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Lights in the darkness: The family festival of Tihar

by Mark Johnson

With the arrival of Tihar we come to the conclusion of the long sequence of festivals that began four months previously at Gathan Mugah (see Cleansing the City: festivals of the monsoon, VOB 3:2, May 2004). As in previous articles I will focus on the festival as it is celebrated with the most broadly by the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley.[1] The festival consists of five days of worship and feasting with the focus on a different deity each day. The festival has further significance as the Nepal Sambat (Nepal Era - the traditional calendar of the Kathmandu Valley) New Year takes place during its course.

Kag Puja (Nw. Kwah Puja)

The first day of the festival is set aside for the worship of the crow.[2] Small leaf dishes are set out containing food, coins and burning incense. Crows are found throughout the city and usually feed on carrion such as the rats that are trapped and thrown out onto the lane each morning. They are feared as bad omens - woe betide the person on whose head a crow alights.[3] The crow is, in fact, worshipped as the messenger of Yamadyah, the lord of the realm of the dead, also called Yamaraj.[4]

Kukur Puja (Nw. Khica Puja)

The following day is the day for the worship of dogs. Dogs belonging to the household, as well as mangy street dogs, are fed and offered puja in the form of vermilion tika on the head and garlands of marigolds. Like the crow, the dog also has a connection with death, for he is the guardian deity at the gates of Yamadyah's kingdom. Though on any other day a dog's existence is not the pleasant life of the doted pet, on this day, at least, it is treated most royally.

Like the previous day this one is a relaxed affair. Most people continue their daily work in the workshop or at the office. But an atmosphere of jollity pervades the streets. Unlike Dasain, when the slaughter of so many animals gives the festival a more serious feel, Tihar is a pleasant, relaxed affair. Traditionally this is the only festival during which gambling was permitted. Still today, everywhere there are knots of men, heads down throwing dice onto a cloth, or counting out coins as stakes for the cards.

Lakshmi Puja

This new moon day is the first of the three important days of the festival. Houses are swept clean and daubed with a fresh mixture of cow dung and red clay. The household must now prepare for the visit of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

In the morning, before the worship of Lakshmi, the cow is worshipped. Cows are bathed, and vermilion and yellow colours are applied to the cows' head and horns. Garlands of marigold are hung around the cow's neck. The sacred thread, that was tied onto the wrist of the devotee on Janai Purnima (Raksha Bandhan or Gun Punhi), three months before, is now removed and tied onto the tail of the cow. Like the crow and the dog, the cow has a strong connection with the god of the dead, Yamadyah. It is the cow who, it is believed, will assist the worshipper to enter Yamadyah's kingdom when he dies. Moreover, the cow is worshipped as the earthly form of Lakshmi who will be further worshipped in the evening.

Early in the evening, then, the house is decorated with flowers and tinsel. The pikha lakhu boundary stone is cleansed. A path from the stone to the door of the house and on up to the treasure room (dhukuti) is prepared with the same mixture. On the prepared pikha lakhu, a sacred diagram (mandap) is drawn with powdered colours. A small clay saucer is charged with mustard oil, fitted with cotton wick, lit and placed on the mandap. Footprints of red ochre paint are printed on the path to the house and flickering oil lamps set at intervals to guide the way for the goddess. Clay oil lamps are placed around the house to attract Lakshmi and to make a pretty display. Nowadays elaborate displays of electric lights are also set out. This is the new moon day so there is no natural light on the path.

The senior male of the house then conducts a puja to Lakshmi in the treasure room. Garlands are placed over her picture and vermilion added to her forehead. A new supply of money is placed in the treasure box with the petition that it be multiplied and a light is kept burning all night in the deity's honour.

On this night, groups of women and children go door to door singing the traditional bhaili ram song and receiving small gifts from the household. On this evening the first of a series of three feasts is eaten by the household. Lakshmi Puja will continue over the following days until Tihar finishes on the third day of the waxing fortnight. The food, which is offered to Lakshmi, is not supposed to be given to anyone from outside the house until those days are completed.

Nhugu Dã (New Year) and Mha Puja (Worship of One's Body or Self)

The first day in the waxing lunar fortnight of Karttik is a special occasion for the Newars as, according to the Nepal Sambat it is the first day of the New Year.[5] This is an occasion that has taken on great political significance in recent years. Newar activists have championed the cause of their cultural and linguistic rights with this festival and the use of the Nepal Era. This is true especially in Lalitpur where the main thoroughfares are decorated with paper Buddhist flags and everyone goes about giving New Year greetings. In the evening young men ride around town in a motorbike cavalcade shouting 'bhintuna' ('best wishes for the New Year').

In the evening, the family gathers together for the ritual of Mha Puja - Worship of the Self or Body. The senior house female does puja to household members. In this ceremony the mother pleads to the god Yamaraja to prolong the lives of her husband and children beyond their allotted time. The evening is rounded off with a feast.

Bhai Tika (Nw. Kija Puja)

The last great day of Tihar (the second day of the waxing lunar fortnight) is a time when every male in the Valley must be worshipped by his sisters; a practice common with many communities across South Asia. In the Valley, all married daughters (with their children) visit their natal home for this important ritual.[6] Three mandaps are drawn on a prepared space in the room, symbolic of Ganesh, Janmaraj (the god of birth), and Yamaraj and a short puja is offered to the deities. The brothers sit on mats along the wall of the room and, in a ritual very similar to that of the previous day, the sisters draw mandaps in front of each brother (and symbolic of the brother himself) and offer them flowers and fruits as well as the ubiquitous vermilion. One of the garlands is of the amaranth (Np. supari, Nw. gway) flower, whose tassel-headed purple blooms last a long time, and are therefore symbolic of longevity. As with Mha Puja the ritual is an elaborate plea to the god Yamaraja to prolong the lives of their brothers.[7] After the puja vermilion is given to each person present by one of the women and the whole family sits down for a feast.

The following morning the final puja of the season is offered to Lakshmi. This is followed by the distribution of prasad to all the family members and married-out daughters and sisters and their families. This takes the form of vermilion and participation in the food from the plate that was offered to Lakshmi on Mha Puja. No one else may participate. After the meal, items used in the puja are tossed into the river. With this, the festivities of Tihar come to an end.

Understanding Tihar


The Newar festival of Tihar differs from its counterparts in neighbouring areas. Newars and Parbatiya alike differ from their neighbours in the plains in that the latter observe only Lakshmi Puja, and that with less panache.[8] The Newars are further differentiated from the Parbatiyas in their additional observance of Mha Puja. The festival, as both Parbatiyas and Newars observe it, has a symbolic association with death. The crow and the dog, as well as the cow are all agents of Yamaraj, the king of the dead. Each of these animals receives a puja for the dead. Furthermore, Bhai Tika and, for the Newars, Mha Puja are both rituals to ensure the long life of members of the family. In the former, sisters visit their brothers to wish them long life. In the latter, the household senior woman pleads for the long life of the whole family.

This festival is overwhelmingly a family event every bit as much as Dasain is an event for the whole extended lineage. In the days that follow Bhai Tika the family calls its married-out daughters and nieces and their children to a feast. Husbands of the women are not invited. This is for blood relations only. We are now drawing towards the end of Vishnu's four-month sleep. The festival of Tihar, then, like that of Dasain[9] and Indra Jatra, contributes to the reestablishing of the social order after its collapse during the monsoon. Order in the family too is now renewed.

Bhaktas of Christ adapting Tihar

To what extent may believers in Christ, Christ-bhaktas living within the Hindu community participate in the festivities of this season? For those of us who have not attempted to live as faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in a Hindu family situation it is not easy to appreciate the stresses that can come on those who have this responsibility. The position we have taken consistently in this journal is that it is inadequate to extract a Christ-bhakta from his community. The extracted believer may find it less stressful when it comes to festivals and rites of passage as he has severed all relationship with his family and therefore may not even be invited. But assuming he is really trying to be salt within his family, how should he be looking at this festival and his inevitable involvement in it?

Involvement in a festival can happen at different levels. Family members often participate at varying levels anyway, so it is not simply a function of one's devotion to Christ. Often a person will participate in the rituals in a merely perfunctory way because he is not religiously minded. Others, however, particularly the women and senior man of the household may be more absorbed in the ritual. Again, this can be for various reasons. Senior men and women have an obligation to carry on the traditions of their fathers and mothers. Daughters-in-law are obligated to do whatever their mother-in-law requires of them, and that often includes daily and special puja to the household deities.

For the bhakta of Christ, then, his obligation to participate in the festivals will depend on his position in the family. The new daughter-in-law in the family has perhaps the most difficult position as she is expected to do whatever she is told, without discussion. The household head, by contrast, has the most freedom to adapt or even simply to avoid a festival. I will not here address the issue of how a single believer within an unbelieving household can manage the various obligations placed upon him. The Christ-bhakta under such a pressure must pray and ask the Lord for wisdom. It may be that others in the household will honour a request not to be involved in the ritual. Often only one member of the household is called upon to perform many of the rituals anyway.

Assuming some measure of freedom within the household, however, how have Christ-bhaktas attempted to adapt the various elements that go to make up Tihar? With the glaring exception of Bhai Tika, any household that is seeking to remain within the Hindu community really has very little pressure to conform to Hindu tradition. Up to Mha Puja, the ritual is contained within the household and there is little pressure from relatives of other households. Having said that, it is quite obvious that a household is opting out if it alone among its neighbours has no lights displayed during Lakshmi Puja. Some believers, then, have also asked themselves why they alone of their neighbours must not light lamps since a lamp is not in itself necessarily connected with idolatry. These people, therefore, have reinterpreted the display of lamps as a celebration of the Lord Jesus as the Light of the world and happily joined in some of the outward forms of the festival, without involving themselves in any puja to Lakshmi.

Worship or respect?

The festival of Bhai Tika, in stark contrast to the days that precede it, places on the believer a clear obligation to relatives outside the household. In seeking to be involved in this festival, Christ-bhaktas in Nepal have participated at various levels, each going only as far as they have felt comfortable. Here I will outline three such cases:

Case 1. Cindy Perry recounts the testimony of one brother she calls 'Sahadev'[10]:

Two years ago, Sahadev, the deacon of a respected church in the Kathmandu Valley, came to a decision after personal reflection on this problem. He became a Christian several years before, and always separated himself from his Hindu family during festival times so as not to compromise his new faith. For instance, he never returned to his parents? home during Bhai-Tika to honor his sisters. To them it felt as if they did not have a brother anymore, and it caused them much grief. He began to reflect on how he could communicate the love of God to his family or the integrity of the gospel teaching on family if he continued to cut himself off as brother and son? How could he honor and fulfill his responsibilities to them in terms they understood, yet without compromise?

Sahadev made a bold personal decision and went to his parents? home on Bhai-Tika - to demonstrate his honor for his family, and especially his sisters, and to affirm his respect, care and affection for them. After explaining to the family the limits of his participation in the light of his Christian faith, he was warmly received and welcomed. He took gifts for them according to tradition, and offered to pray for them in the name of Jesus rather than to participate in the puja (worship) ceremonies. He also received their gifts, but not the tika or prasad (from what is offered to the idols), then joined in the family feast. He recounts the joy of his family at this joining them in this small way, and the new integrity it has given to his testimony in the whole village - though unashamedly a Christian, he is still "one of our people."

Case 2. A mature Newar believer I will call Ram Lal, who became a bhakta of Christ while studying abroad, explained to his non-believing sister that he wanted to continue to do Bhai Tika though he could not do the whole ritual. For Ram Lal the drawing of a mandap and offerings to it constituted the idolatrous crux of the ritual. The entire ritual then was performed without the mandap. Though tika was not received, offerings of fruit, sweets and garlands of amaranth flowers were. The feast was eaten and the relationship between brother and sister, and indeed with the whole family, reaffirmed after a period of doubt and confusion.

Case 3. Another well-educated and respected Newar couple had become members of a local church but none from either side of their extended family had yet followed them in their new faith. Though they are Christ-bhaktas, they felt it was possible to continue to go through the entire ritual of Bhai Tika including the drawing of mandaps and receiving of tika. "The mandaps are merely symbolic of the brother," they insisted. The husband sat with his brothers in his place throughout the ceremony. His sisters gave him the complete set of offerings and he, in turn, gave them the expected gifts of cloth and money. In this case a departure from tradition was made at the point of the giving of tika. Rather than receive tika that had first been offered to the three deities, they requested that a neutral tika be made, which the sisters had no trouble doing. The brother asked them to offer him the various gifts as a token of love rather than as an offering of worship.

Earlier in the day the couple had visited the natal home of the wife where she had gone through the entire ritual in reverse for her own brothers. The woman informed her brothers that she could only offer them tika that had not been offered to an idol. "We don't mind," they replied, "we just want tika from your hands." Some relatives undoubtedly considered the aberrations strange but in neither of these homes was any animosity expressed.

The case studies above demonstrate that a great deal of thought is needed to discover creative ways to involve oneself in a traditional festival. One believer is comfortable with a level of involvement others may not be comfortable with. We must not judge another believer's conscience but seek to encourage each other as we try to be salt and light in our communities.



  1. In Newari Tihar is called Swanti.
  2. The thirteenth day of the waning lunar fortnight of Karttik (October/November).
  3. As unlikely as this may sound, I know a woman who actually experienced this. Needless to say it caused great anxiety.
  4. Kag Puja seems to be a ritual that has survived from Vedic times. Michael Witzel interprets it, however, in accordance with the belief that a departed soul flies around as a bird and needs to be fed (1997: 504).
  5. For Parbatiyas the day is less significant although they do offer Govardana Puja to Krishna.
  6. Note, however, that Shakya and Vajracarya men, anomalously, have to go to the home of their married out sister to receive the puja (Gellner 1995: 228).
  7. If a brother cannot be present a mandap is made, anyway, and puja performed. The next day the gifts are sent to the brother by express delivery if possible.
  8. Fuller (1992: 123) reports that, according to the most widely told story, Lakshmi Puja is linked to the return of Ram to Ayodya from Lanka with his bride Sita, having slain the demon king Ravana. He is welcomed with lamps that signify Lakshmi. Ram is again on his throne and order has finally been established. This significance seems to have been entirely lost in Newar communities where the festival has been radically transformed to communicate a different message.
  9. See Lifting the yoke: why the bhakta of Christ should take tika VOB 3:3, August 2004.
  10. C. Perry, 1990: 181.

Mark Johnson is the pen name of a missionary working in Nepal. He is editor of Voice of Bhakti.
bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty