Purification and Cleansing for the Year Ahead: the Rite of Mha Puja

Rituals are an integral part of various cultures globally. They are not always religious in nature, but can include those to fulfill rites of passage, purification rituals, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, royal events, marriages, funerals and many more. Human beings have been performing and celebrating rituals since the time of their evolution and have had a continuity right till today.

Various cultures perform and celebrate rituals in distinct ways and these rituals lend and contribute to creating unique identities. Through these identities, humans express and present their indigenousness and distinctivity. Once such community of Nepal, the Newars, who believe themselves to be the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, celebrate almost countless festivals accompanied by rituals throughout the year. Nature worshipers by practice, they stay close to ecology, respecting, preserving and staying in harmony for the welfare of all sentient beings. The Newars have festivals during the change of seasons, to appease deities, to pay homage to all living creatures, to celebrate relationships with parents, brothers and sisters and more importantly to cleanse themselves on the day of the new year. This annual festival is call the Mha Puja, and literally translated from the Newari language its meaning is the ritual for oneself to purify the body, mind and soul.

The new year is celebrated in the daytime by greeting each other as well as organizing a rally around the city. Since 1977 CE this rally has taken the shape of a demonstration for the adaptation of the Newa Sambat as the national calendar. The evening, however, is very dear to all Newars, with the performance of the elaborate ritual of Mha Puja. Family members gather in the evening to prepare for the this rite of self-cleansing and strengthening.

This is a ritual of purification, cleansing, strengthening and understanding one’s self as well as for physical and spiritual well-being and prosperity. The procedures of the rituals vary amongst different communities within the broader Newar community. However the purpose of the observance remains the same, and the elements too. The ritual is celebrated with the members of the family sitting cross-legged in hierarchical order on the pre-cleaned floor next to each other. In front of each person, a mandala is made. This is most important element, a drawing made on the ground representative of the universe and the five elements. It symbolizes the balance of the universe. This position of the self, seated in front of his universe is an explanation of the relationship of a human and with his/her surroundings as well as the cosmos. The outline drawing is made initially with oil and then with colorful powders mixed with rice powder. 

A special mandala is made at the beginning for the all the deities and at that end is another mandala for Yamaraj, the god of death. The mandala is then decorated with flowers, paddy, and nuts. The ritual starts at dusk, when all the family members take their seats. The female head of the family, the Nakin, leads the ritual with an assistant, mostly female. They start by venerating the first mandala dedicated to the various deities, and then the lighting the ita, or long cotton wicks and giving them to the seated person, who receives the ita and places it in their mandala. The light is symbolic of the divine light that brightens one’s life and is supposed to stay lit during the entire ritual. Each member receives the tika from the Nakin and then worships their own mandala by offering flowers etc, praying for blessings to be purified and for prosperity in the year to come. Beautiful flower garlands are placed over the shoulders as each person relishes the shagun, feeling purified and blessed. Together with the garland, each person also wears a jajanka, which is made of concentric circles of cotton thread, with a small pouch of red cloth at one end. This is a sacred thread to be worn by the worshiper, which symbolizes the act of creation, maintenance and fullness of life.

After this each member is offered the shagun or the portion of auspiciousness, hard boiled and fried eggs, meat, fish, lentil pancakes, yogurt and aila or home-made brew. Large trays of sweets and fruits are offered to each person, to energize them as they start afresh for the year ahead.

Then the woman leading the ritual showers each member with a mixture of puffed paddy, flowers, and berries as a sign to purify and refresh, from a large wooden or bronze container called the pathi. The mandala of Yamaraj is also worshiped to appease him so that he will stay away from all those who are blessed for the coming year.

The ritual ends when the Nakin takes a broom and drags it over all the mandalas, beginning form the one made for the gods, through each family member’s and at the end for Yamaraja. Clean water is poured over them as a sign of ending. The destroying of the mandala symbolizes the end of a ritual and also emphasizes the ephemeral nature of everything, the understanding and accepting of it. 

The ritual is followed by an elaborate bhoye, or dining. The Newar community are food lovers; belonging to the Kathmandu Valley, which had and still has very fertile soil, food was in abundance. Thus developed their culture of celebrating every festival with an abundance of food and drink, comprising more than 15 different varieties of vegetables, meat, wine and merry making!
The author is a scholar in Nepalese culture, with special interest in art & iconography. She can be reached at swostirjb@gmail.com