Dashain or Vijaya Dashami is the most significant Hindu Festival in Nepal.
Dashain or Vijaya Dashami is the longest, and most significant Hindu festival that is widely celebrated throughout Nepal. It is fifteen days in length; it falls on the bright half of the lunar month of Ashoj which usually falls between September/October and ends on the day of full moon. The Goddess Durga is worshipped in her numerous manifestations during the first nine days known as Navratri until the ninth evening - Navratri. A grand procession of idols representing various Hindu gods and goddesses are taken out in every villages, towns, and cities on the tenth day to rejoice the victory of good over evil.
The remaining five days mark the celebration of blessings from the goddess to mark the victory. Like many religious festivals, Dashain involves many prayer (puja) rituals, generous offerings of exceptional food, fruits, animal sacrifices and blessing from the family elders followed by plenty of merrymaking.
The first three nights are dedicated to various manifestations of Durga such as Mahakali, the goddess of divine power (shakti) and action; Parvati a dedicated wife and mother, and as Kali the goddess of destruction. The next three nights are devoted to Mahalaxmi, the goddess of purity and wealth. The final three nights are dedicated to Maha Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and arts.
As usual, there are some mythological tales connected to this festival. The most common one being the victory of the gods over the demons. Despite this festival being celebrated to honor Durga, she is believed to have had the collective strength of all gods and goddesses to defeat the demon Mahisasura. The first nine days represents the fierce battle that was fought between Durga and the beast.
Legend has it that gods were defenseless against the army of demons led Mahisasura. The gods were instructed to contribute a part of their divine prowess to form a new goddess to defeat the demons. Hence the formation of Mahisasura Mardini - another name for this manifestation of Durga was devised with the combined might of 330 million Hindu gods and goddesses. Dashami or the tenth day is celebrated as it was the day when Durga with the combined power of the gods and goddesses defeated Mahisasura.
Rituals of the fifteen days
Every single day of the fifteen-day festivals holds its own importance. Ghatasthapana is the first day of the celebration. Ghata or Kalash means "holy vessel" and sthapana means to inaugurate. Kalash that symbolizes Durga is covered and purified with cow dung, spruced up with flowers and gets placed in a hallowed room which local terms are known as 'puja or Dashain Ghar' for prayer. Like during most Hindu festivals in Nepal, cow dung is utilized to clean, paint the house and porch as it is believed to be holy and works as a purifier. A rectangular area is set aside to place the Kalash in the middle. Barley seeds, which are believed to be pure are placed around the Kalash.
In ancient times these seeds were brought from the bed of a holy river. The Kalash is treated as a representation of the goddess and is worshipped all through the festival. On the day of Ghatasthapana, Shailaputri, another form of Durga is worshipped. An oil lamp known locally as 'diyo' is lit throughout the Dashain until the final day of this festival. Hindus worship the Kalash during the evening and morning rituals. The rituals are either led by Brahmin priests or the elder of the household. These rituals are performed during auspicious moments; astrologers determine these moments. The rituals take place to conjure the goddess Durga to reside within the Kalash.
The Kalash and sand are sprinkled with water and is protected from the sun throughout Navratri. The barley seeds grow into five or six-inch tall wheatgrass called jamara by the tenth day. It is used on the day of tika to bless the family members by the elders. The barley seeds are sown in every household to keep it in its purest form during this puja. The wheatgrass is taken as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, and the yellow 'jamara' is considered to be auspicious.
The next phase of the festival that brings significant excitement comes with Fulapati which is also known as Saptam - the seventh day of the celebrations. Fulpati meaning sacred flowers and leaves are collected for three days from neighboring forests. The female members of the family are not allowed to go inside the puja ghar from this day onwards. A unique ceremony takes place in Kathmandu valley on this day when the jamara and Kalash used by the Royal family are brought from their ancestral home in Gorkha in a three-day long march complete with military ceremony and priests.
Government officers dress up in traditional attire while waiting for the arrival of pulpati on the route to join the parade to Hanuman Dhoka. The fulpati along with the Kalash including the jamara is placed in the Royal Dashain Ghar. The Nepalese army fires a gun salute as the sacred items are being set at the Hanuman Dhoka Palace as the Kings used to observe it - these days the President of the nation witnesses this ceremony.
Maha Ashtami or the eighth-day when animal sacrifices take place in most Hindu homes throughout Nepal. An interesting practice used to be the offering of animals were offered alive to be left in the vicinity of the Goddess' temple as an offering. Some staunch Hindus fast on this day, and vegetarians offer vegetables such as radishes, coconuts, eggs, and calabash (bottle gourd) instead of animals. These days the families that make animal sacrifice consume the meat during this festival.
The following night is known as Kal Ratri. Hundreds of male chicken, ducks, goats, sheep and water buffaloes are sacrificed in temples dedicated to Durga, old palace, police and army barracks throughout the nation.
The majority of the people in Kathmandu make their animal sacrifices at Hanuman Dhoka at Basantapur. All the courtyards are busy night and day during this period.
Navami or the ninth day is the final day of the Navratri. This is the day when most animal sacrifice takes place. Mahisasura is believed to have taken the form of a buffalo on the final day of his battle with goddess Durga which is the reason buffalo sacrifice takes place. Many Hindu families worship Nawa Durga in the form of nine girls in pre-puberty age. These young girls represent the goddesses who joined Durga for this battle.
Many believe that one can purify oneself by drinking water from the hands of these nine girls. The girls are fed all types of fruits and delicacies along with being gifted with money and other things. This day holds higher importance in Kathmandu valley as it is the only day when the Taleju Temple at Hanuman Dhoka is opened to the public.
Thousands of people from all over the valley gather around this temple to offer prayer and animal sacrifices to the goddess. The military makes their animal sacrifice on this day at the courtyard (kot) of Hanuman Dhoka. Foreigners are allowed to witness this festival by the government, hence attracting hundreds of tourists and diplomats to visit the temple on this day. The army band pays homage to the courage and prowess of the goddess by playing war tunes.
The god of creativity is also worshipped on Navami. All factories, weapons, instruments, machines, and vehicles are 'blessed' by the blood of sacrificed animals and vegetarians substitute blood with coconut milk. This is done to protect any type of machinery from the damage of destruction for the year.
The tenth day is Dashami, and this is the day to celebrate the victory of the gods over the demons and is marked by Hindus all over the world. It was the day when Mahisasur was killed by Durga, and Ravana (King of Lanka on the Hindu epic Ramayana) was slain by Rama (a prince of Ayodhya, an incarnation of Vishnu). Moreover, this is the day when younger family members receive the blessings of Durga through their elders. The elders bless the younger family members with jamara, tika that is a mixture of rice, vermillion and yogurt is placed on the forehead of the recipients and in modern times, a gift of money has become an integral part of the blessing. Relatives who live in far-flung places visit their elders to receive the blessing for the next four days.
On the day of Dashami, thousands of Nepalese, as well as foreigners, queue outside the residence of the former king to receive tika and blessings from the King. The final and fifteenth day of Dashain falls on the full moon day.
Nepali women get busy with the preparation for this long-awaited festival. Women in villages walk for hours on end to collect sal (Shorea robusta) leaves to weave them into leave plates. The leave plates are called duna and tapari (small and large bowls) and rikapi (plates) which are used during the puja ceremonies. The Hindus are particular about the freshness and purity of the utensils that are used for the puja which is why they only use the freshly made leave bowls and plates.
These eco-friendly utensils are also used for serving food to the relatives and guests, dune which is smaller in size is also used for distributing Prashad (blessed food that comes in the form of fruits, sweetmeats etcetera). Tapari the larger utensil is used to serve vegetables, meat, and sweets. Rikapi the plate is used to serve rice, chapati, puri (friend chapati), sel roti (Nepalese doughnut) etcetera. Everything utilized for the puja has to be new fresh and homemade (less homemade these days in cities and towns).
No doubt the religious aspects of the festival are of utmost importance, there are other forms of celebrations as well. This festival is associated with buying new clothes, eating good food, drinking and a time to chill out with friends and family. For people in rural parts of Nepal, this is one of the few times they buy new clothes, indulge in eating etcetera; however, this is rapidly changing with improved economic state of people in remote parts of the country.
Various forms of gambling are associated with the Dashain festival. It is the only gambling is allowed in public places. Friends and relatives invite each other to their house to eat, drink gamble and merrymaking.
Fun and games.
Kite flying is a favorite thing to do just before and during this festival. The skies are filled with flying kites. These colorful kites are flown from the rooftops and fields. It is believed that the kites are sent to request the gods not to send any more rain. Traditional kites were made from lokta paper (made from the pulp of Daphne plant). The youngsters try to 'fight kites' by cutting the strings.
Another traditional practice is to build wooden Ferris wheels and swings that are set up with tall bamboos on four corners; it has a jute rope with a small wooden seat in the middle. Young boys and men try to impress the girls by swinging as high as they can, and a large group of people gathers around to see who can go the highest.
The atmosphere during Dashain
Dashain is one of the most critical economic periods of the fiscal year; people splurge to buy new clothes, animals, food, vehicles etcetera. Houses get cleaned and painted. Every sector of the economic gains from this festival when the citizens get lavish for this famous festival.
A new trend has begun when throngs of domestic tourists visit places of interests within the country, go trekking and going overseas during this holiday period has started to boom
There is a severe shortage of seats on the vehicles leaving Kathmandu valley as people from other districts want to go home to celebrate this festival along with migrant workers returning from the middle east, Malaysia and other countries for this festival. Kathmandu witnesses an exodus of up to 3 million people leaving the valley to celebrate this festival with their near and dear one.
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