calendar, festival dates vary annually, and determining them more than a year in advance is a highly complicated business best left to astrologers. Each lunar cycle is divided into “bright” (waning) and “dark” (waxing) halves, which are in turn divided into fourteen lunar “days”. Each of these days has a name – purnima is the full moon, astami the eighth day, aunshi the new moon, and so on. Thus lunar festivals are always observed on a given day of either the bright or dark half of a given Nepali month. The following list details Nepal’s most widely observed festivals, plus a few notable smaller events. For upcoming festival dates, check one of the online Nepali calendars (try w visitnepal.com or w nepalhomepage.com).
Magh (or Makar) Sankranti Marking a rare solar (rather than lunar) event in the Nepali calendar – the day the sun is farthest from the earth – the first day of Magh (Jan 14 or 15) is an occasion for ritual bathing at sacred river confluences, especially at Devghat and Sankhu. The day also begins a month-long period during which families do daily readings of the Swasthani, a compilation of Hindu myths, and many women emulate Parvati’s fast for Shiva, one of the Swasthani stories. For more information, see The Devghat Pilgrimage.
Basanta Panchami This one-day spring festival is celebrated on the fifth day after the new moon in most Hindu hill areas. The day is also known as Saraswati Puja, after the goddess of learning, and Shri Panchami, after the Buddhist saint Manjushri. School playgrounds are decorated with streamers and children have their books and pens blessed; high-caste boys may undergo a special rite of passage.
Losar Tibetan New Year falls on the new moon of either Magh or Phaagun, and is preceded by three days of drinking, dancing and feasting. The day itself is celebrated most avidly at Boudha, where morning rituals culminate with horn blasts and the hurling of tsampa. Losar is a time for families, and is the highlight of the calendar in Buddhist highland areas, as well as in Tibetan settlements near Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Shivaraatri Falling on the new moon of Phaagun, “Shiva’s Night” is marked by bonfires and evening vigils in all Hindu areas, but most spectacularly at Pashupatinath, where tens of thousands of pilgrims and sadhus from all over the subcontinent gather for Nepal’s best-known mela. Fervent worship and bizarre yogic demonstrations can be seen throughout the Pashupatinath complex. Children collect firewood money by holding pieces of string across the road to block passers-by. Nepalis say the festival is usually followed by a final few days of winter weather, which is Shiva’s way of encouraging the Indian sadhus to go home.
Holi Nepal’s version of the springtime water festival, common to many Asian countries, lasts about a week, and commemorates a myth in which the god Krishna, when still a boy, outsmarted the demoness Holika. During this period, anyone is a fair target for water balloons and coloured powder. It culminates in a general free-for-all on Phaagun Purnima, the full-moon day of Phaagun.
Chait Dasain Like its autumn namesake, the “little Dasain”, observed on the eighth day after the new moon, involves lots of animal sacrifices. The goriest action takes place at goddess temples, such as the one at Gorkha, and in the Kot courtyard near Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, where the army’s top brass come to witness the beheading of numerous buffalo and goats.
Ram Nawami The birthday of Lord Ram is observed on the ninth day after the full moon at all temples dedicated to Vishnu in his incarnation as the hero of the Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics. By far the biggest and most colourful celebrations take place in Janakpur, where thousands of pilgrims flock to the Ram temple.
Seto Machhendranath Jaatra Kathmandu’s answer to Patan’s Machhendranath Rath Jaatra (see below), this sees a lumbering wooden chariot containing the white mask of the god Machhendranath pulled through the narrow lanes of the old city for four days, starting on Chait Dasain.
Nawa Barsa Nepali New Year, which always falls on the first day of Baisaakh (April 13 or 14), is observed with localized parades. Culminating on Nawa Barsa, Bhaktapur’s five-day celebration, known as Bisket or Biska, is the most colourful, combining religious processions with a rowdy tug-of-war (see Bishanku Narayan); the nearby settlements of Thimi and Bode host similarly wild scenes.
Machhendranath Rath Jaatra Nepal’s most spectacular festival: thousands gather to watch as the image of Machhendranath, the Kathmandu Valley’s rain-bringing deity, is pulled around the streets of Patan in a swaying, 18m-high chariot. It moves only on astrologically auspicious days, taking four weeks or more to complete its journey. For more information, see Raato Machhendranath’s big ride.
Buddha Jayanti The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth. Enlightenment and death is celebrated on the full-moon day of Baisaakh at all Buddhist temples, but most visibly at Swayambhu, where the stupa is decorated with thousands of lights, and ritual dances are performed by priests dressed as the five aspects of Buddhahood. Processions are also held at the Boudha stupa and in Patan. Curiously, observances at the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini, are rather sparse.
Janai Purnima The annual changing of the sacred thread (janai) worn by high-caste Hindu men takes place at holy bathing sites throughout the country on the full-moon day of Saaun. Men and women of any caste may also receive a yellow-and-orange “protective band” (raksha bandhan) around one wrist, which is then worn until Tihaar, when it’s supposed to be tied onto the tail of a cow. Mass observances are held at Gosainkund, a holy lake high in the mountains north of Kathmandu; Pashupatinath; and most prominently Patan’s Kumbeshwar temple, where priests tie strings and bestow tikas, and jhankri (hill shamans) perform sacred dances.
Gaai Jaatra Newari tradition has it that Yamraj, the god of death, opens the gates of judgement on the day of the full moon, allowing departed souls to enter. Falling on the day after the full moon, Gaai Jaatra honours cows (gaai), who are supposed to lead departed souls to Yamraj’s abode. Processions in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and other Newari towns are both solemn and whimsical: an occasion for families to honour loved ones who have died in the past year, but also for young boys to dress up in fanciful cow costumes or masquerade as sadhus. In Bhaktapur, where the festival is known as Gunhi Punhi and starts a day earlier (coinciding with Janai Purnima), men parade around town in humorous costumes. Satirical street performances are less common nowadays than they once were, but newspapers and magazines publish caustic Gaai Jaatra specials.
Nag Panchami On the fifth day after the new moon, Kathmandu Valley residents quietly propitiate the nag (snake spirits), who are traditionally held to control the monsoon rains and earthquakes, by pasting pictures of nag over their doorways with cow dung and offering milk, rice and other favourite nag foods to the images. Wells are cleaned only on this day, when the nag are believed to be away worshipping their ancestral deities.
Ghanta Karna On the fourteenth day after the full moon, residents of Kathmandu Valley towns celebrate the victory of the gods over the demon Ghanta Karna (“Bell Ears”) by erecting effigies and then burning or tearing them down.
Krishna Astami (also called Krishna Jayanti or Krishna Janmastahmi) Krishna temples such as Patan’s Krishna Mandir throng with thousands of worshippers celebrating the god’s birth on the seventh day after the full moon. Vigils are also held the night before.
Tij The three-day “Women’s Festival”, which starts on the third day after the new moon, sees groups of women clad in red singing and dancing through the streets. Letting their families fend for themselves for once, they start with a girls’ night out, feasting until midnight when they begin a day-long fast. On the second day they queue up to worship Shiva at the Pashupatinath temple outside of Kathmandu, and break the fast and ritually bathe to remove their sins on the final day.
Indra Jaatra A wild week of chariot processions and masked-dance performances in Kathmandu, held around the full moon of Bhadau. On the last day, which is also known as Kumari Jaatra, beer flows from the mouth of an idol in Durbar Square. For more information, see Indra Jaatra: eight days of pomp and partying.
Yartung A swashbuckling fair held at Muktinath, in the Annapurna trekking region, centred around the full-moon day and featuring horse racing, dancing, drinking and gambling.
Dasain (or Dashera) Although Hindu in origin, Nepal’s longest and greatest festival is enthusiastically embraced by members of almost all religious and ethnic groups. It stretches over fifteen days, from the new moon to the full moon of Asoj, with the liveliest action taking place on the seventh, ninth and tenth days. Normally falling just after the summer rice harvest is in, Dasain is a time for families to gather (buses get extremely crowded with homeward-bound passengers), children to be indulged (with kites, makeshift swings and miniature ferris wheels), and animals to be sacrificed (roads and markets all over the country are filled with doomed goats). On the first day, known as Ghatasthapana, people plant jamura (barley) in a kalash (sanctified vessel), representing Durga, Dasain’s honoured goddess; the seedlings will be picked and worn in the hair on the tenth day. Devotees congregate at local goddess temples throughout the next nine nights. A separate festival, Panchali Bhairab Jaatra, features late-night processions between the Bhairab’s shrine and the Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu, and coincides with the fourth and fifth days of Dasain. On the seventh day, Fulpati, a bouquet of sacred flowers (fulpati) is carried in a procession from Rani Pokhari to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Kathmandu. The ninth day, Navami, begins at midnight with tantric buffalo sacrifices inside the forbidden Taleju (a form of Durga) temples of the Kathmandu Valley; throughout the day, animals are ritually beheaded publicly in the Kot Courtyard near Kathmandu’s Durbar Square and in every village and city of Nepal; their blood is sprinkled on tools, vehicles and even aircraft to impart Durga’s shakti (power). These rituals commemorate Durga’s slaying of the demon Mahisasur, and more generally, the triumph of good over evil. Bijaya Dasami, the “Victorious Tenth Day”, celebrates Ram’s victory over the demon Ravana – with Durga’s help. Various processions and masked dance troupes ply the streets and families visit their elders to receive blessings and tika.
Tihaar (Diwali near India) Lasting for five days, starting two days before the new moon, the “Festival of Lights” is associated with Yamraj, the god of death, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune. On the first day, Nepalis set out food on leaf plates for crows, regarded as Yamraj’s messengers; on the second, they honour dogs as Yamraj’s gatekeepers, giving them tika, flower garlands and special foods; and on the third they garland cows both as the symbol of Lakshmi and as the soul’s guide to Yamarj’s underworld. The festival’s most picturesque event, Lakshmi Puja, comes on the evening of the third day, when families throughout Nepal ring their homes with oil lamps, candles or electric lights to guide Lakshmi to their homes so she can bless them with prosperity for the year. Trusting in her, many Nepalis gamble on street corners, and student groups make the rounds singing “Diusire”, a form of musical fundraising. Firecrackers have also become a big part of the fun for kids. To Newars, the fourth day is known as Mha Puja (“Self-Worship”), an occasion for private rituals, and also their New Year’s Day, marked by banners, well-wishing and motorcycle parades in the Kathmandu Valley’s three main cities. On the fifth day, Bhaai Tika, sisters recall the myth of Jamuna, who tricked Yamraj into postponing her brother’s death indefinitely, by blessing their younger brothers and giving them flower garlands, tika and sweetmeats.
Chhath Coinciding with the third day of Tihaar, this festival honours Surya, the sun god, and is one of the most important for the Maithili-speaking people of the eastern Terai. Chhath is celebrated most ardently in Janakpur, where women gather by ponds and rivers to greet the sun’s first rays with prayers, offerings and ritual baths.
Mani Rimdu Held at Tengboche and Chiwong monasteries in the Everest region around the full moon of the ninth Tibetan month (usually Oct/Nov), this colourful Sherpa masked dance dramatizes Buddhism’s victory over the ancient Bon religion in eighth-century Tibet. A similar event is held in May or June at Thami.
Ram-Sita Biwaha Panchami As many as 100,000 pilgrims converge on Janakpur for this five-day gathering, beginning on the new moon of Mangsir. The highlight is the re-enactment of the wedding of Ram and Sita, the divine, star-crossed lovers of the Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics. Janakpur’s stature as a holy city rests on its having been the location of the original wedding.
Nepali music is inseparable from dance, especially at festivals. Nepali dance is an unaffected folk art – neither wildly athletic nor subtle, it depicts everyday activities such as work and courtship. Each region and ethnic group has its own traditions, and during your travels you should get a chance to join a local hoedown or two, if not a full-blown festival extravaganza. Look out, too, for the stick dance of the lowland Tharus, performed regularly at lodges around Chitwan National Park. Staged culture shows in Kathmandu and Pokhara are a long way from the real thing, but they do provide a taste of folk and religious dances. Most troupes perform such standards as the dance of the jhankri (shaman-exorcists still consulted by many hill-dwelling Nepalis); the sleeve-twirling dance of the Sherpas; the flirting dance of the hill-dwelling Tamangs; perhaps a formal priestly dance, to the accompaniment of a classical raga (musical piece); and at least one of the dances of the Kathmandu Valley’s Newars.
Folk music (git lok) is an important aspect of life in Nepal, particularly during festivals and holidays. The maadal double-ended drum plays a focal role, often accompanied by the harmonium, murali (bamboo piccolo) or bansuri (flute). A group member will strike up a familiar verse, and everyone joins in on the chorus.
Folk music traditions vary among the country’s many ethnic groups, but the true sound of Nepal can be said to be the soft, melodic and complex music of the hills. Jhyaure, the maadal-based music of the western hills, is the most popular. Selo, the music of the Tamangs, has also been adopted by many other communities. Meanwhile, the music of the Jyapu (Newari farmers) has a lively rhythm, though the singing has a nasal quality.
The improvised, flirtatiously duelling duets known as dohori, traditionally performed by young men and women of the hill tribes, have become the soundtrack of modern Nepal. You’ll hear them on personal radios, mobile ringtones and bus music systems, as well as in the dedicated rodi ghars (nightlife restaurants), and will soon come to recognize the repetitive back-and-forth, him-then-her structure, with wailing flutes and unison choruses punctuating each verse.
While folk music is by definition an amateur pursuit, there are two traditional castes of professional musicians: wandering minstrels (gaaine or gandarbha) who play the sarangi (a four-stringed fiddle), and damai, members of the tailor caste who serve as wedding musicians.