• Gregory Sharkey SJ

Nepal Festivals • Tihar - Diwali

Friday, 28 October, marked the beginning of Tihar, the Nepali version of the season known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali or Dipawali, throughout the Hindu world. Newars call this festival Swanti.

Friday, 28 Oct, is Kag Tihar, or Crow Puja. On this day food offerings are made to crows and ravens, which are seen as harbingers of misfortune in South Asia.

Saturday, 29 Oct, is Kukkur Tihar or Dog Puja. As on the first day, an animal that is not usually honored in Nepal is given special treatment. The dog is the vehicle of Yamaraj, the lord of the dead. In both cases, the goal is to ensure long life and happiness by appeasing the messengers of death and misfortune. Dogs are garlanded, given a tika, and special food.

Sunday, 30 Oct, is Laxmi Puja, the central event of Tihar. Laxmi Puja falls on the New Moon day (Auñshi)of this lunar month, which determines the date in both the Gregorian calendar and Bikram Samvat, Nepal’s national calendar. Offerings are made to the image of Laxmi. She is the consort of Vishnu, but more especially, the Goddess of Wealth. Houses are swept clean to welcome the goddess, then decorated and lit with oil lamps in the evening. It is the lamp lighting that gives this festival its most common name. It is traditional to leave the house door open for some time in the evening, with a lamp at the entrance, to welcome the goddess.

Some families also stencil tiny white foot prints to show Laxmi the route from the front door to the family’s puja room, and to the “dhukuti”, where the family’s valuables and money are stored.

Monday, 31 Oct, is Gobardhan or Gai Tihar – i.e., Cow Puja. It is believed that the cow, sacred to all Hindus, can lead one through the perils of rebirth. If one had a “raksha” (protection thread) tied on the wrist on Janai Purnima, it should be removed this day and tied to the tail of a cow. (Good luck with this one.)

While of marginal importance to most Nepalis, this day is of great importance to Newars, who call it Mha Puja (Self Worship). Mha Puja is the first day of the new year in the Newar calendar, known as Nepal Samvat. This year is N.S. 1137. It is said that this Nepal Samvat calendar, unique to Nepal (unlike the official Bikram era), started in the time of the Licchavi king Raghadeva. Allegedly Sankhadhar Sakhwa, a wealthy merchant sponsored a “jubilee”. That is to say he paid off the debts of all citizens in the ancient kingdom of the Nepal Valley.

Newars, in contrast to other communities in Nepal, typically celebrate events such as Mha Puja in the evening. Extended family members are seated in a long row: males first, then women, according to seniority of age. A rice flour or sand mandala, representing the universe and the self, is drawn in front of each participant. It is often decorated with rings of food grains, such as black soybeans and corn, representing prosperity. The senior woman of the household presents each member with a large citrus fruit on which a long-burning wick is placed. Both symbolize longevity. Offerings of fruit are presented, along with the ‘kwakha’, a distinctive thread worn around the neck. A tika is placed on the forehead and daubs of yoghurt on the temples. The participant is then showered with flower petals, nuts, coins and other good things, poured from a traditional measuring container – a mana or pathi.

Tuesday, 01 Nov is Bhai Tika, or Brother Puja. This is the culmination of the festival. On this day sisters pay special honor to their brothers, who are their protectors, and who have -- or will later have – a special relationship to her children as maternal uncles. It is the maternal uncle, mama in Nepali (in Newar, paaju) who sponsor or play a central role in the life-cycle rites of her sons.

Women honor their brothers with a unique tika and garland during the ceremony, and present him with fruits and special festival food. In return the brothers give their sisters clothing and money. The tika worn by most Nepalis on this day is a series of multi-colored dots, placed on above the other, on a white background. While marigold garlands are presented, the important garland is one made up of the small purple thistles known as “bachelor buttons” in English (and “velvet flowers”, or mankmal, in Nepali).

Once upon a time, as Lord Yamaraj was carrying a young man to his death, his sister pleaded for the opportunity to do puja to him one last time. Yamaraj agreed that he would not come calling again until the flowers of his garlanded faded and wilted. The crafty sister made the garland from bachelor buttons – which last for ages.

Most Nepalis celebrate Bhai Tika late in the morning of this day, preferably at the auspicious time determined by astrologers. Newars, who refer to this event as Khija Puja, celebrate it at night, as on the preceding day. Many of the rituals of Mha Puja, including the use of the mandala and showering with flowers, are repeated. The specific rituals of Bhai Tika are different from one group to another. But the tika and garland are universal.

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