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Cleansing the city: festivals of the monsoon,
by Mark Johnson

Lines of brightly-dressed women in matching saris. Old men sit in wayside shelters enthusiastically singing hymns of devotion. Massive chariots lumbering precariously through a sea of devotees. The clash of cymbals. The energetic pounding of ancient drums. The colourful cycle of Nepal's festivals.

As we try to introduce the gospel to our neighbours it is important that we make every effort to understand their religious life. It is only by learning of their rituals and beliefs that we can grasp how they will understand us when we tell them of ours. This is the first in a short series of articles that explore the meaning and significance of festivals in the ritual life of some of Nepal's peoples. The focus will be on the festivals of the Kathmandu Valley because they are ones that I am more familiar with. Parallels will often be found in the festivals of other communities.

Not all festivals are equally significant. In a study of Nepal's festivals it is important to note that many are distinctly local. Very few of Nepal's festivals, in fact, are observed nation-wide. Nepali communities have developed their annual scheme of festivals by selecting from a vast menu of South Asian options. Some festivals, such as Buddha Jayanti, are celebrated almost exclusively by those who are self-consciously Buddhist. Other festivals, such as Sa Paru [1] (Np. Gai Jatra) and the small Narasimha Jatra, are celebrated exclusively by those who would identify themselves as shivamargis. The vast majority, however, are not restricted to those of any particular religious path.

In these articles I will be focussing on the festivals of the old city of Patan (or Lalitpur as the city's inhabitants call it). Again, the cities of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur often have parallel festivals though sometimes they are celebrated to a markedly greater or lesser degree. The festival of Indra Jatra (Yenyah), for instance, is celebrated much more in Kathmandu than it is in Lalitpur and it is hardly celebrated at all in Bhaktapur. The great function of Indra Jatra in Kathmandu, however, that of city integration, is fulfilled in other festivals in her two sister cities - the Biskah (Bisket) Jatra in Bhaktapur and the Karunamaya/ Matsyendranath chariot festival of Lalitpur.

Two calendars are in use for determining the precise timing of the annual festivals - the solar and lunar calendars.[2] Relatively few festivals are observed according to the solar calendar.

Approaching the festivals

Why do Nepalis, or anyone for that matter, celebrate festivals? Most Newars would answer that by saying that that is what they have always done. Rarely does one ask why, or for what purpose, the festival was instituted or developed. Gérard Toffin has emphasised that communal festivals are of particular relevance to Newar society, for "they often correspond to a critical moment in the annual calendar". The festive ritual's first aim is to dramatize this critical moment and to repair the cosmic order?.[3] "They function," as Michael Witzel puts it, "... as rites of passage of the year".[4]

In the traditional Nepalese perspective, the festivals involve an interaction between the world of mortals, the social order, and the realm of deities, the cosmic order. The festivals establish a certain kind of order. That order is annually corrupted but through the festivals is reconstructed and displayed for all to see and take note. There is, then, an annual cycle to the festival routine, a cycle that is intimately related to the seasons.

There are various ways of viewing the seasons as they occur in South Asia. The western scientific perspective recognizes three: a cold, dry season lasting from around October to February, followed by a hot, dry season from around March to early June, followed by a hot, wet season (the monsoon) from mid-June to September.[5] In this article I focus on the importance of the monsoon and the significance of the dense series of festivals that see it out. But first, to set the scene, I will describe the stage on which these acts take place.

Sacred space

The medieval Malla cities of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur were walled settlements punctuated at many points by gates.[6] It is possible to trace the precise location of the old wall even though there is no remaining substantial evidence. Local residents know the exact point at which they are within or outside the old walls. Place names such as Kwalkhu and Ikha Lakhu tell of former gates and boundaries going back, in the latter case, to pre-Malla times.

The easiest way to tell where several of the gates were placed is by an analysis of the locations of some of the low castes. Although most residents of Lalitpur were not intentionally situated at any particular distance from the city centre two low caste groups were clearly located on, or relocated to the boundaries of the city at some time in the distant past. The Dyahla Untouchables (Np. Pode) were placed immediately outside the old Malla city gates, whereas the (unclean but touchable) Khadgi Butchers were, for the most part, placed immediately inside.

Since these castes still live largely in their traditional localities the simple matter of distinguishing one caste from the other can lead to, at particular locations, precise mapping of old city boundaries. The Dyahla were to be located not simply outside the city wall but more particularly, outside the gates. In this way their polluted presence would protect the city from marauders or evil spirits (bhut/pret), which, like the city's inhabitants, would also find them repulsive.

Why this preoccupation with boundaries? The wall therefore acted as a boundary between the structured, urbanised inside and the unstructured, wild outside. Hence the Sanskrit pur (as in Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Kantipur etc) means both "wall" and "town". Such a concern with boundaries goes back to at least ancient Vedic times Witzel explains that the Vedas made a distinction between grama, "settlement", and aranya, "wilderness".[7] The aranya was dangerous and full of threats. It was where the barbaric and uncivilised aborigines and dreaded demons lived. By demarcating the boundaries, therefore, the Aryan settlement became a sacred space resembling the Vedic offering ground. In this it seems the ancient Aryans were not alone. Jameson points out that the Newar city's concern with boundaries, particularly those between order and chaos, offers striking analogies with those of that other ancient Indo-European civilisation, Greece.[8]

Nepal's festivals, therefore, take place in a particular space - that is, in a defined area that acts like a stage for a play. Such a space is often considered a sacred space. The arrangement of deities within and around that space is thought to sanctify it, setting it apart from the disordered world outside. The twin festivals of Sithi Nakhah and Gathan Mugah bracket the heaviest period of the monsoon season.

The lunar year comes to a close

The last festival of the lunar year is that of Sithi Nakhah which falls around the beginning of June, the sixth day of the waxing lunar fortnight (Jyesth-shukla 6) and the day after the official traditional beginning of the monsoon in the Hindu texts. In reality the monsoon usually arrives around a week later. Sithi Nakhah is the last day for the worship of ones lineage deity (Np. kul devata, Nw. digu dyah) and the day for the cleansing of wells as the water table is at its lowest at this time.

The day after Sithi Nakhah is the beginning of the rice transplanting season. Work in the fields is heavy throughout this period. At this time also, gastrointestinal diseases are rife. For around seven weeks, as it is considered an inauspicious time, there are no significant festivities. It is the one period of the year that all music groups are forbidden to play.[9] Only rice planting songs associated with rice transplantation may be sung. As if to emphasize the unusual character of this season, obscenity is widely accepted. Young men and old, and occasionally women too shout lewd cat calls to each other across the paddy fields.

Good-bye "Bell Ears"!

The first festival of the lunar year, at least as Newars view it, is Gathan Mugah Cahre, the fourteenth day of the waning lunar fortnight (Shravan-krishna 14), usually falling around the end of July or beginning of August. Rice transplanting must be finished by this day. The day begins with a special puja to household deities that are normally worshipped in a more perfunctory manner on other days. The ritual food, samay, is offered to the deities.

Each household would traditionally tie a bunch of straw, corn stalks, stinging nettles and some other creepers in a bundle. After puja is offered to the "head" of the effigy, it is lit and carried to each room where the smoke is understood to expel evil spirits (bhut/pret).[10] The bundle is then thrown at the Remains Deity (chwasa). On this day many households drive iron nails into the lintel of the main doorway to their house.[11]

Traditionally the young men and children of the locality would gather at the crossroads chwasa to bundle straw together to make an effigy of the demon Gathan Mugah (Skt. and Np. Ghantakarna, "Bell Ears").[11] The children would hold a string across the road and extort money from the drivers and cyclists who were unfortunate enough to pass that way. In the evening the children would then paint their faces and beg from door to door with a phallic representation of Gathan Mugah on a winnowing tray. The day finishes with the removal from the city of the effigy of Gathan Mugah along a prescribed route, which is always from the centre outwards to the periphery of the city. These routes correspond in some cases with the Ways of the Dead, by which a dead body is taken outside the city for cremation. On return, revellers would have to wash the face and bathe before entering the house otherwise it was believed that demons would enter with them (again in a ritual very similar to that performed on return from a cremation).

The expulsion of evil

The festival of Gathan Mugah is the first major unit in a whole series of purification rituals that are done at this time as the heaviest period of rains gives way to the lighter and drawn out latter monsoon. Newars have a very clear concept of the trouble that is brought upon the city during the season of rice transplanting that finishes on this day.[12] The farmers have been hard at work in the fields. Inevitably they have brought dust and dirt into the house and into sacred urban space. With that dirt it is believed that evil spirits have been brought into the city and into the house.

The Gathan Mugah festival, therefore, is the first ritual of expulsion. The evil spirits that are thought to be in the house need to be expelled by invoking them into the straw bundles. They are then burned at the chwasa or destroyed and dragged out of the city to a more powerful ritual dumping ground outside the walls. The period of disorder can only be brought to an end if the evil spirits that have entered the city, and more significantly in this case, the house, are expelled. This is done by means of rituals that physically embody the spirits. It is only after this that they can be taken out of physical space. The festival of Gathan Mugah, then, brings a partial restoration of the civic order.

Following Gathan Mugah is the densest period of festivals of the whole year. They include Nag Pancami, Gun Punhi (Np. Janai Purnima/ Raksha Bandhan), Sa Paru (Gai Jatra), Mataya, Krishna Janmashtami, Bhimsen Jatra, Baya Khwa Swayegu (Np. Buako Muk Herne, "Seeing the Father's Face"), Indra Jatra (Yenyah), and the two great autumnal festivals of Mohani (Np. Dasain) and Swanti (Np. Tihar).[13] I will examine Dasain in the next article. Here we will look only at Mataya.

The great Buddhist procession of Mataya

Two days after Gathan Mugah is the start of the Newar month of Gunla. The high point of this greatest of all Buddhist months is the festival of Mataya, which follows the day after Sa Puja (Gai Jatra.[14] The festival attracts more involvement than any other in Lalitpur does, with the possible exception of the spring chariot festival. Mataya (along with the associated Nyaku Jatra) comprises a set of events that culminates in the great procession of the second day of the waning lunar fortnight (Bhadra-krishna 2).

Preparation for Mataya begins on the first day of the month (Shravan-shukla 1) i.e. just a day after the celebrations of Gathan Mugah. Just after midnight, a procession forms in the locality that is in charge of the festival for that year. Instruments are played and a crowd of hundreds of folk gathers together to join the procession. On this and the following few nights the Nava Bajă ensembles process through the streets and lanes of Lalitpur following closely the path of the officiating Vajracarya priest to each and every public or private Buddhist shrine of the city. The most significant feature of this procession is the blowing of the buffalo horns (nyaku) in each lane and at every corner and temple. Men and women walk in between these groups and do puja to the votive shrines (caitya/cibhah) and other deities that lie along the path by casting husked rice, vermilion and coins as they pass. In doing so they prepare the path for the later, much grander, procession of thousands of devotees to take place a fortnight later on the actual day of Mataya. As one informant put it:

They have to go out at night at this time to prepare the path for Mataya. There are many lanes and people will get lost if we do not do this. There is a lot of disturbance. This ritual makes it better.

Austerities for the dead

The high point of the festival is the actual procession of Mataya. Many thousands of devotees gather at dawn at the same starting place that the preparatory procession began. Today they must walk often bare-footed and fasting, in procession around all four Ashoka stupas that ring the old city of Lalitpur and past each of the city's 1,400 votive shrines. The procession takes all day with the devotees following the precisely described route as already prepared, so to speak, by the nyaku horns and their accompanists, two weeks beforehand. Inhabitants of Lalitpur are obliged to participate if they have lost a relative during the past year. Those who are particularly going through austerities for the merit of their deceased loved ones wear sacking over their near-naked bodies to protect them as the prostrate themselves before each shrine that they visit.

Small oil lamps are also offered to signify Buddha's enlightenment. According to legend, while Shakyamuni Buddha was in deep penance to attain Nirvana the Maras disguised themselves as demons and damsels in order to corrupt him. He overcame the temptation and as a result became Buddha. Then the Maras came to confess their sins to Buddha and worshipped him.[15]

In spite of the seriousness of the occasion, being as it is associated with death and merit making, the event has a strongly festive, even carnival atmosphere in common with the celebration of Sa Paru (Gai Jatra) in Bhaktapur the previous day. Groups of friends participate in a common uniform - Maharjan women in traditional haku patasii dress; men in traditional daura suruwal and dhaka-weave topi; girls wear matching dresses. Some groups of men dress up as demons or ghosts (lakhe) or wild animals such as monkeys and lions.

Interpreting Mataya

Although, on the surface, Mataya (and the twin procession of Nyaku Jatra) are about accruing merit for the deceased, these rituals would further seem to be meant to have a purifying effect on city space. The Mataya procession and those that precede it are intended to reestablish the sacred city space. The monsoon is still lashing the streets and houses. There is still the potential for disaster as this comment by an elderly Tamrakar makes clear.

When Mataya began there was just one couple playing their horns. The man got lost so his wife searched for him, playing her horn, which sounded like she was calling "where are you?" He would reply on his horn, which sounded like "I am here!" At this time there is so much rain there is the liability of flooding. No one must sleep during this night otherwise the world will turn over. So the nava bajă go around keeping people awake.

In Mataya the integrity of city space is reestablished through the procession of participants through the intricate maze of courtyards to visit each and every caitya and stupa in and around the city. The boundaries are secured again by the physical visiting of the four principal stupas during the course of the procession.

Death has taken away!

The monsoon is the lifeblood of the Indian Subcontinent. Without it many millions of people would simply starve to death. The great cereal crop of the year is entirely dependent on rain-fed irrigation. So the arrival of the rains is a great blessing to the inhabitants of this part of the world. But the monsoon is not without its drawbacks. The incidence of sickness greatly increases at this time. Death stalks the lanes of the cities and villages.

Lakshmi Prasad Devkota's poem "The Fifteenth of the Month of Ashadh" describes a typical day in the rice-planting season with its festive joy and hard work. Near the end of the poem Devkota quotes a song.[16] It is worth quoting a few lines from this song here:

It's the time of rice planting,
today we laugh,
today we sing.
Tomorrow, oh my God! who weeps
because death has taken away!

There is laughter and there is song. But there is also sickness and death.

Dangerous deities and hazardous habitats

The period immediately following that of rice transplantation is chock full of festivals, most of which have a connection with purification and the expulsion of evil. While purification is viewed largely in ritual terms, however, pollution is not merely ritual. There is a strong material view of dirt associated with rice planting. This perspective finds expression in the explanation of illness and other kinds of misfortune. Traditionally, Nepalis have viewed illness to be caused by either the actions of malevolent beings (dangerous deities, ghosts, or witches) or environmental conditions, or both.

A whole class of deity is considered dangerous. If they are offended they may retaliate. They must, therefore, be propitiated. It is the female deities that are responsible for such diseases as cholera, malaria, and meningitis.[17] Children's illnesses are particularly attributed to the chwasa Ajima - the Remains Deity.[18]

Up until a few decades ago the Valley was particularly susceptible to devastating outbreaks of smallpox (Nw. tahkai). The disastrous epidemic at the end of the eighteenth century is particularly embedded in the collective consciousness of the people. It was in this epidemic that King Rana Bahadur Shah's favourite queen died and, in a desperate attempt to keep his son from catching the disease, the king tried to expel all the children from the Valley.[19] The ravages of the disease can still be seen, etched into the faces of its victims. Again, Ajima was usually suspected to be the cause of these outbreaks. Later, when vaccination became readily available, as a child was inoculated, family members would take offerings to Ajima at Swayambhu or, in Lalitpur, to Sitalamai at Konti.

The chronicles and diaries of visitors to the Valley are replete with evidence of major epidemics. The traveller Si-tu Panchen (1700-1774 AD) describes such an epidemic, which was raging in the summertime (though not in the winter) of 1723 when he was visiting. Once stricken by the disease most people died within thirty hours. The king reported that on a single night during the rainy season over one hundred dead bodies had to be removed from the town.[20] Si-tu Panchen was also told that this had gone on for three years and that two-thirds of the population had perished.

Curing the afflicted

Cure for such illness is effected by the worship of the goddess who is considered to have brought the misfortune. Often Newars will also resort at such times to a traditional doctor (vaidya), a medium (dyah waimha), or other practitioner.[21] Sometimes a Citrakar Painter is called for healing purposes. He will paint powerful symbols, such as lions, on a patient with a skin problem, for example.[22]

It is clear that the monsoon with the period immediately preceding it, has always been the period with the highest incidence of illness. This is as true today as it has been in the past, although the spread of such epidemics and their impact has been much reduced with the advent of biomedicine. Nevertheless, strongly held beliefs about the causes and cure of illness continue. Only a generation ago many children were still dying in the Valley from diarrhoea because the traditional cure was to restrict fluids, which caused serious dehydration and death. This is still a problem today, especially in more remote parts of Nepal. Water, then, has been seen traditionally as a mixed blessing. Without it no one can live, no crops will grow and famine will follow. But with it comes disease. It is no wonder that the intake of water was considered bad for the child suffering from diarrhoea. Furthermore, there is a common conception that one will most likely become ill from getting wet. One Brahman informant told me stomach upsets are also attributed to the constant problem of getting wet and then hot during the monsoon.

Do more people really get sick during the monsoon?

Patan Hospital is located just a couple of hundred yards south of the old city walls in Lagankhel. Staffed by local and expatriate medical workers, the hospital functions not only to treat those who are referred by local doctors but also as a grand mall of outpatient clinics. With very low costs, the clinics serve especially the poorer sections of Lalitpur district's population, with over a thousand patients being seen on any given day. Raw numbers of outpatients are kept for each clinic.

It is possible from these statistics to plot a graph of epidemiology (the occurrence of illness) against time.[23] To do this, I selected six from the eighteen separate clinics for statistical analysis over the three successive years VS 2056-2059 (AD 1999-2002).[24] The results are set out in the accompanying graph.[25] It will be immediately apparent from the resulting graph that illness does indeed follow a seasonal pattern. There is a steep climb in the graph as the hot season gets hotter and the peak is reached in the early monsoon month of Ashadh, falling off only gradually as the monsoon wears on.[26] So the occurrence of illness is very clearly associated with environmental factors though perhaps in a more indirect way than has been traditionally thought.


An analysis of Nepal's festivals can give us some insights into the way Nepalis think, into the beliefs that gave rise to those festivals, and the values that they reinforce - in short, into their worldview. Nepal's festivals are closely linked to her seasons. The monsoon brings sickness and death in its wake. There is a collapse of the civic and moral order. In an attempt to deal with this problem, Nepalis have come up with answers that give some emotional and intellectual satisfaction. The higher incidence of disease is interpreted in terms of the entry of pollution into the city and with it the invasion of evil spirits into sacred city space. This incursion of evil must be dealt with by ritual. Effigies of demons are created and then carried in procession out of the city to be deposited outside the walls. By literally walking through city space and visiting all the shrines within the city evil is expelled back into the chaotic outside world inhabited by foreigners, Untouchables, wild beasts, and demons.


  1. For the most part I will use the Newari name when referring to a local custom or locality and include the Nepali equivalent in brackets. I have avoided using diacritics. Pronunciation is fairly straightforward-; c is to be pronounced as 'ch' in church and ch is aspirated; the h lengthens the vowel at the end of a syllable or word; the t and d are pronounced like they are in English.
  2. To adjust the discrepancies between solar and lunar months it is necessary to add six lunar months in every cycle of nineteen solar years, or roughly one month in every three years (M.S. Slusser 1998 [I]: 381). This will happen next from 18th July to 16th August. During this period there are almost no festivals, which makes for an unusual hiatus at the time of year when they are normally at their densest.
  3. G. Toffin 1987: 225.
  4. M. Witzel 1997: 518.
  5. According to the ancient Hindu calendar, however, there are no less than six annual seasons, corresponding, in pairs to the three seasons cited above.
  6. Slusser 1998 [I]: 92-3, and [II]: plates 95 & 96, (cf. Kunu Sharma 1961 and Oldfield1981: 1, 95-6, 102-3, 111).
  7. M. Witzel 1997: 519.
  8. Jameson 1997: 487
  9. With the single exception of those of the Nasantya Dapha Guthi.
  10. This practice is increasingly abandoned in favour of a simple waft of incense by all but old people.
  11. R.I. Levy reports that some wear iron rings for days afterwards (1990: 519). c For the last twenty years or so this practice has been abandoned in Lalitpur only continuing in some of the more conservative villages.
  12. Parbatiya traditionally complete their rice transplantation by Caturmasya Vratarambhah (Ashadh-sukla 11) (Treu 1993: 151).
  13. The Parbatiya festival of Tij, not celebrated by the Newars, also takes place at this time.
  14. This festival is much smaller in Lalitpur than it is in Bhaktapur as Mataya, the following day, is the main festival for the dead.
  15. Deep 1995.
  16. Treu 1993: 158-9.
  17. Slusser 1998 [I]: 328.
  18. Nepali 1965: 335.
  19. Slusser 1998 [I]: 329.
  20. Lewis and Jamspal 1988: 199.
  21. Gellner and Shrestha 1993, Gellner 1994.
  22. Toffin 1995b: 243.
  23. I am indebted to the Medical Director of Patan Hospital, Dr. Mark Zimmerman, for making this data available.
  24. The clinics that were left out were judged to be less likely to reveal any difference through the year. Such were the Surgical Referral (SRC), and Antenatal (ANC) Clinics. The six clinics selected were the Female (FC), Male (MC), Medical Referral (MRC), Paediatric Referral (PRC), Dermatological (SKIN) and Children's (UFC) clinics.
  25. The graph shows the monthly sum total of all six clinics.
  26. If water is so strongly linked to the spread of disease why does the graph show an inexorable climb through the hot, dry season from Phagun to Jyesth? Part of the answer to this is that water-borne diseases, multiplying in the hot weather, are spread largely through cross-contamination of the domestic water supply from the sewers. Prevention of cross-contamination is achieved in other countries by pumping the domestic supply at high pressure. In the Valley, however, as the pressure drops with the decline of water availability through the hot, dry season so cross-contamination increases. With a waiting time of hours many are put off from visiting the hospital. The likely impact on the data is to flatten the graph as greater numbers on any particular day would cause others to seek different options. The smaller peak at Marga is readily explained as an anomaly due to the fall in numbers in the previous month with the hospital being closed for several days during both Mohani and Swanti, and many farmers being busily engaged in their fields at rice harvest. It is not clear at this point why there should be a dip at Vaishakh. Indeed, the year VS 2056-57 recorded no such dip. Other health facilities report similar patterns.


bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty