• Culture & Tradition
  • 19 January, 2024

Indigenous Festivals of Nepal – 2024

Indigenous Festivals of Nepal – 2024
Women celebrate Sakela festival in Nepal.

Indigenous communities represent distinctive societal and cultural entities bound by ancestral connections to the lands they inhabit, a connection integral to their identity and well-being. Their reliance on these lands for livelihood, culture, and spiritual sustenance sets them apart, as does their customary leadership and distinct organizations. At Inside Himalayas, we feel deeply connected to and fascinated by the Indigenous communities of Nepal thanks to the work as our sister company Community Homestay Network conducts with some of them. The importance of uplifting and acknowledging indigenous communities is of extreme importance to a country like Nepal, whose identity is founded on the pride the people of Nepal take in the existence and co-existence of the ethnicities, tribes and indigenous communities that form its cultural and historical landscape. The indigenous festivals of Nepal are part of that pride. While some of these festivals are as famous as those of the more dominant cultures in Nepal, there is a large variety of festivals most people may not have even heard of. Here we present some indigenous festivals in the hope that they may elicit a curiosity in you, but first, some statistics on the indigenous communities of Nepal.

Official records based on the 2001 and 2021 census show that Indigenous Nationalities in Nepal constitute around 36% of the population, yet, indigenous organizations argue for a figure exceeding 55%. It is a well known fact that making a precise census in Nepal is close to impossible, and without losing time on arguing on precise figures, it is undeniable that the presence of indigenous communities and cultures is rather substantial. Regardless of their palpable existence, Nepal’s history, is fraught with a systematic pattern of discrimination, marginalization, and exploitation of Indigenous Peoples. This mistreatment extends to matters of land, resources, language, culture, and socio-political opportunities, where the dominant culture has tried over and over again to run over the hundreds of nuances brought to Nepal by indigenous communities. Sadly, this is a pattern that can be seen in most of the world, and throughout history. We are thankful for the perseverance of indigenous communities in Nepal, who, against all odds, still thrive and grow stronger by the day.

From the endangered Bankariya, Raute and Hayu communities, to the prosperous Newars and Thakalis, Nepal can truly boast of a highly distinct and diverse pool of indigenous people. Even though many of the unacknowledged people are contrasted by others who have gained a starlike status across the country, there have been ongoing efforts to elevate the status, visibility and wellbeing of indigenous peoples. For example, Community Homestay Network does so by helping indigenous people identify the elements of their cultures that are so fascinating to the rest of the world, and showing them how they can be used to better their economic status all the while preserving their true sense of self. In a world where the erasure of cultural nuances and the standardization of everything comes easier than preservation, it is of key importance to celebrate and uplift our indigenous peoples in whatever way possible. Even at an individual scale, we can do our part by acknowledging their identity through the festivals these communities celebrate. 

Lhosar – Tamang, Sherpa, Gurung

Sonam Lhosar – 10 February 2024

Gyalpo Lhosar- 11 March 2024

Tamu Lhosar – 31 December 2024

Three major Lhosar are celebrated by three different indigenous communities in Nepal. The Tamang community celebrates Sonam Lhosar as their new year. They celebrate through Damphu dance, and the Selo, a melody that has been passed on through the generations. The celebration involves gathering, dancing, eating, enjoying, and letting go of the frustrations and stress they have accumulated over the year. 

Likewise, following the Tibetan calendar, the Sherpa community celebrates its new year, Gyalpo Lhosar. As the most important festival of the community, they mark it with the cooking of khapse, a deep-fried pastry, local to the Sherpas. They prepare gutung soup made from nine different beans and enjoy dumplings hiding symbolic treasures. They repaint their homes and enjoy the entire festival being swayed by the bliss of changkol, a distinct beer native to the Sherpa community. 

Like the Tamangs and Sherpas, the Gurungs, another disadvantaged indigenous community, celebrate Tamu Lhosar – also their new year. Tamu Lhosar resounds in the gatherings of families, in the incense-lit corridors of monasteries, and in the flutter of colourful prayer flags that ward off the shadows of days gone by. For the Gurung community, Tamu Lhosar is a symbol of their identity’s acknowledgement. Like the Tibetan culture, the Gurung community, especially the Tamu Gurungs, also divide their years into animal years. And, every New Year, they welcome a new animal year. 

Where to best witness Lhosar

Given that the majority of the people in Gurung, Tamang, and Sherpa communities follow Buddhism as their primary religion, all three Lhosars are celebrated in monasteries with great glory. In Kathmandu Valley, Bouddhanth and Swayambhunath Stupa are decorated and people gather there to celebrate the Lhosars. Likewise, the respective communities also organize the Lhosar festival in Tundikhel, Kathmandu.

To celebrate it in a more inclusive way, it is essential to go in rural Nepal, where you may witness how these festivals are celebrated in their original context. For Tamu Lhosar, Ghandruk, Ghale Gaun, Laprak are some highly populated Gurung villages. For Sonam Lhosar, some populated Tamang villages are Dhunche and Syafru. Gyalpo Lhosar may be celebrated in Sherpa villages such as Namche and Khumjung.

Indigenous women celebrate Lhosar wearing tradition clothing and jewellery, nepali indigenous gathering
Indigenous Festivals of Nepal - 2024
Indigenous women celebrate Lhosar wearing tradition clothing and jewellery. Photo credit: Royal Mountian Travel.

Nwaagi – Bankariya, Chepang, and Yakkha

While the name might seem unique, Nwaagi is a festival celebrated by many communities across Nepal. From the Bhramans and Chhetris to the endangered community of Bankariya, and the highly marginalised community of the Chepangs, Nwaagi commemorates ancestors, and the date this festival is celebrated changes from family to family.

Just as the date for this festival changes on an individual level, the way Nwaagi is performed differs from community to community. The majority of dominant communities like the Brahmans and Chhetris call it Shraddha, where they offer homage to their ancestors or Pitri. The Chepang community celebrate it strictly by only offering newly harvested yield. This is similar to how Kirat communities like Rai, Yakkha, and Magar celebrate.

Nwaagi as a symbol of resistance for the Bankariya

The Banakariya community, one of the least populated, and most endangered communities, resides in the forests of Chure Hills between Makwanpur and Parsa districts. Living a primitive life, only 180 reported people are hailing from this community. With their survival and land being in constant threat, they have started to fight for their identity and indulge in activities to make some money. While hunting and sustenance agriculture had been their mean of consumption for over seven decades, now, the Banakriyas are seen selling khareto strands which are the raw material for making classic Nepali brooms. 

Amid their quest for survival, the Bankariya celebrate Nwaagi. It is not just a festival but a way of acknowledging the blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors and paying their homage on the fields they yield their crops. For them, Nwaangi is their fight against the lack of recognition and the threat of being displaced by the authorities. 

Often taken as a religious stunt, most communities experience Nwaagi as more of an obligation passed down from generation to generation rather than a joyful festival. Most people tend to not celebrate it and what was once a festival to worship the ancestors is slowly fading away with time. Sri Krishna says, “shraddhavan labhate jnanam”, or one who does shraddha gains knowledge. Depicted as an act to know God by the saints, Shraddha is at risk of loosing its meaning in time. However, it is important to understand the symbolic significance it may have for endangered people like the Bankariyas.

Where to best witness Nwaagi

All in all, Nwaagi is not an extensive festival that is celebrated with rigour and glory. It is but a remembrance of the remnants of the past, and a way to thank the past who built our present. However, if you wish to witness this festival, you can travel to the Handikhola area of the Makwanpur district where the Bankariyas reside during the Shora Shradh (Late September to Early October). 

Siruwa – Rajbhansi

13-15 April 2024

The Siruwa Festival emerges as a profound celebration within the Rajbhansi community of Nepal, unfolding over a distinctive three-day spectacle coinciding with the advent of the New Year. It is firmly rooted in the conviction of appeasing village deities.

Embarking on Pani Siruwa, the inaugural day witnesses a spirited exchange of water amongst community members. Transitioning to Kado Siruwa on the second day, the festivities take a mud-centric turn. The Rajbhansis immerse themselves in mud play, guided by the belief that this ritual fortifies against ailments, and connects them with the earth. The concluding day, Rang Siruwa, is similar to that of the Holi festival. They greet each other and play with colours. 

Where to best witness Siruwa

The Rajbhansi community illuminates its cultural opulence through programs spanning Jhapa, Morang, and Sunsari. Evidently, the government recognizes the gravity of Siruwa and gives a three-day public holiday for the community. To witness the celebration, it is advised to travel to the eastern side of Nepal, especially Morang and Sunsari during the Nepali New Year. 

Buddha Jayanti – Tamang, Sunuwar, Magar, Sherpa, Bhote, Hyolmo, Thakali

23 May 2024

Buddha Jayanti, a sacred observance among the Tamang, Sunuwar, Magar, Sherpa, Bhote, Hyolmo, and Thakali communities, epitomises Buddha Purnima—a momentous day symbolising the enlightenment of the revered Gautam Buddha. 

Devotees partake in special puja and assorted programs, accentuating the profound philosophy and teachings of Gautam Buddha. The public spaces come alive with paintings and images of Buddha, while Aanandakuti Bihar displays Swayambhu—a relic from Buddha’s form—invoking reverence from the faithful. As the sun ascends, stupas, Bihar, and residences gleam with the radiance of colourful lights and lamps.

Where to best witness Buddha Jayanti

The Buddhist community of Nepal including the majority of the communities mentioned above (also some Newars) embraces Buddha Jayanti with profound enthusiasm, with diverse events unfolding near Buddhist sanctuaries and stupas nationwide. Grand celebrations grace Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, alongside Swayambhunath stupa, Boudhanath stupa, Namo Buddha and various other Buddha stupas.

Indigenous Festivals of Nepal - 2024
Buddhist monks light butter lamps on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti in Boudhanath, Nepal. Photo credit: Royal Mountain Travel

Sakela (Udhauli and Ubhauli) – Rai, Limbu, Sunuwar, Yakha

Ubhauli: 23 May 2024

Udhauli: 15 December 2024

The Kirat community especially the likes of Rai, Limbu, Sunuwar, and Yakha celebrate Sakela, where Udhauli and Ubhauli reflect the cyclical harmony of ascent and descent. Udhauli falls mostly in November and December, and Ubhauli, in April and May, resembles the significance of Kirat’s sacred text ‘Mundhum,’ where a year of 365 days resonates in the dance of upward and downward movements. 

The Udhauli festival emerges as a manifestation of gratitude towards nature, a heartfelt acknowledgement of the bountiful harvest bestowed upon the communities. On this day, the celebratory spirit takes centre stage as communities come together, organising various festivals, and uniting with friends and families in joyous camaraderie. Notably, the Sakela dance graces this occasion, earning it the name Sakela Udhauli. The auspicious day designated for the celebration of Sakela Udhauli is Mangsir Purnima, occurring between late November to early December or the eight-month full moon day.

Similarly, the Ubhauli festival unfolds on the full moon day of Baisakh, symbolising the commencement of the agricultural season and the onset of summer. Brimming with joy and happiness, this festival becomes a joyful affair as communities warmly welcome friends and families to participate in the festivities.

Where to best witness Udhauli and Ubhauli

While in Kathmandu valley during the time of Sakela, Tundikhel is a must-visit. There, you can find people wearing their ethnic attire, and celebrating as they dance in the rhythm of the folk songs and music. If you have time to go to rural Nepal, then, the communities that celebrate this festival can be predominantly found in Eastern Nepal.

nepali women celebrating sakela Indigenous Festivals of Nepal - 2024
Women celebrate Sakela festival in Nepal.

Jitiya – Tharu

24-26 September 2024

Jitiya Parva, a momentous festival observed by married women of the Tharu (also Maithili) community is celebrated across three significant days on the 7th, 8th, and 9th day of the dark fortnight in the month of Ashwin (September/October). These days are known as Saptami, Ashtami, and Navami, respectively. 

Jitiya, named after Jitmahan, the blessed son of the Sun god born out of wedlock to Princess Masabashi, is a celebration dedicated to mothers praying for the well-being of their living sons. Married women, especially mothers, engage in worshipping God Jitmahan and the Sun, observing a fast for the prosperity of their children, husbands, and the entire family. One remarkable aspect of Jitiya is the return of married women to their Laihara/Maiti (parents’ house). 

On Saptami, the festival kicks off with women fasting and bathing in rivers or water reservoirs at dawn. Following purification rituals, they offer water to the Sun God, perform traditional ceremonies, and partake in festivities without fasting. The day concludes with an Otaghan feast, in preparation for the day of fasing ahead of them.

Ashtami marks the main day of Jitiya Pawain, requiring women to observe a 24-hour fast, refraining from food and water. The day commences with an early morning holy bath and house cleansing rituals. Throughout the day, women engage in listening to or reading out the stories of Jitiya. 

Navami, or Parwan, is the end of the festival and the breaking of the 24-hour fast. Women perform ritual bathing at dawn again, followed by worship to Jitmahan with offerings of fruits, milk, and yoghurt. The fast is broken, and women eat food of their choice.

Where to best witness Jitiya

To experience Jitiya firsthand, it is recommended to travel to Madhesh Pradesh or Province 2 of Nepal. Likewise, you can also travel to the places where Tharu communities reside especially in the outskirts of Chitwan and Biratnagar. 

A gourp of Tharu women from Nepal Indigenous Festivals of Nepal - 2024
A group of Tharu women in their traditional attire. Photo credit: Community Homestay Network

Ladi Puja – Majhi (March 8, 2024)

Ladi Puja, a venerable tradition among the indigenous Majhi community, stands as their most pivotal festival, embodying an institutional practice and a pinnacle of unwavering faith. Rooted in the ethos of water worship, this celebration finds its sanctity in the rituals performed before embarking on boats or entering the reservoirs with fishing nets, a custom steeped in reverence for the Water God. While some Majhi communities choose to perform Ladi Puja on Shivaratri itself, the prevalent tradition marks the third Tuesday of Falgun Month for this festivity.

The Majhi community, entwined with river-centric livelihoods such as fishing, agriculture, and animal husbandry along the river’s banks, observes Ladi Puja at the close of winter. This ritual serves as a protective measure against natural disasters, underlining its significance in safeguarding the Majhi community’s way of life. Ladi Puja also shares an association with Shivaratri, with post-Shivaratri ceremonies invariably extending to the veneration of Ladi. 

On the sacred day of Ladi Puja, the Majhi community worships 33 crores of deities of Hinduism. This ceremony involves offerings and sacrifices, including agricultural tools, fishing nets, and river-centric implements, symbolising the fishermen’s connection with their trade. And, the prayers voiced on this occasion echo the collective hope for safety, not only for the individual fishermen but for their entire communities. 

Where to best witness Ladi puja

The majority of the Majhi community resides near the banks of Koshi. They celebrate the festival where they live and primarily where they do the fishing. So during the time of the festival, if you can travel to the villages near the Koshi river, you can witness the way the Majhi community worship the Gods, especially Lord Shiva. 

Kumar Jatra (Falo) – Thakali 

The Kumar Jatra festival, also known as Falo, is particularly celebrated in the heart of Thasang municipality, specifically in Kobang—the ancestral home of the Thakali community. This celebration extends its charm over three joyous days. This cultural festival centres around young boys aged five to thirteen, hailing from the esteemed Gauchan, Tulachan, Sherchan, and Bhattan surnames within the Thakali community. Led through the spirited jatra, this procession is inaugurated by the chairperson of Thasang village municipality.

At the core of this lively fair is the ceremonial worship of Narichyohaba, a practice steeped in ancient lore designed to safeguard the village against malevolent forces. Beyond its protective role, the participation of young boys in this fair carries cultural significance, symbolising their transition into adulthood and their newfound readiness for a life blessed by Lord Narichyohaba. 

In recent times, Falo has been celebrated mostly during the last week of August. However, the celebration depends on the decision of the Thasang municipality. The festival’s central figures are young boys, due to the lack of their population in the last few years, the celebration is often minimal and rare.

Gaura Parva – Khas Community

23-26 August 2024

Gaura Parva is an indigenous festival native to the Sudurpashchim and Karnali provinces of Nepal. This festival symbolizes the sacred union between the goddess Gaura (Parvati) and Lord Shiva, representing the enduring bond of love and devotion within the divine couple. 

As a pivotal festival for the Khas (the natives of Sudurpaschim) community in the region, Gaura Parva festivities span four days, starting with married women ritually soaking five types of seeds (wheat, horse gram, pea, rhododendron and black gram; also called Pancha Biruda) on Biruda Panchami, followed by fasting. Subsequent days involve ceremonial washing of soaked grains, taking the Pancha Biruda to a temple on Saptami, and culminating in Gaurashtami with the creation of a goddess Gaura idol, fasting, and offerings. The festival concludes with the immersion of idols in a nearby river after five to eleven days, symbolizing the divine union. The Deuda dance, a significant tradition, features on the final day of the festival where participants form a circle and move to traditional music, adding a lively touch to the cultural celebrations.

Where to best witness Gaura Parva

For those desiring to witness the lively Gaura Parva celebrations in Nepal, the Tundikhel ground in Kathmandu becomes a focal point. On the final day of the festival, a celebration occurs in Tundikhel where Deuda is performed. Also, you can travel to the far western region to experience it on a grander and more contextualized manner.

Indigenous Festivals of Nepal - 2024
Children and women celebrating Lhoar in Boudhanath, Kathmandu. Photo credit: Royal Mountain Travel.

To borrow the words of Sitting Bull, one of the most prominent indigenous leaders of the Hunkpapa community (Native American), “if we must die, we die defending our rights.” These indigenous festivals allow us to do our part in helping the communities fight for their identity. Even by acknowledging the festivals, we embrace the presence of these people and keep them away from being just another remnant from the past. 

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