The best festivals of Nepal: a tourist guide
This post is about the major festivals of Nepal. Nepal is a multicultural country with a long history of diverse ethnicities and religions living together. Each has their own culture and traditions.
As a result, Nepal is a land of festivals with over 50 events each year. There is a big chance that if you visit the country you get to experience at least one of the major festivals of Nepal. Some are so colorful and joyous that it is worth planning your trip around.
Festivals of Nepal
This post is all about how to celebrate the festivals of Nepal. During the two years I lived in Kathmandu I was lucky to witness all of them. However it wasn’t always easy to find information about when and where to experience the festivals of Nepal.
Nepal has its own lunar calendar and therefore many festivals have no fixed date. Some of the most colorful festivals like Mani Rimdu or Gai Jatra are local affairs, others see festivities throughout the country.
Consider this a travel guide about the best festivals in Nepal and how to celebrate them as a foreigner visiting the country.
The best festivals of Nepal
With more than 50 events a year I stick to the best festivals of Nepal that are also easy to experience as a foreigner. The great thing about Nepal is it’s heartwarming hospitality and pride in its cultural traditions.
With most festivals of Nepal there is absolutely no problem to join the festivities as a foreigner. In fact, most people will be glad to see foreigners take part and are eager to explain the cultural traditions. With music, dance and food playing an important role in the celebrations there is always enough to see and do.
I first celebrated Maghi when I worked in Bardiya district. For the local Tharu people, Maghi is one of the most important festivals of Nepal. The Tharu people see this as the start of a new year, the end of winter and the arrival of the harvest spring season.
It’s a time for families to come together and eat sweets and meat. Women are busy preparing special foods and for many Tharu people it is one of the few times in a year they eat meat.
In other parts of the country Magh Sankranti is a Hindu festival to pray to the sun god. People take a bath in the rivers, preferably at confluences where three holy rivers meet each other such as Trivenighat at Panauti, Devghat near Chitwan and Dolalghat.
When: First day in the month of Magh (mid January)
Where: Panauti, Devghat, Janaki temple, Janakpur and rest of the Terai region.
Special foods: ladoo, ghee and sweet potatoes
Losar is the Tibetan new year that is celebrated by the Tibetan ethnic groups like the Sherpa and the Tamang as well as the Tibetan community in Kathmandu.
In Kathmandu festivities are mostly around the Boudhanath stupa where Tibetans gather to sing, dance and throw barley to welcome the new year. At night they light oil lamps. In the mountain villages the people will also sing and dance and wear their traditional clothes.
I went to see the Losar celebrations at the Namobuddha monastery near Dhulikhel. It’s a very small monastery with spectacular views on the mountains. During the festival there were a lot of people out and about and there was a gentle joyous atmosphere.
When: first day of the Tibetan calendar (february/march)
Where: Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Namobuddha monastery near Dhulikhel or Tengboche monastery in the Everest region. Tamang villages on the Annapurna Circuit trek might also have festivities.
Special foods: Chang (barley beer), Kapse (fried cookies) and Guthuk (Noodle soup)
Shivaratri or the night of Lord Shiva is an important Hindu festival. Hindu’s have several theories about the origin of Shivaratri. Some say it was the night Shiva married the goddess Parvati. Others say it was the night Shiva saved the world from destruction.
The story goes that the demons made a poison, but Shiva swallowed it all to save the world. He kept it in his throat that then turned blue. Because Shiva was not supposed to fall asleep, the gods kept him company. During Shivaratri, Hindu devotees likewise stay awake to meditate and pray for Lord Shiva.
For women this is also the time to pray to the Shiva lingam. A black stone penis that represents Shiva’s manhood. Married women pray for protection of their husbands while unmarried women pray to get a husband as strong and handsome as Shiva.
Pashupatinath is the best place in Nepal to experience Shivaratri. Thousands of Saddhu’s and Shiva devotees will come to Pashupatinath to visit the Shiva temple and take a dip in the Bagmati river.
During the day the holy men will chant, pray, fast and smoke weed. In Hindu mythology Shiva used weed to strengthen his powers. Therefore bhang is consumed in copious amounts during Shivaratri. Smoked by saddhu’s or mixed in a drink called thandai. A cold mixture of milk, almond and spices.
When: Day before the new moon in the month of Phalgun (end of february)
Where: Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu
Special foods: Bhang and fasting foods that are sattvic
Holi is Nepal’s spring festival that celebrates the end of winter. It is the most colorful festival of Nepal and a crazy time to be in the country. The night of Holika Dahan huge bonfires are lit up to send away evil spirits. The next day everyone engages in splashing water and color powder around.
In general, Holi is a fun festival to join, but it can be a really intense experience. Needless to say, foreigners, especially women, are a favorite target to throw colors on. Nowadays a lot of synthetic and chemical colors are used that can cause allergic reactions in some.
Thamel and Durbar square in Kathmandu are a great place to celebrate Holi. If you want a more quiet Holi experience you should escape the bigger cities.
When: full moon day in the month of Phalgun (March)
Where: Kathmandu and the rest of the country
Special foods: Bhang lassi and Guthiya sweets
So many communities in Nepal. So many new years. Bisket Jatra is the Nepali new year or the new year celebration of the Newar community in Bhaktapur. It’s a festival full of legends and myths that was started by the Malla kings in the 11th century.
Bisket Jatra is also known as the victory over the serpents. The legend goes that a prince, with the help of goddess Bhadrakali, killed two serpents that came from the nostrils of his newly wed princess. The Newar people show respect to the serpent as they believe the snakes will then not kill anyone and help in bringing enough rain for a good harvest.
Festivities in Bhaktapur center around the chariots of the god Bhairav and fierce goddess Bhadrakali. The chariots are pulled through the narrow streets till they reach Bhaktapur Durbar square. Then a tug of war starts between the eastern and western side of the city that try to pull the chariots in their direction.
Another tug of war happens at the lyo sin dole. A sky high pole that needs to be pulled down. Everyone can pull the rope on the day of Satruhanta Jatra. When the pole finally hits the ground, the enemy is killed and the new year will start.
When: starts on the 27th day of the Chaita month till the 5th day of the Baisakh month (April)
Balkumari Jatra or Sindoor Jatra is actually part of the Newari new year celebrations and the welcoming of spring. At Thimi Madyapur there is another procession that starts at the local Balkumari temple. This event is even more colorful than the one in Bhaktapur.
The local Newari men carry 32 palanquins with deities around town. Meanwhile they sing, dance and throw orange vermillion powder (sindoor) through the air. With the narrow streets it’s a crowded event and without doubt you will return covered in orange powder.
In nearby Bode, a volunteer man from the Newari Shrestha caste gets his tongue pierced. He then walks around town with a spike in his tongue and a bamboo rack of oil lamps.
When: 2nd day of Baisakh (April)
Where: Thimi and Bode
Rato Machendranath is the longest festival of Nepal. During one month the deity Machendranath will be placed in a wooden chariot that is carried through town. Machendranath is among other things, the god of rain. People worship him in the hope there will be enough rain in the coming monsoon months.
People pull the chariot with the Rato Machendranath from Patan all the way to Jawalakhel. It takes a month before the chariot arrives at its destination and the Rato Machendranath returns home to his temple in Bungamati.
If you are in Kathmandu in May it’s worth checking out where the chariot is and where it stands in Patan. Many people come to pay their respects to the chariot and offer sweets and flowers. People gather in particular on Bhote Jatra when a sacred vest is shown to the people.
A smaller version is the Seto Machhendranath in Kathmandu itself. The Seto Machhendranath chariot goes through the center of Kathmandu for 3 days when people come and pay their respects to the rain god of Kathmandu. Watch around Asan Tole and Ratna Park for the chariot.
Both chariots have a long tree that kind of looks like a christmas tree. It wobbles precariously on the chariots. People believe that if it falls down something bad is about to happen to the country.
When: 4th day of Baisakh (May)
Where: Patan & Kathmandu
Buddha was born in Lumbini in Nepal. Therefore it is no surprise that his birthday is a big festival in the country. People dress in white clothes and eat rice pudding.
The best place to celebrate Buddha Jayanti is in Lumbini itself. A huge procession goes around the Lumbini temple in the morning and there are festivities throughout the day. In Kathmandu the biggest celebrations are at Boudhanath where people gather to sing and dance and light oil lamps at night.
When: first full moon of Baisakh (May)
Where: Lumbini, Boudhanath in Kathmandu and other Buddhist monasteries in the country
Special foods: Kheer (rice porridge)
Janai Purnima is an important Hindu festival for the Chetri and Brahmin caste. Higher caste men wear a white sacred thread (janai) around their chest. They change this once a year at Janai Purnima after taking a bath in a holy river.
In Kathmandu Hindus gather at the Bagmati river at the Pashupatinath temple, but many pilgrims also visit the holy Gosainkunda lakes in the Langtang region.
Although the changing of the janai is only for higher caste males, anyone can get a yellow and red sacred thread (doro) wrapped around their wrist for protection. Priests are busy all day tying the doro for anyone who wants their blessings.
The Newar community around Kathmandu eat a special soup on this day. Kwati is a traditional dish with 9 different types of beans and lentils. In the southern parts of Nepal the festival is called Raksha bandhan in which sisters tie a protection bracelet on the wrists of their brothers in exchange for gifts.
When: full moon day in Shrawan (July/August)
Where: Pashupatinath, Kathmandu
Special foods: Kwati (nine bean sprout soup)
Gai Jatra is a street festival that celebrates cows and honors the dead. Cows are a holy animal in Hinduism and people believe that they help guide the souls to life after death.
The best way to help family members that passed away in the last year is to lead a calf in the Gai Jatra procession. Cows are expensive though and as a substitute children will dress like cows instead or Tahamacha bamboo poles, made out of straw, are carried to symbolize the holy animal.
Despite the theme it is a day of fun and joy. The Gai Jatra procession includes cross dressing, dance, music, comedy and street performances. The comedies often include satirical jokes about politics and social issues in the country.
The procession in Bhaktapur follows the Pradakshina Patha route. It includes a number of traditional masked dances of the Newari people such as the Kawana Pyakhan (skeleton dance), the Bhalu naach (bear dance) and the Khicha Pyakhan (dog dance). There will be processions in Kathmandu, Kirtipur and Patan, but those in Bhaktapur are the most vibrant.
When: first day of the waning moon in Bhadra (August))
The birthday of Krishna is an important festival for Hindus. People flock to the Krishna temples, who are beautifully decorated. Krishna is seen as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu who promised to return to earth whenever evil becomes too much and the good things need to be saved.
In the Kathmandu area it is the old Krishna temple in Patan Durbar Square that is the center of activity. People will offer flowers and food to Krishna and then gather around the temple to pray, chant and fast till midnight.
When: 8th day of the month Bhadra (August/September)
Where: Krishna temple in Patan
Teej is the most important festival for Hindu women in Nepal. The idea of Teej is that unmarried women fast to get a good husband and that married women fast for the long lives of the husband they have. This is inspired by the goddess Parvati who fasted for her husband Lord Shiva.
In recent years the festival has become a bit controversial. The question is, is it really a women’s festival or a festival by men for men? Although only women celebrate it the central theme is having a good husband and praying for his long life. Is it oppressive or simply a day where women come together in solidarity to celebrate their womanhood?
In Nepal women define and interpret Teej in their own ways. For many it is a time where the female relatives come together to celebrate the three day festival. The first day is the Dar Khane Din. Women eat a special delicious meal together before the fast starts on the next day.
On the fasting day women wear their most beautiful red sarees and then visit a Shiva temple where they offer flowers and sweets to Shiva. After that they will sing and dance with special Teej songs. More religious women wil chant mantras dedicated to Shiva and Parvati. In Kathmandu women gather at the Pashupatinath temple, the largest Shiva temple in Nepal.
At last, on the third day, the fast ends after women take a holy bath to wash away their sins. On this day of Rishi Panchami women will offer their greetings to the seven saints for their good deeds and their contribution to the welfare of society.
When: 3th day of the waning moon in Bhadra (August/September)
Where: Pashupatinath, Kathmandu
Indra Jatra is one of the most important festivals for the city of Kathmandu. This 8 day festival marks the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the festival season.
A ceremonial pole is raised on Durbar square after which the Kumari is carried around in a chariot through the streets of Kathmandu. Kumari is the living goddess that lives at Durbar square. Indra Jatra is one of the few times a year that she leaves her palace and people come to get a glimpse of her. Besides the Kumari chariot, there is also a chariot with images of Lord Bhairav and Ganesh.
At Durbar square around Hanuman Dhoka and Indra Chowk there will be lots of traditional dances and street performances every night. The image of Lord Bhairav is displayed in front of his temple and at night oil lamps are lit. The festival ends after 8 days by pulling down the pole again.
When: the 12th day of the bright fortnight in the month of Yanla (September)
Where: Durbar square, Kathmandu
Dasain is the most important religious festival of Nepal in which Hindus celebrate the victory of the goddess Durga over evil. Things close down as people travel back to their families and their villages to celebrate this 10 day long festival.
Kathmandu will be more quiet than usual. There are a few rituals in the capital, but most festivities are within family homes in the rural villages. There it is a joyous time in which children fly kites and swing on the specially made Linge Ping.
Days of Dasain
Gatasthapana is the first day and on this day the seeds of a special yellow long grass (jamara) is sown in a metal pot (kalash). After a special prayer people believe Durga resides within the pot.
The 7th day is Fulpati. The jamara is ready as a gift and blessing from the goddes Durga. In Kathmandu there is an official government ceremony in which two Brahmin priests bring the royal kalash with jamara from Gorkha to Kathmandu. The army organizes a parade at Tundikhel to receive it.
The 8th day is Maha Asthami or Kal Ratri. People believe that Durga appeared in her most fierce representation as Kali due to blood sacrifices made to her. This day thousands of animals are sacrificed to the goddess. In Kathmandu this happens mostly at the Bhadrakali temple at Durbar square or the Dakshinkali temple south of the city.
On Nawami, the ninth day, Durga made her final attack on the demon Mahishasura. The state holds military ritual sacrifices in which a large number of buffaloes are sacrificed at the Hanuman Dhoka palace at Durbar square. This day the Taleju temple will be open to the public. It’s also a day in which people will worship tools and machinery like knives, cars, and bicycles.
On the tenth day it is Vijaya Dashami. Durga wins her victory over evil. Today is Tika day, a family day in which families visit each other to receive the blessings of their elder relatives. Tika is a mixture of rice, yogurt and red powder. Older people in the family apply tika at the forehead of their younger family members along with the holy jamara grass and some money.
When: bright lunar night till full moon night in Ashwin (September/October)
Where: rural villages and Durbar square, Kathmandu
Special foods: Meat
After Dashain, Tihar is the second biggest festival in Nepal. It is a very colorful time to be in Kathmandu. The festival of lights is similar to Diwali in India, but Nepal has its own traditions and rituals.
In Nepal the festival lasts five days and people worship a number of animals. First of all the crows on day 1 (kaag tihar), then the dogs on day 2 (kukur tihar), cows on day 3 (gai tihar) and the ox (ma tihar) on the fourth day. On their respective day, people offer the animals sweets, tikas and flower garlands.
The third day is also Laxmi Puja. People clean their homes and decorate it with lights and flowers. You can also see beautiful flower mandalas before the entrance of homes to welcome in goddess Laxmi. In the evening people pray to Laxmi for wealth and fortune. Children will then move from home to home singing Bhailo and Deusi songs
The fifth day is Bhai Tika. This last day of Tihar is one of the most important. Sisters will visit their brothers to give tika and pray for the long life of her brother. It’s a special tika with seven colors. They also give flower garlands and sweets to their brothers.
When: new moon day of Kartik (October)
Special foods: Sel Roti
Mani Rimdu is the most important festival of the Sherpa people in the Everest Region. It is famous for its masked dances. This festival honors guru Rinpoche who established buddhism in Tibet. There are public celebrations at the Tengboche, Chiwang and Thame monasteries.
When: Full moon day in October or November
Where: Tengboche monastery and Chiwong monastery.
Festivals of Nepal travel tips
Festivals of Nepal etiquette
As a foreigner witnessing the festivals of Nepal I always felt very welcome. Despite the fact that many are important religious events, you are free to join the public ceremonies.
Nepali people are used to tourists and are aware of the fact we do not always know their customs. Therefore, they are very forgiving for any faux pas you might make.
Some obvious etiquette does exist when attending one of the festivals of Nepal. Being in Nepal you should dress modestly. Women and Men should cover their shoulders and knees. With most festivals of Nepal, people will wear their best clothes. The obvious exception is Holi when you can buy cheap white tshirts that you can throw away afterwards (or keep as a souvenir).
Taking pictures of any public festivities like dances and performances is not a problem. However, ask permission first if you want to take close up pictures of the local people.
Festivals of Nepal safety
The festivals of Nepal can be a lot of fun, but there are some safety issues to take into account. It is also a time that pickpocketers and scammers are active. Furthermore, most festivals of Nepal attract large crowds of people.
Groups of young men sometimes become rowdy and annoying. The chariot festivals like Bisket Jatra, Indra Jatra and Rato Machendranath in particular cause injuries every year when too many people try to come to close to the moving chariots.
This is not to scare you away. Celebrating the festivals of Nepal is very well possible, even for solo female travellers. However, it is a time to be careful and take necessary precautions. Be wary of pickpocketing. It is better to leave your valuables in your hotel or keep them safe in a moneybelt under your clothes. Bring only what you can loose.
Festivals of Nepal as a solo female traveller
Women should watch out in crowds with a lot of men. Groping and touching does happen and by the time you look who the offender is, it is impossible to say when you see hundreds of people next to you.
Safety is in numbers so try to find other people and join the festival as a group. Other options are to find a view point, like the balcony of your guesthouse and watch the festivities from there.
Look around you. The atmosphere in the crowds can change quickly. Are you surrounded by families, are there other local women present or is it just men. If there are other local women try to stay near them, but if you only see men and you get the feel they are intoxicated it is better to leave the crowds.
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