Nepal's Year & Festivals

Features Issue 22 Aug, 2010
Text by Jasleen Kaur Sabharwal / Photo: ECS Media

Nepal is the land of mystic beauty, bountiful nature and a big garden of ethnic groups. All these ethnic groups honor different events and deities, reflected in their calendars and festivals, which are the lens through which the culture of the country is brought into focus.

We find that all Hindus do not follow the same calendar, as there are as many as about 12 calendars in vogue in the Hindu world, while several others have become obsolete. Similarly, there are several Buddhist calendars.

Eras which represent calendars now in significant use in Nepal are the following:

The Vikram (or Bikram) Samvat Era (VS or BS): The most commonly used calendar in Nepal is based on this era. The first year of the era is traceable to the date of the coronation of the celebrated king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, India.

Vikram Samvat (the term ‘samvat’ means ‘era’) is 58 years ahead of the Christian era. Thus the present year 2003 AD corresponds to 2060 Vikram Samvat. The calendar follows a luni-solar system of reckoning.  In the Vikram Samvat, New Year’s Day falls on the first day of the month of Baisakh (April/May) and is celebrated with enthusiasm and fervent wishes for happiness and prosperity.

The Shakya Era: According to a legend, King Salivahan Shakya killed Vikramaditya, seized the kingdom of Ujjain and introduced ‘Samvat’ after his name. The year 2000 AD corresponds to 1923 of the Shakya Samvat  era. The present year 2003 AD corresponds to 1925 Shakya Samvat.  This calendar also follows the luni-solar system of reckoning.

Newari Era: The Malla kings of Nepal were the first to introduce this calendar. The New Year falls on the second day of Deepawali or Tihar, in the month of Kartik (October /November) and is in prevalent use amongst Newars residing in the Kathmandu Valley. The present year 2003 AD corresponds to 1123 Nepal Samvat in the Newari era.

Tibetan Era: This is a lunar calendar of mixed origin. The new year’s festival known as Loshar is celebrated in February or March every year and signifies the triumph of Lord Buddha over ignorance. The present year 2003 AD corresponds to the water sheep year 2130.  The system of identifying years with animals and elements is very close to the Chinese system, and the Chinese New Year and Tibetan New Year Days often fall in the same week.

Tamangs and Sherpas: Both Tibetan-origin peoples calculate the Buddhist calendar somewhat differently than Tibetans and celebrate Losar either earlier or later than more recent Tibetan immigrants.

The Kali Era: According to this traditional division of time, the Hindu cycle is measured by a mathematical table.  The unit of time in this respect is the kalpa or the day of the Hindu God Brahma. The kalpa is equivalent to 4,320,000,000 years and is divided into 1,000 mahayugas or great ages of equal length. Each mahayuga is further divided into four yugas or ages called:

  • Kritayuga : The Golden Age of Hindus;

  •  Tretayuga: Evil appears in this age;

  • Dvaparyuga: Good and evil are equally strong and struggle for supremacy contempt;

  • Kaliyuga: Evil gains momentum, until Good is fully destroyed. For this act, the Hindu god Lord Vishnu will incarnate as Kali, the destroyer.  He will bring about the end of the world by deluge.

The Kali era began at midnight on Thursday corresponding to 17th-18th February 3102 BC. Thus according to Hindu calculation, we are now in the sixth millenium of the Kali era.  The year 2003 AD corresponds to 5104 of the Kali Samvat.  The Kali calendar is luni-solar.

In all these different eras, the reckoning is either lunar, solar, or both. The months of the Hindu years are:

Baisakh (April-May)
Jesth (May-June)
Asadh (June-July)
Shrawan (July-August)
Bhadra (August-September)
Ashwin (September-October)
Kartik (October-November)
Mangsir (November-December)
Paush (December-January)
Magh (January-February)
Phalgun (February-March)
Chaitra (March-April)

As the months are of lunar origin, they are also divided into dark half and light half according to the amount of light cast by the moon.

The Tibetan-origin Buddhist calendars also have twelve lunar months, which do not correspond exactly to either Hindu or Roman calendar months. Specific days of each month are considered especially auspicious.

In the Hindu calendar, there are six ritus or seasons. Each ritu consists of two months.

  • Vasanta or Spring (Chaitra and Baisakh)

  •  Grishma or Summer (Jesth and Asadh)

  • Varsha or Rainy (Shrawan and Bhadra)

  •  Sarad or Autumn (Ashwin and Kartik)

  • Hemanta or Winter (Marga and Paush)

  • Sheet or Cool Season (Magh and Phalgun)

The Tibetan-origin calendars have four seasons, which correspond to the western concepts of winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Festivals celebrated in Nepal are many and it is difficult to describe all of them. Since there is much intermingling of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal, many - but not all - festivals are enjoyed by people of both religions.

Festivals are anniversaries observed with rejoicing and prayers honoring and re-living sacred events of the past and the changing of the seasons. They have religious, cultural, social, educational, and economic aspects, transmitting the traditional legends, fostering the spirit of closeness and kinship, binding a religious group into oneness, surpassing and transcending family and local ties.

Nepal is rightly known as the Land of Festivals. The whole span of Nepali life is hemmed in by festivals which have preserved its cultural heritage. Barely a day passes when no ethnic group or community observes any religious ceremony or festival. Most of these festivals originated centuries ago and their celebrations have been continued throughout the ages. A chronology of Nepali and locally celebrated Tibetan festivals is as follows (the Roman calendar dates for 2003/2004 are included):

Baisakh (April-May)
Nava Barsha (New Years Day): 1st Baisakh (14th of April, 2003).

Mata Tirtha Puja (Mother’s Day): the last day of the dark fortnight of Baisakh (1st of May).

Rato Machendranath Jatra (Chariot Ride of Red Machendranath): 2nd of May.

Balaju Mela, Lhuti Punhi or Purnima (Fair of Balaju): observed both by Hindus and Buddhists. Hindus believe that a dip in holy water on this day will take them to Heaven (Vai Kunth) while Buddhists believe that this day is sacred to Lord Bouddha as well as to the souls of the dead. 16th of April.

Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima (Anniversary of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha): the most sacred day of the Buddhist year, with a wide variety of celebrations that include the entire country, it falls on the full moon day of Baisakh (16th of May).

Mani-Rindhu (Sherpa Festival): celebrated twice a year in Khumbu at Mayat Thami Monastery and in November at Thengbhoche Monastery.

Jesth (May-June)

Sithinakha (Birthday of the warrior God Kumar): on the 6th day of the bright half of Jesth (29th of May).

Dukpa-Tse-She: on this day Buddhists in Nepal believe that Lord Buddha preached for the first time after attaining Enlightenment. 4th of June.

Saka Dawa: according to Tibetan reckoning, the day of Buddha Shakya Muni’s birth, enlightenment and Parinirvana. 14th of June, and throughout the month.

Zamling Chisang: the Buddhist Universal Prayer Day. 23rd of June.

Ashad (June-July)
Jamphel Nawang Lobsang Yeshi Tenzin Gyaltse (His Holiness The XIVth Dalai Lama’s Birthday): 6th of July.

Birthday of His Majesty the King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev: 7th of July.

Hari Shayani Ekadasi (Lord Vishnu’s  sleep): 11th of the bright half of the month of Ahadh (10th of July).

Naga Panchami (Snake Festival): 3rd of August.

Gunla (Sacred month of Lord Buddha): 15 days before the full moon and the 15 days which follow (begins on 30th of July and ends on 28th of August).

Shrawan (July-August)
Ghantakaran or Geth: festival to get rid of witches, on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of Shravan (27th of July).

Dhundze (Sherpa’s festival) at the end of the month of July (exact dates uncertain).

Janai Purnima, Rishi Tarpani or Raksha Bandhan (The Sacred Thread Festival): celebrated by both Hindus and Buddhist on the full Moon day of Shravan (12th of August).

Bhadra (August-September)
Gai Jatra (Procession of Cows) - celebrated especially by Newars on the 1st day of Bhadra (13th of August).

 Krishna Jayanti or Krishna Ashtami (The Birth Anniversary of Lord Krishna): Eighth day of the dark fortnight of Bhadra (19th of August).

Gokarna Aunsi (Father’s Day): 27th of August.

Teej (Festival of Women): celebrated beginning on the third day of the bright half of the month of Bhadra (30th of August- 1st of September).

Ashwin or Ashoj (September-October)
Indra Jatra (The Rain God’s Festival): 12th day of the waxing moon (9th of September).

Dashain or Durga Puja (Goddess Durga’s Worship): Lasts for ten days beginning on 20 Ashwin; the biggest festival celebrated in Nepal, celebrated with animal sacrifices, feasts, and family tika offerings. From the 27th of September to 5th of October.

Kartik (October - November)

Deepawali or Tihar (Festival of Lights): falls in the dark half of the month of Kartik; five days on different themes, including days to worship Laxmi, goddess of wealth and Bhai tika day, where sisters visit and make offerings to their brothers. Begins on 25th October.

Hari Bodhani Ekadasi (Return of Lord Vishnu): 4th of November.

Khadga Jatra (Exchange of Swords): held every 12 years, last time in October 2000 AD.

Mangsir (November - December)
Gujeshwari Puja (Worship of Goddess Gujeshwari): 10th day of the waxing moon (19th of November).

Bala Chaturdasi (Remembering Bala and the Dead): 14th day of the dark half of the moon (22nd of November).

Lah-Wab-Duechen: Lord Buddha returned to earth from heaven on this day (25th of November).

Vivaha Panchami (Wedding of King Janaki of Janakpur: 5th day of the bright half of the month (28th of November).

Dhaniya Purnima or Yomari Punhi (Rice bread for the Harvest moon): celebrated by Newars on the full moon day of Marga when harvesting season is over (8th of December).

Paush (December - January)

Nobel Peace Prize Day: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize on this day in 1989 (10th of December).

Mahendra Jayanti (King Mahendra Memorial and Constitution Day): first day of Paush(16th of December).

Prithivi Jayanti & Ekta Divas (Birth Anniversary of King Prithivi Narayan Shah & Unity Day): 27th of Paush (11th of January 2004).

Magh (January-February)
Magh Sankranti (First day of Magh): On this day the Sun reaches Makara (Capricon) and moves to Uttarayana (that is it takes a north course). It is generally the coldest day of the year. (14th of January.)

Bhimsen Puja (Worship of Bhimsen): 11th day of the bright fortnight (2nd of February 2004).

Phalgun (February-March)
Shri Panchami or Basanta Panchami (The spring festival) - It falls on the fifth day of the waxing moon. The day marks the end of the winter and the beginning of Basanta (Spring). 26t‘h of January 2004

Tribhuvan Jayanti  (National Democracy Day or Martyr’s Day) 17th of February.

Mahashivratri (Shiva’s greatest night): in the dark half of the month (18th of February).

Holi (Festival of colors): celebrates the spring season and falls on the full moon day of the bright half of Phalgun (6th of March).

Losar (Tibetan New Year): The first four days of Losar are celebrated in specific ways: with family, making offerings in local monasteries, and public celebrations in Boudha. 21st of February.

Chaitra (March-April)
Ghodejatra (Festival of Horses) - It begins from the fourteenth of the dark half of Chaitra (20th of March) and lasts for a period of three days.

Seto Machhendranath Snan (Bath of White Machhendranath): 29th of March.

Ramnawami (Birth Anniversary of Rama): on the bright half of the month (30th of March).

Festivals are celebrated with verve by everyone in Nepal, each possibly worshipping different facets of the same god to suit their individual perspectives.  Enjoy the color and fun found in this magnetically charming and magically captivating “Land of Festivals”!

For more information, contact the writer at 5536759.