Culture & TraditionFestivalsNepal

Dashain, Nepal’s Biggest Festival

Dashain is the most important festival in Nepal. It is a celebration of good prevailing over evil. Families offer goats, ducks, chickens, eggs and coconuts to the goddess Durga. People return to their home villages to spend some or all of the fifteen-day festival with their families. Large swings are set up for children, and from the tenth day, family members receive blessings of tika (rice, red vermilion and yoghurt) on their foreheads from their elders.

Usually falling during September or October, Dashain starts in the shukla paksha (bright lunar fortnight) and ends on the day of the full moon. In preparation, every home is cleaned and beautifully decorated to welcome the mother goddess so that she may visit and bless the house with good fortune. Families unite, often travelling a long way to be together. The markets are full of shoppers seeking new clothing, gifts, luxuries and all kinds of temple offerings for the gods, as well as food for the family feast. Thousands of sheep, goats, ducks, chicken and water buffalo are prepared for the great slaughter. Most organisations close for ten to fifteen days.

During the ten main days of the festival, the most important are the first, seventh, eighth, ninth and the tenth days. The first nine days are called Navaratri (nava: nine and ratri: night). The eighth day is Maha Asthami, a bad time for thousands of buffalos, goats, ducks and pigeons, who fall victim to the knife. This night is known as Kal Ratri (black night). The tenth day is the most important day, and everywhere Shakti is worshiped in all her manifestations.

In Hindu mythology, the demon Mahishasura was causing terror in the devaloka (world of the gods) until Durga killed the demon. The first nine days of Dashain symbolize the battle that took place between the different manifestations of Durga and Mahishasura. The tenth day is the day when Durga finally defeated him. For other Hindus, this festival symbolizes the victory of Rama over Ravana, as recounted in the Ramayana.

Dashain tika. Photo: socialtours nepal/Flickr

Dashain tika. Photo: socialtours nepal/Flickr

Days of the festival

Day 1: Ghatasthapana  marks the beginning of Dashain, and is signified by setting up a kalasha (pot) that symbolizes Durga, filled with holy water and covered with cow dung and barley seeds. It is then placed in the middle of a rectangular sand block, with some barley seeds sown in the sand. The priest then starts the puja (worship) by asking Durga to bless the vessel with her presence. The goddess is then believed to reside in the vessel during the nine days, or navratri. The kalash is kept away from direct sunlight, and holy water is added every day so that by the tenth day of the festival, the seeds will have grown to form yellow shoots up to 15 centimeters long. This sacred grass is known as jamara. The rituals continue until the seventh day.

Day 7: Phulpati was traditionally when the kalash, banana stalks, jamara and sugar cane tied with red cloth were brought by Brahmins from Gorkha, a three-day walk (about 170 kilometers) from Kathmandu. Hundreds of government officials would then gather in the Tundikhel grounds in formal dress to witness the event. The king used to attend the ceremony here, while the Phulpati parade went to the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace, where there would be a display by the Nepal Army and the celebratory firing of weapons honoring Phulpati. However, since 2008 when the royal family stood down, this 200-year old tradition was changed so that the holy offering of Phulpati goes to the residence of the President, who has taken over the king’s social and religious roles.

Day 8: Maha Asthami is the day when the fiercest of Goddess Durga’s manifestations, the bloodthirsty Kali, is appeased with the sacrifice of buffaloes, goats, hens and ducks in temples throughout the country. Blood, symbolic of fertility, is offered to the goddesses. The night of this day is called Kal Ratri (Black Night), and at midnight 54 buffaloes and 54 goats are ceremoniously sacrificed in observance of these rites. After the offering of the blood, the meat is taken home and cooked as “rasad” (food blessed by divinity), and is offered in tiny leaf plates to the household gods before it is shared among the family. Eating this food is thought to be auspicious.

Day 9: Maha Navami is the last day of Navaratri, and when ceremonies and rituals reach their peak. Official military ritual sacrifices are held in one of the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palaces, in the Kot courtyard. The state offers sacrifices of buffaloes under gunfire salutes. This day is also known as the demon-hunting day because members of the defeated demon army try to save themselves by hiding in the bodies of animals and fowls. Vishvakarman, the god of creation, is worshiped. All the things that help people make a living should be kept happy, so artisans, craftsmen, traders, and mechanics worship and offer animal and fowl blood to their tools, equipment, and vehicles. It is believed that worshipping vehicles on this day helps avoid accidents in the coming year. This is the only day of the year that the gates of the Taleju Temple are opened to the public, and thousands of devotees go and pay respect to the goddess throughout the day.

Day 10: Bijaya Dashami (or Vijaya Dashami) is the most important day, when tika (a mixture of rice, yogurt and vermilion) is prepared by women. Elders put tika and jamara on the foreheads of younger family members, blessing them for their future. The red tika symbolizes the blood that ties the family together. Elders give “Dakshina”, or a small amount of money, to younger relatives along with the blessings.

Day 15: Kojagrata Purnima is last day of the festival, and falls on the full moon. It is when the Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, is worshiped. She is believed to descend to earth and shower whoever is awake all night with wealth and prosperity.

As Dashain approaches, kite flying becomes common and is seen as a way of reminding God not to send any more rain. People of all ages fly kites from their rooftops. Older members of the family play cards and gamble. The buying and wearing of new clothes is an important part of the festival, and for many in more remote and poor areas, this is the one time of the year when they have new clothes.

Throughout the country, bamboo swings are set up. They are constructed as a community effort in a traditional way, using ropes made from grass, bamboo sticks and wood. These swings are normally constructed a week before Ghatasthapana, and dismantled only after Tihar. The height of some swings exceeds twenty feet.

A fortnight after Dashain is Tihar, another very important festival which is celebrated in different ways by all the various Hindu groups. Tihar signifies the festival of lights where diyas are lit both inside and outside houses to illuminate them at night. The five-day festival shows reverence to not just the humans and the gods, but also to animals like crows, cows and dogs. People make patterns on the floor of their living rooms or courtyards using colored rice, dry flour, colored sand or flower petals and this ‘Rangoli’ is a sacred welcome for the Hindu deities.

Thousands of animals–including buffalo, ducks, and rams–are slaughtered on Dashain every year to appease the goddesses. Most temples, especially the Durga and Kali temples, receive thousands of sacrifices, reaching a peak on Ashtami and Navami. People also slaughter animals for feasts. Over the last few years, animal rights activists have been opposing these acts of slaughter, and have been appealing to people to stop, instead offering fruit and vegetables. They justify this because it is mentioned nowhere in the Hindu religious books that animal sacrifices appease the gods and goddesses.

Would you like to see this festival is celebrated? Have a look at what Royal Mountain Travel can offer in its Bijaya-Dashami Festival Tour

Inspired by tours where you can see festivals like this? Have a look at festival tours offered by Royal Mountain Travel:

Mustang Tiji Festival

Janai Purnima and Jai Jatra Festival Tour

Haritalika Teej & Rishi Panchami Festival Tour

Bisket Jatra Festival Tour

Ram Navami Festival in Janakpur Tour

Top image: socialtours nepal/Flickr

Photo: R4vi/Flickr
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