Happy New Year again, Nepal

A trivia question to stump your friends: In what country is it the 21st century, the 22nd century and the 12th century all at the same time?

It’s New Year’s Day again in Nepal, this time by the Nepal Sambat calendar, one of four commonly used in this tiny country. It’s the first day of 1127 for the Newar (nay-wahr) people of Nepal, who count the years since a prominent citizen paid off all outstanding debts to provide a new beginning for his countrymen. In 1999 the Nepal government declared that citizen, Shankhadhar Shakhwaa, a national hero.

But the Nepal Sambat calendar is much more than historical trivia. It’s the lunar calendar by which most cultural and religious festivals are scheduled, and it is the only truly indigenous calendar. Over the last decade a popular movement to adopt the Nepal Sambat calendar as the standard for the country has grown, driven by both social activists and politicians.

If the proposal eventually succeeds, the NS calendar will replace the current government calendar, the Bikram Sambat, a North Indian calendar adopted in Nepal in the early 1900s. By the Bikram Sambat calendar it is 2063; April 14th 2007 will mark the beginning of 2064.

Nepal’s high-mountain people use yet another calendar, derived from the Tibetan and Chinese calendars, with its New Year falling in mid-February. By the Sherpa calendar it is currently 2138.

With Nepal’s integration into the modern world, the western Gregorian calendar is also widely used in business, trade and finance. Voices in Nepal that oppose adoption of the Nepal Sambat as the official calendar argue that replacing one obscure system with another will only increase confusion: They propose adopting the Gregorian calendar.

The issue is not just practical, though. Both cultural pride and politics play a part. Leftists decry western imperialism and resist adopting a “foreign” calendar; rightists call for the primacy of tradition and heritage over business needs.

However the argument over an official calendar is eventually settled, the Nepal Sambat will not vanish. More than 400 years after Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar, Easter is still scheduled by a far older lunar calendar. The same will be true in Nepal: major holidays will remain tied to NS dates, and new year festivities will occur in fall, winter and spring.

Happy New Year 1127!

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