Nepal Festivals • April 2017
Sunday, April 9th, was Mahavir Jayanti, or Mahavir Janma Kalyanak, which celebrates the birth of Vardhamana Mahavir -- the Jina (“Conqueror”).
Mahavir was an elder contemporary of the Buddha and founded a religious tradition – Jainism – with many similarities to Buddhism. Jains strong emphasis on ahimsa, or non-violence, and strict adherence to vegetarianism, had a marked influence on Hinduism. It was the source of some of Mahatma Gandhi’s guiding principles. Most Nepali Jains are members of the Indian business community that migrated to Kathmandu after Nepal opened its borders in 1951.
April 9th also marked the beginning of the Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur and a few lesser known Newar areas. In preparation for the festival a chariot for the god Bhairava is erected in Bhaktapur’s Nyatapola [“Five-roofed” temple] Square. During the festival, which lasts until 16 April this year, the eastern and western sectors of Bhaktapur compete to pull the chariot to their own territory. Ultimately the chariot then proceeds to Khaina Tole.
The festival is calculated according to the lunisolar calendar, and falls during the days just before and after Baisakh Ek Gate, the first day of the Nepali new year in the Bikram Samvat calendar. Nowadays this leads outsiders to mistakenly refer to Bisket as a “New Year Festival”, when It is actually just a coincidence. Newars have their own calendar – Nepal Sambat – which begins in the autumn, during Tihar, or Swanthi.
Coinciding with Bhaktapur’s Bisket is the Balkumari Jatra in Madhyapur-Thimi, on the way to Bhaktapur. In the nearby Newar settlement of Bode, there is a penitential practice of piercing the tongue with a ritual pin that is left in place for many hours, as the devotees walk through the town. This is a devotional practice otherwise only seen in Tamil Nadu, and in places to which Tamils have migrated.
Monday, April 10th, is the Temal Jatra --- a very important festival for the Tamang people that falls the day before the full moon of Chaitra. Some regard “Temal” as a synonym for the Tamang people; and it is the name of a territory in modern day Kavre District that is claimed as the seat of a former Tamang kingdom. Tamangs throughout the central and near eastern regions of Nepal come to Boudha to light butter lamps and to celebrate the establishment of the Boudha Stupa. Some will keep a night long vigil. Legend has it that Nepal was afflicted by a severe drought for many years during the building of the stupa. The shortage of water made the construction process especially arduous. On completion of the stupa, abundant rains fell.
Friday, April 14th is Baisakh Ek Gate, the “First Day” of the first month, Baisakh, in the Bikram Era calendar. The era is named after the victorious king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, who conquered the Saka rulers, and apparently replaced their calendar with his own “Year Zero”. The Bikram Era began 57 years before the western Common Era; thus, we will begin the year 2074 BS on Friday.
The Bikram Era calendar has irregularities, much like the Julian calendar in the west, which was replaced by the Gregorian calendar. The days of the lunar months do not add up neatly with the days of the putative solar year. Consequently, months must be added or subtracted every few decades in order to bring them in line with the calendar year.
Wishing to distinguish themselves from their Newar Malla predecessors, and to associate themselves with prestigious Indian dynasties, the Shahs and Ranas adopted Bikram Sambat as the official calendar of Nepal. Unlike the various Losar and Newar new year celebrations, Baisakh Ek Gate does not have deep communal roots as a public festival. Over the past few decades, however, it has grown into an occasion for celebration.