The Mani Rimdu festival in Nepal: a tourist guide
Mani rimdu is one of the biggest festivals in Nepal celebrated among the Sherpa communities in the Solukhumbu province. A region that is famous for Mount Everest and the very popular Everest Base camp trek as well as the Gokyo Lakes trek.
The Mani Rimdu festival takes 19 days and is celebrated at the monasteries in Tengboche, Thame and Chiwong. During this time the monks at the monasteries pray for the welfare of the world and prepare for the last three days of public rituals.
The last three days of the Mani Rimdu festival are public and people from the region gather to attend. Most impressive are the masked dances performed by the monks of the monastery. Tourists are also welcome to see the Mani Rimdu festival.
This post is a guide for tourists about the Mani Rimdu festival and the best way to experience it at the Tengboche monastery in Nepal. Because Tengboche is located on the hike to Everest Base Camp it is easy to visit and a great opportunity to learn more about the Sherpa people and their culture.
History of the Mani Rimdu festival
Mani Rimdu festival is a festival among the Sherpa people in the Everest region of Nepal. The Sherpa people have their origins in Tibet. They were once a nomadic people that moved from Eastern Tibet to Nepal around 600 years ago. Eventually they settled in the Solukhumbu region that is now part of Nepal.
The Sherpa people in Nepal still follow the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. This was the oldest sect of Buddhism in Tibet and was founded by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century. Guru Rinpoche was a Buddhist master from India that came to Tibet and helped spread the Buddhist religion.
The Mani Rimdu festival marks the founding of the Nyingma School of Buddhism in Tibet by Guru Rinpoche. Central are a number of mythological events that symbolize the victory of good deities over evil demons.
Surprisingly, Mani Rimdu is a relatively new festival. It was first celebrated in the early 1900’s in the Rongbuk monastery in Tibet. At that time there were few monasteries in the Solukhumbu region. In 1916 the Tengboche monastery was established and Mani Rimdu became one of the most important events in the year.
Nowadays Mani Rimdu has big celebrations at the monasteries in Tengboche, Chiwong and Thame in Nepal. Dates differ every year as it is according to the Tibetan Lunar calendar. In Tengboche it starts on the full moon of October and Chiwong a month later on the full moon of November.
The Mani Rimdu Festival day by day
Most of the Mani Rimdu festival happens behind closed doors and is not open to the public. It is a very important event for the monks at the monasteries in Tengboche, Chiwong and Thame that conduct the private and somewhat secretive ceremonies.
First 15 days
The first official day is the new moon day in the month of October or November. On this day elaborate site and preparation rituals are performed and the monks start with the drawing of a sand mandala in the courtyard of the monastery.
The following days the monks will spend hundreds of hours preparing ritual objects, arranging the ornaments and ritual practice leading up to the public event. This involves a number of sacred texts and many hours of prayers and meditation.
The main rituals of Mani Rimdu envision the core principles of Tibetan Buddhist meditation with the inner goal to generate wisdom and compassion on earth. Monks pray to the patron deities to ask for blessings and protection for all mankind.
The public events start on the full moon day in October or November. The first public ceremony is also one of the most important. At the Wong Empowerment ceremony the Sherpa people gather to seek blessings from the Rinpoche. A highly ranked monk of the monastery.
Again the day starts with lots of private rituals and prayers at the monastery before the main ceremony begins. A crowd will gather at the courtyard of the monastery to see the procession in which the Rinpoche will be brought to a special stage where he takes his seat. Foreigners are also free to come and see the ceremony.
The procession is interesting to see as the monks in their colorful robes walk to the Rinpoche’s throne while playing horns, cymbals and drums. The yellow hats and red robes are characteristic of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
One of the monks stands out for wearing a mask with a smiling face and white beard. Throughout the festival he has a bit of a comic role playing someone with not much knowledge, but good intentions. His message is that being humble and sincere counts just as much as expertise.
The crowd around the Rinpoche’s throne will grow bigger. The people will wear their best clothes, often the traditional dress of the Sherpa people. For foreigners this can be a long ceremony of prayers and citing of religious texts, but there is enough to see.
Finally the people are allowed to give offerings to the monks who sit in front of the throne. All donations are registered and announced. Again this may take a while. The ceremony ends with the actual empowerment as people may seek their blessings from the Rinpoche for a long and healthy life.
This looks quite chaotic as crowds of people push themselves towards the throne. Foreigners are also free to join and get their blessings. Religious people also get a rilwu, a blessed pill made out of rice flour and secret sacred substances.
For local people the Wong empowerment is the most important ceremony of the Mani Rimdu festival. For foreigners, the day of the sacred masked dances are the most impressive to see.
There are fifteen dances that each have a different story to tell. The central theme is how Guru Rinpoche spread Buddhism and how he overcame the evil demons. Intertwined are many Buddhist teachings promoting compassion and wisdom.
Gold Libation dance: Black hat dancers make offerings of Gold Libation to the protector deities. They symbolize important masters who can suppress demons and transform evil forces into positive forces
Ging dance: The Ging are dancers that are funny, but in the meantime chase away the demons to proclaim the victory of Buddhism.
Dorjo Drolo dance: Dorje Drolo was a fierce manifestation of Guru Rinpoche that conquered the demons in Tibet
Drum dance: dance with drums to honor Guru Rinpoche
The Long life man: more a comic play than a dance, the long life man plays a humble man that means well, but doesn’t know much, making the crowd laugh with his ignorance.
Liberation dance: One of the most important dances of Mani Rimdu with the central theme of ritual sacrifice to gain liberation. Includes magicians and skeletons.
Protector dance: Dancers represent the protector deities that should protect mankind from evil forces.
Shar lung and the black men: Dance dedicated to Shar lung, the protector god of the Rongbuk monastery in Tibet
Sky walkers dance: Dance including the youngest monks of the monastery to show they enjoy the celebration.
Seer: This is also more of a comic play than a dance. The long performance of satirical jokes is very popular among the Sherpa.
The remainder dance: A short dance in which leftover foods are given to the dancers
The sword dance: An important dance that is a continuation of the Liberation dance about ritual sacrifice
The magic weapon dance: This dance is about the magic weapon that can help fight the enemy within people’s own minds. This weapon is represented by a torma, the dough pyramids on the altar. The dancers take the torma and hurl them as a weapon
The Ensemble: A dance to invoke the deities that must suppress the evil demons.
Auspicious Omens: last prayers to conclude the day. The local Sherpa people will stay in the monastery’s courtyard till late night and celebrate by singing local folk songs.
Jinsak Fire Puja
The fire puja is one of the most quiet public ceremonies at Mani Rimdu. Most people will already be on their way home, but for the monks the festival is not finished yet. They have one more day of prayers and rituals. Some indoors in private, others outdoors in public, although there are few spectators.
Early morning there will be the Burnt Offering in the courtyard. Offerings of ghee butter, grains and firewood are burned to appease the fire god Agni. For those that do come to see the fire prayer there is some food. Villagers often take some of the ashes as they believe it brings good luck.
At last, the mandala in the temple that was made in the first days of the festival is dismantled. The next day the sand is brought to the river and offered to the serpent gods.
The Mani Rimdu Festival Practicalities
Mani Rimdu Festival Etiquette
As a foreigner witnessing the Mani Rimdu festival I felt very welcome and the Tibetan hospitality is heartwarming. Despite the fact that it is an important religious event, you are free to join the public ceremonies like the local Sherpa people.
During the dances I think half of the people watching were foreigners. Foreigners are even invited to get their blessings from the important Rinpoche of the monastery at the Empowerment ceremony the day before.
As Tengboche is on the famous trek to Everest Base Camp, the people are used to seeing 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. Being in Nepal you should dress modestly. As you are high up in the mountains this will probably not be much of an issue. With the cold temperatures I recommend wearing multiple layers of clothing to stay warm.
Also do not disturb the ceremonies by loud talking or touching the ritual objects. Taking pictures of the masked dances is not a problem. However, ask permission first if you want to take close up pictures of the local people.
Mani Rimdu Festival Insider tips
The ceremonies are colorful and offer a unique insight into the unique culture of the Sherpa people. Both the Empowerment ceremony and the Masked dances are very impressive to experience.
That said, they can be long events and without any background information it will be difficult to understand what is happening most of the time. For more background information on the festival I can recommend the book Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal by Robert J.Kuhn.
My biggest insider tip is to dress warm. The day of the Cham dances is particularly long and as you will be sitting still most of the time you get cold easily. It is by the way no problem to leave in between and return later. Many people do so to drink tea, eat something or take a small break.
When is the Mani Rimdu festival
The exact dates differ every year, but the public ceremonies start on the full moon of October in Tengboche and the full moon of November in Chiwong.
This also happens to be the best time for trekking and areound the same time as the Tihar festival. Visiting the Mani Rimdu festival in Tengboche is therefore easy to combine with the Jiri to Lukla trek, the Gokyo lakes trek or the Everest Base Camp trek. They are among the most spectacular tea house treks in Nepal.
Chiwong and Thame are also relatively easy to visit. Chiwong is a 4 to 5 hour hike from Phaplu. You can reach Phaplu by plane or a day long bus journey from Kathmandu.
Thame monastery celebrates Mani Rimdu 6 months after Tengboche. Which is usually in May. Thame is a full day hike from Namche bazaar.
How to get to Tengboche
Tengboche is on the Everest Base Camp trek and requires a couple of days hiking. The quickest way is to fly from Kathmandu into Lukla. From there it is 2 days of hiking to Namche bazaar. Tengboche is another day of hiking from Namche bazaar.
A more sustainable way to reach Tengboche is to travel overland and do the Jiri to Lukla trek.
Tengboche is on the Everest Base Camp trek and has plenty of trekkers lodges. However, they do fill up during the Mani rimdu festival. Unfortunately you can not book lodges online beforehand. I therefore recommend you to come 2 days earlier to secure a room.
Tengboche is also a great place to acclimatize to the height before going higher up to Everest Base Camp or the Gokyo Lakes.
During the festival most lodges will be completely fully booked and it is at your lodge that you will most likely eat. Being in Sherpa country you can try Tibetan food like momo’s or thukpa as well as Nepali food like dahl bath.
The Tengboche monastery is at 3870 meters and therefore altitude sickness may be a problem. Experts advise to not ascend more than 300 – 400 meters per day once you are above 3000 meters high.
Whether you hike from Lukla to Jiri or fly directly into Lukla it is important to take at least one acclimatization day in Namche bazaar.
The key to prevent altitude sickness is to take it slow, give your body enough time to adjust to the height and to drink enough water. Diamox is a medicine that might help your body to acclimatize, but will not cure altitude sickness once you have severe symptoms. In that case, the only remedy is to go down to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
Mild symptoms may include being tired and more easily out of breath. More severe symptoms of high altitude sickness are headache, dizziness, trouble sleeping, breathing problems, loss of appetite and nausea.
Take these symptoms seriously and watch out for symptoms in others, even in your nepali guides or porters. It is a misconception that they cannot get altitude sickness.
Books and Guides
For more background information on the festival I can recommend the book Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal by Robert J.Kuhn.
Cicerone and trailblazer both have excellent and comprehensive guides about treks in Nepal with detailed guides about the Everest region. Another option is the Lonely Planet’s trekking in the Nepal Himalayas guide.
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