Indra Jatra – a folklore culture of Nepal

 

Lakhe Aju

Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, is a mixture of rich culture, ancient traditions and hustling bazaars. Home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the city boasts of natural beauty, vibrant culture, unique cuisine, and an intense religious devout that are apparent by the variety of festivals celebrated throughout the year. Among such reviving festivals, Indra Jatra is one of the most significant festivals celebrated for eight days in the month of September, observed mostly by the Newars – the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley.

Indra – Lord of rain tied in accuse of stealing

‘Indra’, is the Hindu Lord of rain, also known as the ruler of heaven, and the word ‘Jatra’ refers to the festival or parade. Indra Jatra, commonly known as ‘Yenya’ –meaning ‘Kathmandu’s festival’ in Nepal Bhasa, is an eight days’ celebration to pay tribute to god Indra for rain, and honour Shiva’s manifestation – ‘Bhairab’, the evil destroyer. This festival interconnects with the Kumari Jatra, which is one of the main highlights of the festival. This religious & cultural celebration started by King Gunakama Dev in the 10th century, to rejoice the founding of Kathmandu. Following the ancient folklore and myths, since then it has continued down through several generations, and celebrated with much enthusiasm and participation each year.

Dagin – Indra’s mother in search of his son

Legend has it that Dagin, Lord Indra’s mother needed a holy flower called Parijat to perform a ritual. So Lord Indra descended down to earth in the form of a human in disguise to look for Parijat. In Indra’s extended absence, Dagin came down to earth looking for her son & Indra’s white elephant; only to find him imprisoned by a Tantric owner accusing him of stealing. She then freed him, on conditions that he would return to earth every year; provide enough rain & dew for the winter crops, and with a promise to take all those people who have died that year to heaven. When people realized that he was actually Lord Indra, they regretted and worshipped him for forgiveness. Indra Jatra festival thus, honours the deceased and celebrates the devotion to Indra and Dagin for the coming harvests.

There is also a different tale of the Goddess Kumari attached to this festival. Many years ago, the Mallas who ruled the Kathmandu Valley used to worship the Goddess Taleju Bhawani, who was very pleased with King Jay Prakash Malla. In fact, the Goddess often came to the king’s palace, chatted and played dice as well. One day during a casual game, the Goddess sensed a discomforting gaze, so she left the palace immediately, declaring to never return as a result of disrespect to a woman’s dignity. The king was embarrassed and begged for forgiveness after which the goddess made a strange concession for the king to find a young virgin girl from a Newari Shakya family, she herself would manifest.

Kumari – Living Goddess of Nepal

Later one night, the Goddess appeared in his dreams and confirmed that the girl he met the other day was herself. Then the king visited the girl’s house and apologized; the girl accepted his apology, put vermilion powder on his forehead and blessed him. After this, the king ordered to build a beautiful house for her and set a system to worship and take care of her as Kumari Devi, the living goddess. Since this incident in the mid 18th century, the procession of Kumari is held on the day of Indra Jatra along with other two chariots carrying human representation of the deities, Lord Ganesh and Lord Bharava.

Erection of the ceremonial pole – ‘Linga’

The festival begins in the Durbar Square with erection of a ceremonial pole called ‘Linga’ of 36 feet long, bearing the flag of Indra. The Durbar Square and the main streets are filled with people rejoicing in an unparallel cultural ambience. Afterwards, the chariots are pulled through the main streets of the southern, northern and central paths of the old part of Kathmandu on three different days. Many images and figures of Lord Indra and Bhairab are put on display, with various classical mask dance performances depicting stories and forms of deities dressed in striking traditional costumes and colourful masks adding further vibrancy, colour and attraction.

Devi Pyakhan

Among the remarkable performances in the Jatra, Majipa Lakhey dance, Pulukisi Nach, Mahankali Nach, Sawa Bhaku, and Devi Pyakhan, are the most significant, each with their own set of musicians playing distinctive forms of traditional music, while accompanying the chariot procession. Another event is the enactment of the ten earthly incarnations of Lord Vishnu that is performed every night on a platform near the temple of the Living Goddess Kumari. The festival ends with lowering of the Linga, marking the end of the festivities, and beginning of the major festive season of Dashain and Tihar.

 

Archery – ‘the celebration of the Bhutanese way of life’

“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, just imagine that it’s going to launch you into something great!”

Archery or “Datse”, as locally called in Dzongkha language is the national sport of Bhutan. The much celebrated sport can be traced back in 600 B.C., used as an essential tool for hunting and war battles. In course of time, it has evolved into a social game enjoyed by all, whether be it the royals or the locals. Archery gained popularity following its official recognition in 1971; while the kingdom joined the United Nations the same year.

The traditional Bhutanese bows commonly known as zhu are made of bamboo with twisted stinging nettle strings. The arrows are lead–tipped bamboo sticks with bird feathers. While professional archers use the compound bows for international tournaments, these traditional bow and arrows are still preferred by the locals during festivals. The bow and arrow represents a religious significance in the life of the Bhutanese and their culture as they use it in different ceremonies, rituals, and other social activities.

No festival or celebration in Bhutan is considered complete without archery and mask dances. Besides the striking cultural celebration of the local festivals (Tsechu), majority are drawn to the traditional archery tournaments held among the villagers – the battles for honor.

Bhutanese band performing in a local archery tournament

With two teams passionately competing with each other, the archers of each team stare down visualizing by mind onto the small wooden targets, placed at the end of a 145 meters range (double the Olympic distance of 90 meters). Each team has their own set of singers and dancers performing varied traditional songs and dances about love, enlightenment, and karma.

A common yet surprising sight is of the natives standing casually next to the targets cheering enthusiastically for their teams as well as mocking and distracting their opponents, passing comments on poor aims. At a successful attempt of hitting the target, teammates celebrate with a slow motion dance praising the shooter who tucks a colourful scarf into his belt. It is a remarkable sport deep rooted in Bhutanese culture as a symbol of festivity and rivalry.

Women dressed in their traditional attire – Kira entertaining the audience with their dance performance

Witnessing such a lively social event is an unparallel experience on its own as ‘Archery is the celebration of the Bhutanese way of life.’

According to Prince Jigyel Ugyen -“Buddhism is about emptying your mind, and so is archery,” “Once you pull the bow, you forget about everything else and find complete bliss. And if you can hold that mentality for 24 hours and 365 days, that’s enlightenment.”

Tihar at Dharma!

Tihar is the festival of lights. The five day long festival is a joyous annual festival that brings happiness, prosperity and good wishes into the lives of people.
Being the festival of lights, butter lamps known as diyos are lit and the entire country illuminates to celebrate with immense joy and ecstasy.
Here’s a picture of the ladies at Dharma during Tihar in October 2017.

The vibrant month of Shrawan

Shrawan is the fourth month in the Nepali calendar. If you happen to be anywhere in or near the vicinity of Nepal, you will come across women clad in red, green or yellow bangles. Most of them will also have henna tattoos decorated on their hands.

This month is considered highly auspicious and each Monday of Shrawan, known as Shrawan Somvar, is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. Believers, especially women, observe fast every Monday during this month and visit the holy Pashupatinath Temple. They light butter lamps and incense to please Lord Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Monday fasts in this month ensure good prospective husbands for unmarried girls and good health for husbands of married women. They believe Goddess Parvati observed fast for the entire month of Shrawan before Lord Shiva was impressed and married her.

Several days prior to this month, the market bustles as women passionately shop for new clothes and bangles. Items for prayers such as flowers, colours, butter lamps, incense sticks etc collect a high demand. Most women gather and pre- celebrate this month by applying henna on the hands, singing, dancing and making merry.

Nag Panchami

Nag Panchami is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit-fortnight in the month of Shrawan. As this festival falls during the rainy season, it is believed that serpents come out of their holes which get flooded with the monsoon rain to look for dry shelter.
Meanwhile, people stick pictures and images of snakes on the entrance to their houses across the country to mark the Nag Panchami. They also visit temples and offer milk to the snake god.

Teej
Teej is another festival that occurs during the months of Shravan and Bhadra, corresponding to the monsoon season of July-August. Married women celebrate this festival by fasting and worshipping idols of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati seeking marital bliss. Legend has it that it is the day when Lord Shiva was impressed with Parvati’s dedication and so accepted her.
Teej celebrations last for three pious days. Traditional dances and songs form an important feature of Teej celebrations. Red color is considered auspicious for women observing Teej fast and so most of them dress up in red or bridal clothes.

Festivals of Bhutan

Bhutan’s festivals are extremely lively and vibrant. Its people clad in colorful traditional Bhutanese attire, its spicy and zesty cuisine, various mask dances and dramas, makes it an eye-catching ambience in Bhutan.

Tshechus, held on the tenth day of a month of the lunar calendar, are among the most celebrated festivals, particularly the Paro Tshechu (Spring Festival) and Thimphu Tshechu (Fall Festival). With at least 1 festival taking place every month, one does wonder how they manage it all. But each festival comes with its own unique identity, history and diverse themes. Out of the numerous festivals Bhutan has to offer, let’s take a look at few of the popular ones.

1. Paro Tshechu
Held every spring, Paro Tshechu is one of the most colorful and significant events in Paro district. The Tshechu is considered a major attraction and people travel from neighboring districts to participate in the festivity. At dawn on the last day of the celebration the monks display a gigantic thangkha (embroidered painting), the Guru Throngdel, inside the dzong. Thongdrols are impressive examples of Buddhist art and keep spectators in awe. Simply viewing a Thongdrol is considered so pure, it is said to wash one’s sins away.

Paro Tshechu Dates: April 7 – 11, 2017

2. Thimphu Tshechu & Thimphu Drubchen

One of the biggest festivals in the country is the Thimphu Tshechu. Several days prior to this grand festival, the Thimphu Drubchen takes place where thousands of people travel to the capital city and offer prayers and rituals to invoke the gods. Held at the Tashichho Dzong, both these festivals are among the extremely popular festivals in Bhutan.

When it was initiated by the 4th Desi, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay in 1867 the Tshechu consisted of only a few dances being performed strictly by monks. Later in the 1950s, the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, introduced numerous mask dances performed by lay monks that added color and variation to the festival without compromising on its spiritual significance. Mask dances like the Guru Tshengye (Eight Manifestations of Guru), Shaw Shachi (Dance of the Stags) are enjoyed because they are similar to stage-theater. Short skits are also performed to spread health and social awareness messages.

These festivals are also a break for farmers from their farm life who celebrate, receive blessings and pray on this happy occasion.

Thimphu Drubchen Dates: Sept 26 – 29, 2017
Thimphu Tshechu Dates: Sept 30 – Oct 2, 2017

3. Punakha Tshechu

After several requests made by Punakha District Administration and local people, Punakha Tshechu was introduced in 2005 by the 70th Je Khenpo Trulku Jigme Choedra and the then Home Minister His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Yoedzer Thinley. This Tshechu was established to better preserve Buddhist teachings and keep alive the noble deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche, the unifier of Bhutan.

This festival not only plays an important role in preserving Bhutan’s rich culture and traditions but also provides devout Buddhists with an opportunity for prayer and pilgrimage. They reflect the richness of the Bhutanese cultural heritage and are very special for both Bhutanese and tourists who visit Bhutan.

Punakha Tshechu Dates: March 7 – 9, 2017


4. Black Necked Crane Festival

The Black-necked Crane festival is celebrated annually in the courtyard of Gangtey Gonpa, in Phobjikha valley. Unlike other festivals, this festival is celebrated to mark the arrival of this endangered and majestic bird which becomes an inseparable part of the locals’ daily lives during winter.

Organized to generate awareness on the importance of conserving the endangered Black‐necked cranes, the one day festival includes cultural programs such as folk songs and dances (some with black-necked crane themes) and mask dances performed by the local people, crane dances and environmental conservation-themed dramas.
The festival has become a part of the local culture in Phobjikha valley ever since it was first initiated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) in 1998.

Black Necked Crane Festival Dates: November 11, 2017

Lhosar Tashi Delek!


Pola & Mola (Tibetan for grandfather and grandmother) are an old Tibetan couple living in Nepal. Originally from Lhasa, Tibet, they migrated to Kathmandu in the late 1950’s to begin a new life in Nepal. A young 20 year old Pola had on his shoulders, the responsibilities of educating his younger siblings and taking care of his parents. Despite cultural and language differences, he set foot exploring the streets of Kathmandu.

Initially, he bought Nepalese spices, tobacco and candles; and exported them to Lhasa. He recalls those days when there were no roads and they had to send men on foot till the border carrying the supplies for days. “The Nepalese people are very hard working and with a Khukuri attached to their shirts, they carried goods on their backs,” he recalls. This went on till 1969, after which the highway was built and the Tibet – Nepal trade flourished. Since then, he traveled back and forth for 48 years between Nepal and Tibet, importing raw wool, musk, Tibetan thermos, campus shoes and later the famous Tibetan carpets from Lhasa to Nepal and likewise, exporting herbs, cotton, jute, ghee etc. to Lhasa.

While Pola sold Nepalese imported goods in the popular Barkhor Street in Lhasa, Mola stayed in a small retail shop they opened in the busy streets of Ason in Kathmandu selling all types of clothes, shoes, accessories, etc. “I made a lot of friends in Ason”, she says. “Those were the carefree days; chitchatting and drinking tea with fellow shopkeepers is how I improved my Nepali.

After 57 years in Nepal, Pola & Mola share fond memories of Tibet and Nepal comparing similarities & differences between the two places they call home. “The same astounding landscape, mountains, hard-working people yet so distinct in culture and language.

With 4 children and 6 grandchildren, they now live a happy retired life in Nepal. “Life has shown us so many phases, between being born and brought up in Tibet and retiring in Nepal. We love our life and are happy but what is important to us is that we do not forget our Tibetan culture and heritage, the place that defined our existence. We are proud of our traditional dress – Bakhu and our Tibetan language. Also, on this happy occasion, we would like to wish everyone a very happy Lhosar. Lhosar Tashi Delek!”

Tihar – The Festival of Lights

gqgg8299

Tihar or Deepawali is the festival of lights celebrated widely in Nepal. The five day long festival falls a fortnight after the grand festival of Dashain during Kartik, the seventh month of the Nepalese calendar. A joyous annual festival occurring in late autumn, Tihar brings happiness, prosperity and good wishes into the lives of people. Each day represents reverence to not just humans, but also to the sacred cows, dogs, crows and oxen that are honored in the Hindu culture. Being the festival of lights, butter lamps known as diyos are lit and the entire country illuminates to celebrate with immense joy and ecstasy.

First Day – Kag Tihar
The first day of Tihar is Kag Tihar where the Kag or crow is worshipped. Considered to be the messenger of death, people try to ward off grief and death in their families by offering food to crows.

Second Day – Kukur Tihar
The second day of Tihar is dedicated to the most loyal friend of mankind, Kukur or dog. Dogs are especially important to Nepal’s Hindu practitioners and are regarded as mount of God “Bhairab” as well as “Yama” (God of Death). They are said to guard the gates of afterlife and represent the concept of dharma, the path of righteousness.

On this day, dogs are worshipped as a gratitude for their loyalty and service. A garland of marigold flowers that are in full bloom during this time is draped around their neck and an auspicious red tika applied on the forehead that signifies their devotion and friendliness. They are offered delicious food and the day is marked to treasure the relationship between humans and dogs.

daisy-pie

Third Day – Gai Tihar and Laxmi Puja
The third day is one of the major days of Tihar. The morning is Gai Tihar meaning cow worship. In Hinduism, the cow is regarded as Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. She is considered holy and sacred and in ancient times, cow milk, dung, and even urine were utilized as a source of purifying oneself. The cow is fed plenty of grass and garlanded with the auspicious marigold flower this morning.

In the afternoon, houses and offices are cleaned and floors painted with Red Mud (Rato Mato) and cow dung (gobar). Rangoli, a pattern made of colored rice, colored sand and flower petals, is drawn at the main entryway of the house and traditional butter lamps (Diyo) are lit to welcome the gods and goddesses. Doors and windows are decorated with fresh garlands of sayapatri (marigold) and makhamali (chrysanthemums) flowers. In the evening at a scheduled auspicious time, Goddess Laxmi is worshipped and thanked for the well-being and prosperity of the family. Various sweetmeats are offered to the goddess and relished amongst family and friends. After the prayers, girls and boys go out to the neighborhood houses singing and dancing to the customary songs, Bhailo and Deusi for which they are bestowed with money, fruits and selroti, a Nepalese delicacy made of rice and sugar.
Firecrackers and sparklers light up the sky although the government has imposed a ban to avoid any mishaps and protect the environment.

Fourth Day – Goru Tihar and Mha (aatma or self) Puja

This day different types of prayers or Pujas are held depending on one’s cultural background. People who follow Vaishnavism perform the Gobardhan Puja (honoring Gobardhan Mountain) or Goru Puja (worship of the oxen). The ox helps farmers plough fields and draw the carts in the paddy fields of Nepal, a predominant agricultural country. They are fed and worshipped and Govardhan Puja is performed, where a paste of cow dung is applied outside houses as replicas of the Gobardhan Mountain.

At dusk the Newar community perform Mha Puja also known as self-puja. It is done to purify the body and soul for one’s prosperity and longevity. A Mandala or mandap, sand painting of a sacred diagram signifying good fortune and long life, decorated with marigold flowers, sweets, fruits and a special garland is set for each family member who sit cross-legged behind it. The elder female member then begins applying the tika on their foreheads and performs the rituals handing over shagun, auspicious food consisting of boiled eggs, fruits, sweets, fish, and the traditional rice wine. Later they indulge in a scrumptious feast and revel in the festive ambience.

This day also marks the new year of the Nepal Sambat, the Newari calendar.

Fifth Day: Bhai Tika
The final day of Tihar is dedicated to the siblings, particularly brothers. At an auspicious time scheduled a day earlier by an astrologer, the entire nation’s sisters apply tika of five colors on her brother’s forehead and pray to Yamraj, the god of death, to ensure his long life. She also ties a sacred cotton thread of Tantric value meant to protect them and offers him sweets and fruits. Similarly, the brothers give tika to sisters and offer her gifts and money along with an assurance to protect her forever. Those without sisters receive tika from cousins and relatives. The impact of this day is to strengthen the bond between brothers and sisters.

Tihar is the second biggest festival of Nepal after Dashain. The proximity of the two major festivals gets people in the merry-making mood the entire month beginning from Dashain and lasting until the end of Tihar.

Gai Jatra 2015: The festival of death and rebirth

Nepal celebrated its first big festival after the earthquake of 25 April 2015. On Sunday, 30 August, thousands of people across the country flung to the streets to celebrate the festival of Gai Jatra.

The story dates back to the mid-17th century, when Pratap Malla, the then King of Kathmandu thought of a way to console his grief stricken wife who was inconsolable at the death of her young son. To show the queen that she was not the only person to have lost a loved one, King Pratap Malla ordered everyone in his kingdom who had lost a loved one that year to bring out a procession for the queen. He also ordered them to dress in funny attire to make the queen laugh. Thus, started Gai Jatra, the unique festival of satire, death and rebirth.

This festival celebrated annually carried special significance this year since the earthquake killed over eight thousand people. Even though the festival commemorates death, it is filled with laugher, music and feasting as people participate in the procession dressed as gods and goddesses, animals etc. People carry the picture of their loved one in hand held chariots and dance and sing songs as they follow a route that leads them to different shrines and temples. People participating in this procession believe that by doing so, the dead will safely enter the gates of heaven.

Gai Jatra is a healing process and it gives people the strength to deal with death in the family and move on. It is a proof of perseverance and strength of the Nepalese. The original spirit of Gai Jatra allows us to deal with natural calamities. Joyously celebrating this festival is a way of showing that Nepal is getting back to normal.