It is true about Nepal that every other structure is a holy shrine and every other day a festival. Well, if the number of annual festivals, both religious and national, is any indication, the saying couldn't be more true. Festivals are an essential part of Nepalese life that garner tremendous local participation. Festivals also offer visitors a valuable opportunity not only for having fun but gaining insight into various aspects of Nepalese culture.
The religious festivals follow the lunar calendar, while national festivals have fixed dates. Wherever or whenever you arrive in Nepal, you can be pretty sure of being at the right time for one or more special events. Some of the major and interesting festivals are presented below:
The Nepalese New Year's Day usually falls in the second week of April. i.e. the first day of Baisakh. The day is observed as a national holiday. The people celebrate it with a great pomp and show. On this occasion, Bisket Jatra is held in the city of Bhaktapur.
Baisakh Poornima (April):
As Nepal is the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the Light of Asia, the triple anniversary of the Buddah's birth, enlightenment and death is observed with many colorful ceremonies on this day. People celebrate the occasion with great veneration paying homage to Buddha at places like Swayambhunath, Bouddhanath and Lumbini.
Red Machchhendranath Rath Jatra (May-June):
This festival is the biggest socio-cultural event of Patan. The wheeled chariot of a deity known as Bungdyo or Red Machchhendranath is made at Pulchowk and dragged through the city of Patan in several stages till it reaches the appointed destination (Lagankhel) . The grand finale of the festival is called the 'Bhoto Dekhaune' or the 'showing of a vest'. A similar kind of chariot festival to Machchhendranath (white) is also held in Kathmandu city in the month of March-April.
Gai Jatra (July-August):
It is a carnival that lasts eight days. Dancing, singing, comedy and anything that causes mirth and laughter are its highlights.
The festival of Indra, the God of rain, is observed with great enthusiasm in Kathmandu Valley. The festival lasts for eight days. The chariot of Kumari, the Living Goddess, is taken out in procession through the main streets of Kathmandu. The festival is specially noted for the echoes of drums and dancing feet of the masked dancers almost every evening.
Dashain or Durga Puja (September- October):
The Dashain festival is the most important festival of the Nepalese. The entire country is in enthusiastic holiday mood at the time is the festival.
Tihar (Deepawali) (October-November):
Known as the Festival of Lights, Tihar is celebrated for five days. Houses are illuminated at night and special sweets of different varieties are prepared.
Lhosar (Buddhist New Year)
This festival is most impressively observed in the month of February by the Sherpas. They organize folk songs and dances on this occasion. These dances can be seen in Khumbu, Helambu and other northern regions of Nepal and also at Bouddhanath in Kathmandu.
Maha Shivaratri (February):
Shivaratri or the Night of Lord Shiva is observed in February-March. A great religious fair takes place in the Pashupatinath Temple and thousands of people from all over Nepal and India flock the temple to worship Lord Shiva.
Known as the festival of horses, it is one of the most exciting festivals of Kathmandu. Horse race and other sports take place at Tundikhel on this day. In other parts of the city, various deities are carried shoulder-high on palanquin (khat) to the accompaniment of traditional music.
Teej is a Hindu festival celebrated by women. Dancing, folk song and the red colour of women's wedding saris dominate the days of Teej. Women observe a fast and flock to Shiva temples where married ones pray for a happy conjugal life and unmarried ones for a good husband.
Mani Rimdu Festival
The festive days of Mani Rimdu celebrate the completion of ten days of prayers of benefits of all beings.
The Story and Purpose of Mani Rimdu
The main purpose of Mani Rimdu is the prayers, which worship Phahpa Chenrezig the god of compassion. His blessings bring peace and good fortune to everyone. During Mani Rimdu we invoke Phahpa Chenrezig’s blessings on the rilbu, the long life-pills, and perform the dances showing former times worship this diety.
Mani Rimdu is a fairly recent tradition in Khumbu. For the opening ceremony of Tengboche, Zatul Ngawang Tenzin Norbu of Rongbuk came to consecrate the monastery and the monks performed the dances here for the first time then. Since that event, Mani Rimdu continues at the same time of year. It used to be in the tenth month, but that was very cold for spectators and because of bad weather, difficult for preparation. Now, Mani Rimdu is held in the ninth month, unless a double month shifts it to the tenth.
Each sect and monastery has his or her own style of dancing. The dances at Tengboche came from Rongbuk. Before the Chinese came, these particular dances were done at Rongbuk, and started at Tengboche. Later, the Lama at Chiwong gompa in Solu started Mani Rimdu there. When Thame became established as a celibate monastery, they started performing Mani Rimdu anywhere else Tibet.
When Ngawang Tenzin Norbu started Rongbuk, the Mani Rimdu ceremony there was also small but after more and more tawas came, they decided to have the dancing. They copied dances from other Nyingmapa gompas in Tibet and added some new dances that Ngawang Tenzin Norbu created.
In Tibet, this kind of festival is performed mostly in the fifth month, with the dances on the 10th day. It is called Tse Chu, and is the most important one of the years. A small Tse Chu is done on the tenth day of every month.
Almost every monastery has their own style of doing dancing, at different times of the year and special days of the month. The many different kinds of dances came from the many different movements described in the tantras. The Buddhist Newarsj also performs dances that came from the Tantra scriptures.
There are monasteries in other areas of Nepal such as Mustang, where they also dancing, however the dancing is done only for a short time, not all day.
The name Mani Rimdu comes from mani the chant for phahpa Cherezig, ril the little red pellets and dub the blessings on the rilbu.
The blessing for the rilbu goes back to when Guru Rinpoche brought religion to Tibet. As well as Nyingma-kama, which he taught directly to the people, there was Nyingma-terma which where teachings in books hidden for the future. Guru Ringpoche foretold that a time would come when wars and hard times would make the books necessary. The people who found these are the tertons.
One of these, Tertak Lingba, whose full name was Gyurme Dorje Pema Karwang, found hidden book called Thuje Chenpo Dhese Kundu. This books belongs to the Ogyen Mindroling College of the Nyingmapa sect and is read for Mani Rimdu. The Tibetan name Thuje Chenpo means Maha Karuna in Sanskrit, which means translates as a great compassion. Deshe Kundu is the specific name of this book. Thuje Chenpo is also a name for Jigten. Wangchuk, the man aspects of phahpa Chenrezig worshipped during the Mani Rimdu pujah.
This book is mostly about drubchen, a very powerful pujah body to invoke Phahpa Chenrezig.
Mani Rimdu starts on the first day of the ninth month with Sa-chog, the earth pujah to the gods of the four directions that consecrates the places where the pujah will take place. Thig-kor, the preparations of making torma and using to make the mandala, called the Dul-tson Kyil-khor begin the same day and continue until the fourth day.
From the fifth to the fourteenth days, the monks do the pujah called Ngo Zhi Cho-pa that goes all day and night. In the morning the main pujah is to the action aspect of Phahpa Chenrezig, Lhachen Wangchuck, and then to the god Maha-kala, the protector of the Buddhist faith. Pujahs to other gods are done by turn, three one day, then three the next.
For the Whang, on the fifteenth day, people come for the lama’s blessings and to receive the rilbu. On the sixteenth day, the monks worship Phahpa Chenrezig by dancing. There are sixteenth dances. The dances aim to prevent interference, accidents, impediments, change of mind, faith, or hindrance by sin. The seventeenth day concludes with jinsak, a fire pujah.
The Blessing Ceremony
On the fifteenth morning, the tawas receive a blessing themselves and in the afternoon people come for the lama’s blessings and to receive the rilbu.
There are many kinds of whangs, blessings, and this is a tor whang. Many torma have been made for the whang, in pyramids representing mandalas. During the whang, Ringpoche and the tawas visualize a mandala that cleanses the sins of the people so they may gain merit. They distribute the rilbu over which the mani has been chanted. The rilbu are chilab pills that generally cure or make the path after life a little easier. These rilbu contain relics from Guru Rinpoche’s ter (spiritual treasures) that will bless our bodies.
The Cham (Masked Dances)
On the sixteenth day, are the dances that worship Phahpa Chenrezig. Each dance relates to a pujah done during the previous days.
The dances come from when Guru Ringpoche blessed Samye, the first monastery in Tibet. He pretended to be his favorite god by imitating its body and danced the blessing. Since then, some lamas think they will dances in Dewachen. Cham means sacred dance.
There are many gods in Tibet who used to wear these costumes. The black hats were the costumes of the Phembu gods. Then it became the dress of the oridinal ngagpas (married lamas) when they did the thu-duph, a powerful pujah. Later it became the dancing dress of monks and ngagpas.
Rol-cham is the grand entrance of the monks wearing yellow hats and playing pujah instruments.
Serkyem is the first dance with dancers wearing costumes and black hats. This dance invokes tsegyepa (improving one’s life, longevity, appearance health and intelligence), whang (providing spiritual power) and thub (the ability to fight bad spirits). The black hats represent ngagpa or Vajrayana priest capable of using spiritual powers.
Ging-cham is the dance by four attendants of Dorje Trollo. Two females carry nga (drums) and two males carry bhuk-chal (cymbals). They make offering of tsog to
Guru Dorje Trollo is a single masked dancer representing one of the fierce forms of Guru Ringpoche. Monks playing instruments precede him.
Nga-cham originated as Guru Rinpoche’s dance when he blessed Samye Gompa. The six dancers wear golden hats peacock feathers and carry drums. In the past Tibetan officals wore the golden hat.
Durga-cham is a complicated dance with two skeletons and black-hat dancers. The skeletons carry a dough figure, representing evil, on a rope between them. The black hat dancers symbolically destroy it.
Mi Tsering, the long life man, is a comic interlude.
The Maha-kala dance has eight characters all representing different deities: Tseringma (the main long-life sister), Maha-kala (the protector), and Mahadeva (Lachen Whangchuk) are the main ones.
Zurra-rakye, a local protective god, carries a goat horn and long stick. Two minaks (attendants) accompany him. He is the guardian of Khenpalung, a hidden valley that has not yet been opened.
Khaadro are five female deities of wisdom often referred to as the sky dancers.
Thog-den makes an appearance in the second comic dance. This is the only dance with any speaking as he jokes with his assistant or the crowd and teaches religion.
Lhagma has the purpose of getting rid of left over rilbu, long life pills. Two masked dancers, one male and female,perform this task.
Ti-jum is a cham where four masked dancers carry knives.
Zor-cham is a ritual exorcism in which dancers wearing black-hats carry small torma, lok-par that signifies evil. The dancers throw out these torma.
Then-cham also functions to getrid of evil. Half of he dancers wear black hats, the other half masks.
Log-cham is the finale with some dancers from each cham.
For the different gods, there are different ways of praying, chanting or dancing that help make the gods’ closer to the dancer, and eventually a part of him, helping everyone. Sometimes from prayers, deep thinking or meditation, the same happens. This makes the country peaceful and in the future will help everyone.