A Month of Colorful Himalayan Festivals

Nepal’s rich cultural heritage flowers each year in August as the paddy fields ripen and monsoon comes to an end.

Parades and processions, masked dancers and men in drag, worship services and wicked satire are all part of the wonderful month of Bhadau in Himalayan Nepal. The rituals and festivals mark the turning of the seasons even today in metropolitan Kathmandu: When giant wooden chariots and costumed crowds block traffic, drivers and pedestrians smile, shrug, and wait for a chance to squeeze past.

The festival of Nag Panchami celebrates the snake gods, once the rulers of the Kathmandu Valley when it was a lake. When the lake was drained by a magical sword to make room for people, the snake gods retreated to their underground realm, but they return for half the year to inhabit local ponds and water tanks.

Worshipping at Khumbeshwor temple on Janai Purnima
Worshipping at Khumbeshwor temple on Janai Purnima

Though it’s rare to see a live snake in Kathmandu today, tradition holds that the snake gods bring the life-giving rains and protect treasures if properly worshipped, and that they can cause droughts, floods, and the collapse of buildings in heavy monsoon rains if neglected.

And so on Nag Panchami, people perform worship ceremonies for the snake gods in gardens and at water sources, and protect their houses by posting a brightly colored picture of the snake gods by the door.

Janai Purnima is the day when high-caste Hindus change the thread they wear draped across their torso as a caste marker. Other Nepalis of all castes and faiths also have a length of the same thread wrapped around their wrist as a blessing. Priests take up residence in temple courtyards throughout the country to offer blessings and dispense the threads.

At one of Kathmandu’s prominent temples, the festival is that and much more. Because of a magical connection between a miraculous spring at the temple and a sacred lake high in the Himalayas, this temple becomes a substitute holy site for high lake. Worshippers unable to walk three days to Gosainkund lake, at nearly 16,000 feet, come to Khumbeshwor temple instead.

The sacred lingam from the main temple sanctum is installed in the middle of a large water tank, and worshippers literally walk the plank out to the improvised shrine. Boys dive into the tank and splash onlookers, and the inevitable rain in the afternoon is taken as a blessing.

Boys in costume at Gai Jatra
Boys in costume at Gai Jatra

Gai Jatra is one of the most recent Kathmandu festivals, dating only to the 1600s. King Pratap Malla had decided to give each of his sons a year on the throne as part of their education. When the youngest son’s turn came, he was thrown from his elephant during the coronation procession and died. The queen was inconsolable, and Pratap Malla tried many things to relieve her grief. Finally in desperation he ordered that each family in the city that had lost a family member during the year was to march past the palace with their sons dressed as sacred cows.

Then the king proclaimed the afternoon a time of merriment and jest, and the queen laughed for the first time in months, and found her grief eased. The tradition continued, and Gai Jatra became the one time in the year when rules could be broken and authority could be openly questioned. Barbed satire of the country’s leaders became part of the festival, and special editions of newspapers and magazines took advantage of the freedom.

Today the tradition continues, though the occasion is no longer politically significant. A morning procession of costumed children winds through the old city and past the palace window where Pratap Malla and his queen sat. The afternoon of merriment and jest has always featured cross-dressed men – a hold-over from the old one-day relaxation of normal rules. And in recent years, the Blue Diamond Society, a gay rights group particularly supportive of transgendered men, has used the occasion to hold their own parade, a gay jatra.

Gunla is the holy month for Kathmandu’s Buddhists, comparable to Lent or Ramadan. Devout Buddhists fast and pray, and the area around the great stupa at Swayambhunath is the scene of daily ceremonies. Processions led by musicians walk to the stupa before dawn for morning worship.

Priests hold services in the homes of the pious, and in the evenings people process again along ancient routes to scores of ancient monastery compounds in the old city. Special Buddha images and treasures are exhibited, such as the gold-on-blue palm-leaf manuscript given by the Buddha to the king of the snake gods for safekeeping.

And of course, this being Nepal, the month of Gunla concludes with feasting, family and friends. There’s much more too during Nepal’s wonderful festival month: women’s day, a planting festival, the birthday of the god Krishna, and Nepali father’s day.

The festivals mark the eternal cycle of the east: harvest time coming soon, then the high holy days of Dasain, winter with it’s own festivals, spring planting, and monsoon again, as the great wheel of time turns in the Himalayas.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.