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Winter into spring: The season of anxiety
by Mark Johnson

So far in this series of articles on the festivals of Nepal I have covered the monsoon and the festivals that mark its beginning and ending. The winter is a period with few festivals. But as winter turns to spring and the hot season approaches there is a mounting tension in the Nepali experience. What will the hot season bring? Will the monsoon come on time? Will there be enough rain to fill the paddy fields and produce another harvest? There is, then, an increasing anxiety as the months progress. This is especially seen in the great chariot festival of Bungadyah (Karunamaya/Matsyendranath) which we will look at in the next issue. But it can also be seen in the other festivals that take place during this time. As with the previous articles I focus my analysis on the festivals of the Newars, and in particular those of the city of Lalitpur (Patan).[1]

Magh Samkranti: the winter solstice [2]

In the South Asian tradition Magh Samkranti (the first day of the month of Magh) marks the winter solstice, the beginning of the sun's path northward.[3] Like most Hindu societies, the Newars count this day as an important event.[4] Early in the morning of the first day of the month of Magh, many Newars visit their domestic priest to give a special gift of uncooked foods including one mana of rice, lentils, turmeric, spinach, molasses, clarified butter, salt, ginger, and, optionally, wood for cooking. Lalitpurians then walk to the temple at Agni Sala for a special puja to the eternal flame that burns here.

On arriving back home the eldest married woman of the household anoints all household members with oil. The anointing is followed by a ritual meal. Married out daughters then visit their natal home to receive anointing from their mothers and to eat a special family feast. The feast includes a number of special foods: molasses, clarified butter, yam, a sweet ball of sesame and molasses, and a special kind of spinach.

The festival continues on through the month of Magh. During this month Newars must, at least once, eat a dish called may goja.[5] This dish, which is prepared by boiling rice and black lentils together in the same pot is seen as having healthful properties to ward off sickness in the middle of the winter. As such, it is the counterpart to the eating of the black lentil dish at Dasa Hara during the summer. As on that festival stinging nettles are also added to the dish.

Newars see this festival as heralding the approach of the hot season. They say that the anointing with oil is to wish good health on the family. Locke suggests that the health-giving foods eaten on this day are to "ward off diseases during the cold season," and that "the people should eat these foods from the beginning of this month until the warm weather".[6] In the common mind the festival is still considered to be a protection against the many diseases, such as cholera and smallpox, which plagued the people of the city in the hot weather until very recently.

anointing with oil is to wish good health on the family.

Sri Pancami

Around early February a festival is held throughout South Asia in honour of the goddess of learning, Saraswati.[7] This day, a national holiday in Nepal, is Saraswati's birthday and schools put on special programmes. Some students fast throughout the day though this is not compulsory. At the great stupa of Swayambhu an important mela is held. Thousands of Buddhists, especially, flock there from around the Valley to offer special puja to Manjushri, the Buddhist counterpart to Saraswati.

According to the ancient Hindu calendar, Sri Pancami, like Nag Pancami, six months previous, marks the beginning of a major seasonal change. This is the beginning of the hot half of the year. From this day on water on the road will evaporate. The day is very important for moveable life cycle rituals, especially weddings and the distinctly Newar Mock Marriage. It is one of three or four days in the year that such rituals may be performed without the necessity of determining the appropriate auspicious time (sait) as this is the day on which, according to myth, Shiva and Parvati were married.

Shivaratri: Shiva's night

Shiva's Night is the major annual festival for the worship of Shiva.[8] A great mela is held at Pashupatinath and crowds of devotees throng to the site to do puja and enjoy the festive atmosphere, an event that is repeated throughout the Hindu world.[9]

Children enjoy this day as one on which to extort coins from hapless drivers and cyclists. As on Krishnastami and Ram Navami, no animals are to be slaughtered on this day.

In the evening, bonfires are lit in the streets of all the settlements of the Valley. People warm themselves in front of the fire, which is set up in front of a deity as it is thought that the latter will want to warm itself as well. Pious devotees stay up all night singing hymns of devotion to Shiva. Although three weeks after Sri Pancami, this day is considered the last day of the cold season. From tomorrow the hot season will begin and fires will no longer be necessary. In fact the weather does warm up dramatically at this time of year.

Holi: social reversal

The festival of Holi runs for over a week leading up to the full moon of the month of Phagun (February-March). Although Holi is the focal spring festival throughout neighbouring North India, it does not have anything like the same importance in Nepal. In India it is a time of gaiety and colour, especially colour, as this is the event on which people daub each other with vermilion. Newars, in particular, have an ambivalent attitude to the festival for reasons we will explore in due course. In Lalitpur, of focal importance to the festival is the cir tree, which is set up right in the centre of the old city (Patan Durbar Square), in front of the Krishna temple as a sign that the season of Holi is underway. The tree is trimmed and set up so that all the remaining branches point directly at the palace.

Devotees offer puja to the tree in the form of vermilion, and tie pieces of red, blue, white, and gold cloth to the branches. This is the sanction for the beginning of Holi. People come to bow to the tree and take a little vermilion to put on their foreheads as prasad.[10] From now until the full moon Holi 'play', the throwing of water and colour in courtyards and streets is sanctioned.

The full moon day is the focus of the festival. In the Valley, in contrast to the riotous behaviour of young men in north India, the throwing of red colour and water in streets has until now been restrained. Today, however, a weak attempt is made to imitate that anarchy. Water and colour are thrown from roof-terrace to roof-terrace and onto passers by as they run the gauntlet through the streets. Neighbours play in their courtyards throughout most of the morning and often well into the afternoon.

In the evening the tree is brought down and taken in procession to the Bagmati River where it is thrown in the river signalling the end of Holi.[11] No play is allowed any more.

The antisocial behaviour that is expressed during Holi may seem an unlikely candidate for believers in Christ to redeem.

Understanding Holi

There are at least two myths that are employed to explain Holi. Both Anderson and Eck relate the story of Holika.[12]

Holika was the wicked sister of the demon-king Hiranyakshipu.[13] Being angered by her nephew Prahlada's devotion to Vishnu and believing herself to be immune to death by fire she snatched Prahlada and leaped into a burning furnace she had made for the purpose. In spite of her intentions, Prahlada was saved by his great devotion to Vishnu and the fire consumed Holika.

In another myth, Holika terrorised the country so terribly that a child had to be offered to her daily.[14] In order to deter Holika eating the only child of a poor woman a good sannyasi (renouncer) gathered all the local children together to heap abuse and throw filth on her leading her to die of shame.

Together, the myths relate a threat to the existing order, a partial collapse into chaos and a subsequent resolution. Holi has all the hallmarks of a New Year's celebration. The old year dissolves and with it the order that gives shape to normal social life. There is the liminal period during which anti-social behaviour is deemed acceptable, within limits. Men and women play together touching and showering each other with vermilion. The normal social order is, as it were, turned on its head. Rules are discarded. It is, then, a time of social reversal and anarchy. But it is a carefully controlled anarchy that threatens to get out of hand but never really does so. The critical or liminal period comes to an end with the lowering of the cir tree in an act that is remarkably similar to the New Year celebration in Bhaktapur's Biskah festival. Eck sees Holi as a "New Year rite par excellence" as does Klostermaier.[15] And indeed in India it is. Nepalis do not, however, recognise this festival as marking a New Year at all. This is because the year has different starting points that are more clearly marked by other festivals.

Caitra Dasain

Caitra Dasain (held on the eighth and ninth day of the waxing half of Caitra) is the equivalent spring festival of the great autumnal celebration that takes place six months earlier. Newars reckon that at one time the main Dasain celebration was, in fact, this one. The emphasis shifted over the centuries so that the autumnal festival has become much more important, so much so that many Newars view the spring festival, as its common name suggests, as belonging to the Parbatiyas rather than the Newars. Although the original festival was (and still is in north India), like its autumnal namesake, nine nights long, this is entirely lost today.[16] Festivities begin on the eighth day of the fortnight and are completed the following day.

Ram Navami

The following day is celebrated as the birthday of Ram - Ram's Ninth (Ram Navami). There is a remarkable absence of a cult of Ram in the Kathmandu Valley.[17] There is no major temple to Ram in Lalitpur, although small shrines do exist in various homes and courtyards. On this day then, in stark contrast to the major celebrations going on in places like Ayodhya in India, and Janakpur, on the Nepal Tarai, the worship of Ram is largely confined to the home, where a short puja may be offered at the household shrine.

The almost complete lack of a Ram cult in the Valley can be understood by reference to the Ramayana.[18] In that great epic, the hero Ram worships the Goddess in order to secure her help in his battle against Ravana. So on this day, in keeping with the Newars' significant orientation towards the Goddess, her worship is emphasised instead of devotion to Ram himself. Biskah: the solar New Year The passage from one solar year to the next according to the Vikram Sambat calendar is the occasion for Bhaktapur's major annual festival - Biskah or Bisket Jatra.[19] Like Indra Jatra in Kathmandu, Biskah goes on for eight days and involves a long series of rituals and processions. The climax of the festival is the raising of the huge yahsin pole outside the city on New Year's Eve. The very tall tree, divested of its limbs, is raised inch by inch by crowds of young men pulling on ropes until it falls into its socket in the ground. The next morning it is lowered again signifying the start of the New Year.[20]

On the following day, New Year's Day, Newars drink a special kind of pea soup (kwati). This is a different kind of kwati from the one that they will drink later on in the year, on Raksha Bandhan (Nw. Gun Punhi) and Gai Jatra (Nw. Sa Paru).

As Steven Parish points out Bhaktapur's Biskah festival contains a significant element of disorder.[21] It is as if it is deliberately constructed to demonstrate the potential for anarchy if the city's social system is challenged and overthrown.

In Lalitpur, however, the message of the threat of chaos finds expression in two lunar festivals - that of Holi a little before the equinox, as we have seen, and even more so, that of the Jatra immediately afterwards. I will return to the Jatra in the next issue.

Mako Mukh Herne: Seeing Mother's Face

The new moon day of Vaishakh is the day for "Seeing Mother's Face" in ritual parallel to "Seeing Father's Face" on the new moon of Bhadra, eight months before.[22] On this major festival, family members give gifts of food and cloth to their mother and receive good luck food (saga) as a blessing in return. As on father's day it is vital that married-out daughters visit their natal home for not to do so would cause great offence.

They whose mother is no longer alive may go to the Mata Tirtha ponds, six miles southwest of Kathmandu just off the Thankot road. They bathe in the larger pond and then climb stone steps to reach the smaller pond where they perform Ancestor Worship (shraddha) and toss rice, sweets, fruit, coins, and vermilion into the pond and light oil lamps in devotion to their departed mother. At this time also some give gifts to their domestic priest. As on father's day, for the particular family, the day ceases to be a festival on the death of the mother. Married-out daughters will no longer visit their natal home on this day.

Enjoying the festivals

A recurring theme of the festivals of this season is that of the threat of impending chaos, potential disaster. Mothers anoint their family members with oil. Special foods are eaten to ward off the effects of the oncoming heat. There is, moreover, a felt need to mark the turning of the year in such a way that expresses the potential for the collapse of the social and moral order. As usual in the Hindu world, these felt needs are expressed in a religious idiom. It is by ritual, so it is thought, that the continuity of that order is ensured. The question for the devotee of Christ seeking to remain in his birth community is how he can participate in such a religious event without offending his Saviour. A proper understanding of such ritual in its social and seasonal context is a helpful place to begin.

Ram and Krishna may well be deifications of historical persons. They are the heroes that emerge with every civilisation. It is understandable, then, that special days and feasts would be held in their honour. In typical Hindu fashion, these heroes now enjoy a complex system of worship in their honour. The bhakta of Christ will not want to offer Ram puja. But he may have grown up enjoying the stories of Ram's exploits against Ravana and of his daring escapades to rescue his beloved queen Sita. Like any myth these stories may be retold without them becoming a basis for worship. There is, furthermore, no reason why one may not join in the family feast on such an occasion.

Certain festivals place an obligation to visit the natal home. One such is "Seeing Mother's Face". Those who refuse to visit their mother on this day cause great offence. It is regretted that some believers have refused to visit their mother, viewing it as an issue of discipleship. How many have had a nascent interest in Christ nipped in the bud because a child has refused to visit on this day? For such believers the relationship is not usually completely destroyed. Friends of mine have testified that once they have resumed the festive visit there has been much healing of the relationship.

The antisocial behaviour that is expressed during Holi may seem an unlikely candidate for believers in Christ to redeem. It is no surprise then that most do not participate in the revelry of this season. But is it necessary for believers to abandon their participation in this festival? I would suggest that the participation in Holi by Christ's devotees is relatively unproblematic. For the vast majority of participants there is no puja, no visit to a temple, no prasad. It is simply an opportunity to have fun, albeit in a way that is not normally socially acceptable. Those who do participate must take their cues from other local residents about how much social reversal is actually permissible - no one wants real anarchy. Play within carefully marked boundaries forms a kind of ritualised anarchy that has the effect of defusing the threat of real anarchy and prepares the way for the resumption of normal social rules.



  1. As in the previous articles of this series (Cleansing the city: festivals of the monsoon, VOB Vol. 3, No. 2, May 2004, Lifting the yoke: why the bhakta of Christ should take tika, VOB Vol. 3, No. 3, August 2004, and Lights in the darkness: the family festival of Tihar, VOB Vol. 3, No. 4, November 2004) I will focus in this paper on the festivals as they are observed among the Newar community.
  2. In Newari this festival is called Ghyahcaku Sanhu, Hamwa Salhu or Cika Buyegu.
  3. Kane 1968-77 [V]: 211ff, Eck 1993: 274. Over the centuries the calendar has precessed so that the winter solstice festival is now three weeks after the actual solstice.
  4. Strangely, however, the Newars do not link the festival with the solstice. Their solstice festival is Yah Mari Punhi, celebrated much closer to the actual solstice.
  5. Pronunciation of Newari words 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.
  6. 1980: 222.
  7. Eck 1993: 275.
  8. This takes place on the 14th day of the waning lunar fortnight of Phagun.
  9. Klostermaier 1990: 311; Eck 1993: 276.
  10. The tree is said to represent that on which Krishna hung the garments of the Gopi maids while they bathed in the River Jamuna unaware of his watching (Anderson 1988: 250).
  11. In Kathmandu, instead of discarding the tree they burn it (cir dahah).
  12. Anderson 1988: 252, Eck 1993: 277.
  13. Hiranyakshipu is the prime antagonist in the Karttik dance-dramas (see Lifting the yoke: why the bhakta of Christ should take tika).
  14. Klostermaier 1990: 311, Anderson 1988: 253.
  15. Eck 1993: 278; Klostermaier 1990: 311.
  16. Levy 1990: 433; Eck 1993: 258.
  17. By 'cult' I mean a system of worship for a particular deity (from the Latin 'cultus').
  18. Levy 1990: 433.
  19. Ibid.: 476.
  20. In Lalitpur a short yahsin pole (just five metres high) is raised at Bal Kumari analogous to the major event in Bhaktapur. It is said that the yahsin pole raised at Lalitpur was once as big as the one at Bhaktapur.
  21. 1997: 151.
  22. Newari: Maya Khwa Swayegu.
bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty