15 January (01 Magh): Maghe Sankranti
Maghe Sankranti, also known as Makkar Sankranti, marks the end of the religiously inauspicious month of Poush, and the beginning of the very auspicious month of Magh. While it is celebrated on the date of the winter apogee, when the moon is furthest from the earth, it is the equivalent of a winter solstice celebration in other traditional cultures.
Maghe Sankranti is special in that it is celebrated by an extremely broad range of Nepal’s ethnic communities. Before the resurgence (or invention) of special new years’ celebrations among the Tamangs and Gurungs it was celebrated as the beginning of a new spring.
As with many Nepali festivals, particular foods are associated with this festival. Tarul roots, harvested from the forest, are steamed and eaten along with chaku, caramelized molasses, and ghyu, or clarified butter. Sesame and molasses sweets and sel-roti (rice flour ‘doughnuts’) are also popular.
18 January (04 Magh): Sonam Losar
This “lesser” lunar new year celebration is primarily celebrated by Nepal’s Tamang community. In fact, until the ethnic and cultural revivals that began with the People’s Movement of 1990, few Tamangs were even aware of this event. In the process of re-asserting their Buddhist identity, many Tamangs stopped celebrating, or found alternative meanings for, festivals such as Dashain and Tihar – and opted to emphasize Buddhist holidays such as Losar.
The decision to designate Sonam Losar (in Tamang, Lho-char) probably stems from a desire to have a unique “new year” for that community. In practice, many Tamangs are beginning to celebrate both Sonam and Gyalbo Losar, or to join their fellow Himalayan Buddhists in primarily observing the latter.
22 January (08 Magh): Basanta Panchami
Basanta Panchami is also known as Shri Panchami and Saraswati Puja. The festival ritually marks the waning of winter and the onset of spring. In some parts of South Asia the festival centers on the worship of Kamadeva, the god of love. In Nepal, as in most of north India, it is Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning, who is primarily honored.
By tradition this is the most auspicious day for a child to begin to learn to write. Children are taken to temples of Saraswati, or to temporary images erected in her honor. They are given a piece of chalk with which to trace the alphabet on the walls of her shrine. In the Kathmandu Valley some Newar Buddhists make a small adjustment. The toddlers’ graffiti shows up on walls of shrines dedicated to Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, as at Swayambhu.
31 January (17 Magh): Swasthani Vrata Samapti
The Swasthani Vrata, or observance, is unique to Nepal. For a month-long period starting on the full moon day of the Nepali month of Poush, devotees read nightly from the Swasthani Vrata Katha text, which tells many tales of gods and goddesses, particularly Shiva and the goddess Swasthani. She is said to grant the wishes of devotees who faithfully recite the text throughout the month. The full moon of Magh, which falls on the date noted above, marks the end of the observance.
The annual month-long Sankhu Mela, also known as Salinadi, is connected to this observance. In earlier times the Salinadi festival attracted large numbers of blacksmiths, selling ironware for use in the home. Nowadays there is more plastic for sale by the many vendors at the mela.
13 - 14 February (01 - 02 Phalgun): Maha Shivaratri
Maha Shivaratri, or “the great night of Shiva”, is a celebration of Shiva’s victory over evil. At the great churning of the ocean, evil was separated from the pure ocean waters. In order to protect humankind, Shiva selflessly drank off the poison, which explains his blue color. Shivaratri is primarily celebrated at night. In the weeks leading up to the festival many hundreds of sadhus, Hindu holy men, travel from across India to camp at Pashupatinath Temple. In the days of the monarchy, the sadhus (many of them nange babas, or naked aascetics) were provided by the king with firewood and ganja, an herb sacred to Lord Shiva. Before the king and queen’s arrival some were also provided with loincloths.
16 February (04 Phalgun): Gyalbo Losar
The most important of the Himalayan new year festivals is the “royal” losar. In addition to Tibetans and Bhutia communities in Nepal’s borderlands, Hyolmos, as well as some Sherpas, and Tamangs celebrate the lunar new year on this day. Most Tamangs, however, seem to have settled on Sonam ‘Lhochar’, as their new year. Gurungs celebrate Tamu Losar -- a festival unknown in Nepal 30 years ago -- much earlier in the year.
01 March (17 Phalgun): Holi
Holi, more authentically known as Phagu (Phalgun) Purnima in Nepal, is the quintessential spring festival in South Asia. It is celebrated by groups of friends wildly throwing multi-coloured powder, dousing each other with water, and targeting unsuspecting pedestrians with water balloons hurled form rooftops.
In Nepal it celebrates the death of the demoness known as Holika, who unsuccessfully tried to immolate her nephew Pralhad, a devoted follower of Vishnu. It backfired, and she was incinerated. In much of India Holi is seen as celebrating the love of Radha and Krishna.
Phagu Purnima is also the occasion of a major festival in Harisiddhi, a large Newar village on the road to Godavari. Late in the evening, over the course of three nights culminating with Holi, there are masked (lakhe) dancers, who channel various deities, and animal sacrifice.
17 March (03 Chaitra): Ghode Jatra
Ghode Jatra, or the Horse Festival, is basically a military equestrian display that takes place on the Tundikhel, the large grassy maidan in the centre of Kathmandu. The president of Nepal, like the king in former times, presides at the event. Some say that the thundering of horses frightens away the demon Tundi, who once inhabited the open field. Others say that it commemorates his death, when horses pranced on his dead body in celebration.
25 March (11 Chaitra): Ram Nawami / Chaitra Dashain
Ram Nawami celebrates the birth of Lord Rama, son of King Dasharath and Queen Kaushalya, in Ayodhya. Lord Rama is seen as the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu. This date also marks the end of the lesser known spring Navaratri / Dashain, in honor of the Goddess in her many forms.
29 March (15 Chaitra): Mahavir Jayanti
Mahavir Jayanti, or Mahavir Janma Kalyanak, 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.
30 March (16 Chaitra by Fr Greg’s calculation): - Temal Jatra
An 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. It is also said to recall the visit of Vipashwi Buddha to the shores of the lake that once filled Kathmandu Valley. The lotus seed he tossed into the waters culminated in the arising of Swayambhu.
09 - 16 April (26 Chaitra - 03 Baisakh): Bisket Jatra
April 9th marks the beginning of the Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur. In preparation for the festival chariots for the god Bhairava and goddess Bhadrakali are built. Their meeting in the lane above Bhaktapur’s Nyatapola [“Five-roofed” temple] Square is scene as a guarantee of fertility. Eastern and western sectors compete in a daily “tug-of’war” with the main chariot. The Bisket pole is set up at the beginning of the festival. Bringing down the pole at the end of the festival represents the destruction of evil.
The festival falls just before and after Baisakh Ek Gate, the first day of the official 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. It is also known as Sindhure Jatra, as the locals celebrate by throwing red tika powder. 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 among the Tamil people of south India.