Sri Panchami: Saraswati's Spring Festival

Features Issue 99 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Scott Faiia

Sri Panchami, also known as Basanta Panchami, is celebrated on the fifth day of the waxing moon during the Nepali month of Magh. Every Nepali month has a Panchami festival on the fifth day of the waxing moon, and the term Panchami is derived from the Sanskrit word “panch”, meaning five. In Nepal, Sri Panchami is the most important of the Panchami festivals. It  fell on 20th January this year. Although the weather remains resolutely cold, the day officially marks the beginning of spring with Kathmandu’s shivering population looking forward to warmer days and feeling that the worst of winter is over. It is an official government holiday marked by a gathering of prominent government officials for elaborate pujas in honor of the Goddess Saraswati. The pujas are traditionally held at the former Royal Palace in Basantpur (literally, the ‘Place of Spring’). The two common names for this festival refer to two of its primary aspects. The respectful appellation “Sri” indicates that it is the most important Panchami day of the year, while “Basanta Ritu” is the two-month-long spring season, which is one of six Nepali seasons. Today, the festival is especially associated with the worship of Saraswati.

Saraswati, revered throughout Nepal and India, is the Hindu Goddess of Learning. She is considered to be the consort of Lord Brahma, and is normally portrayed sitting on a white lotus with one foot hanging down and the other folded under her. She is dressed in a pure white sari and her normal vehicle is a white swan, though she is sometimes depicted with a peacock. Her most distinctive trademark is the stringed musical instrument, the vina, which she holds in two hands in almost all her representations. She is often depicted with four hands with the two additional hands usually holding a book and a prayer bead. Occasionally, the latter is replaced by a sword. This sword appears to be linked to her association with the Buddhist deity Manjushree. Since she is the Goddess of Learning, Saraswati is often depicted on the signboards of schools together with another of her symbols, the six-pointed star called “Shatkona”.

On the day of Sri Panchami, tens of thousands of devotees in the Kathmandu Valley pay homage to Saraswati. Though the valley has numerous Saraswati shrines, worshipers usually throng those located at Lele, Gairidhara and Swayambhu. As in all Nepali religious celebrations, the day is observed with incense burning, lighting of butter lamps, offerings of flowers and the application of tikas.

School children make up the majority of the crowd. The coming of spring brings an end to the winter school holiday and the start of a new school year. Students pray to Saraswati for success in the coming year and/or in any important examination they may be taking. Tools of learning like pens, ink and books are venerated. Traditionally, parents introduce their young children, ideally from five to seven years of age, to the alphabets. You may see them leaning with great concentration over writing boards or slates. However, at Swayambhu, people can be seen using any available surface to practice their letters, or write supplications for success in their endeavors. Nothing is spared. By the end of the day, the walls, ground, benches, chaityas and even the statues of the Buddha himself are literally covered with chalk.

Of course religion is not the only thing happening on this day. Many visitors to Swayambhu are teenagers. And though they may indeed pray to Saraswati for success, this is also a day for fun and an opportunity for them to flirt and be free from the concerns of everyday life. In this case, a good portion of the day’s chalk graffiti is of the “Ram loves Sita” variety.

Saraswati is worshipped throughout the South Asian subcontinent. It is interesting to note that one of the major focal points of Sri Panchami festival is the Manjushree Hill at Swayambhu. Some come to worship Saraswati there as Manjushree, the Buddhist saint who is believed to have come from China in ancient times and created the present day Kathmandu Valley by draining it’s waters through the Chobar gorge, created with a clean cut with her sword. This is just one example among many that demonstrates the unique blending of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal.

Buddhists consider Manjushree to be the Bhodhisattva of Wisdom and Literature. The most popular depictions of Manjushree have a sword in one hand and a book on a lotus in the other. The sword was not only used to create the present day Kathmandu Valley, but is also used to cut through the veil of ignorance. The book Manjushree holds is the “Pragyaparmita”, the Book of Wisdom. For the residents of Kathmandu, there is no real distinction between Saraswati and Manjushree. When questioned, most visitors to the Manjushree Hill shrine on Sri Panchami will state that they are coming to worship Saraswati. Curiously, there is no actual image of her there. The central image is a standing Lokeshwar flanked by Ganesh on the left and Mahankal on the right at the shrine entrance. There is an image of Manjushree on the ceiling of Lokeshwar’s small alcove. Just in front of Lokeshwar is a small stone with a recessed space suitable for a small statue. The space is empty, but the shrine’s guardian refers to the stone as Saraswati.

In addition, Sri Panchami is one of the most auspicious days of the year for other religious ceremonies such as marriage or Brata Bhanda, the Hindu coming-of-age rites for young Brahmin boys. The day is considered to be so auspicious that you can hold such ceremonies without having to consult an astrologer, which is usually done for such ceremonies. On this day, you can be assured of seeing marching brass bands and flower decorated cars of newlyweds throughout the city. Temples will be crowded with the families and friends of the bride and groom.