Dashain or Vijaya Dashami
Dashain or Vijaya Dashami is the most significant Hindu Festival in Nepal.
Dashain or Vijaya Dashami is the longest and most significant Hindu festival 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 the 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 is taken out in every village, town, and city on the tenth day to rejoice in the victory of good over evil.
The remaining five days mark the celebration of blessings from the goddess to commemorate 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 Durga’s various manifestations, such as Mahakali, the goddess of divine power (shakti) and action; Parvati, a dedicated wife and mother; and 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 is the victory of the gods over the demons. Despite this festival being celebrated to honour Durga, she is believed to have had all gods and goddesses’ collective strength to defeat the monster Mahisasura. The first nine days represent the fierce battle between Durga and the beast.
Legend has it that gods were defenceless against the army of demons led by Mahisasura. So the gods were instructed to contribute a part of their divine prowess to form a new goddess to defeat the demons. Hence, Mahisasura Mardini’s formation – 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 when Durga, combining power with the gods and goddesses, defeats Mahisasura.
Rituals of the fifteen days
Every single day of the fifteen-day festival holds its importance. Ghatasthapana is the first day of the celebration. Ghata or Kalash means “holy vessel,” and sthapana means to inaugurate. Kalash symbolises Durga covered and purified with cow dung, spruced up with flowers, and placed in a hallowed room where local terms are known as ‘puja or Dashain Ghar’ for prayer. Like most Hindu festivals in Nepal, cow dung is utilised to clean and 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, 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 throughout 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 this festival’s final day. 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 ceremonies conjure the goddess Durga to reside within the Kalash.
The Kalash and sand are sprinkled with water and are 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 them purest form during this puja. The wheatgrass symbolises wealth and prosperity, and the yellow ‘jamara’ is considered auspicious.
The next phase of the festival that brings significant excitement comes with Fulapati, also known as Saptami – the seventh day of the celebrations. Fulpati, meaning sacred flowers and leaves, are collected for three days from neighbouring forests. The family members are not allowed to go inside the puja ghar from this day onwards. Instead, a unique ceremony occurs in Kathmandu valley when the jamara and Kalash used by the Royal family are brought from their ancestral home in Gorkha in a three-day march complete with military ceremony priests.
Government officers dress in traditional attire while waiting for the arrival of pulpati on the route to join the parade to Hanuman Dhoka. First, the fulpati and the Kalash, including the jamara, are placed in the Royal Dashain Ghar. Then, 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 is the eighth day when animal sacrifices occur in most Hindu homes throughout Nepal. An exciting practice used to be animal offering was offered alive to be left in the Goddess’ temple’s vicinity as an offering. However, some staunch Hindus fast today, and vegetarians offer vegetables such as radishes, coconuts, eggs, and calabash (bottle gourd) instead of animals. These days the families that make an animal sacrifice consume the meat during this festival.
The following night is known as Kal Ratri. Hundreds of male chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and water buffaloes are sacrificed in temples dedicated to Durga, the old palace, police, and army barracks throughout the nation.
Most 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. For example, Mahisasura is believed to have taken a buffalo on the final day of his battle with goddess Durga, which is why buffalo sacrifice occurs. 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 in this battle.
Many believe that one can purify oneself by drinking water from the hands of these nine girls. Moreover, the girls are fed fruits and delicacies and are 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, 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 protects any machinery from damage or destruction for the year.
The tenth day is Dashami, the day to celebrate the victory of the gods over the demons and is marked by Hindus worldwide. It was the day when Durga killed Mahisasur, and Ravana (King of Lanka in 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, a mixture of rice, vermillion, and yoghurt on the recipients’ forehead. In modern times, the 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 and foreigners queue outside the former King’s residence 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 to collect sal (Shorea robusta) leaves for weaving them into leave plates. The leave plates are duna and tapari (small and large bowls), and rikapi (plates) used during the puja ceremonies. The Hindus are particular about the freshness and purity of the puja’s utensils, so they only use freshly made leave bowls and plates.
These eco-friendly utensils are also used for serving food to relatives and guests; the 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, serves rice, chapati, puri (friend chapati), sel roti (Nepalese doughnut), etcetera. Of course, everything utilised 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, but there are other forms of celebrations. 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, etc. However, this is rapidly changing with people’s improved economic state 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 favourite thing to do before and during this festival. The skies are filled with flying kites. These colourful 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 the Daphne plant). The youngsters try to ‘fight kites’ by cutting the strings.
Another traditional practice is building wooden Ferris wheels and swings set up with tall bamboo 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 possible, 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. In addition, houses get cleaned and painted—every sector of the economy gains from this festival when the citizens get lavish for this famous festival.
A new trend has begun when crowds of domestic tourists visit places of interest within the country, go trekking and go overseas during this holiday period has started to boom.
There is a severe shortage of seats on the vehicles leaving Kathmandu valley. People from other districts want to go home to celebrate this festival, and migrant workers returning from the middle east, Malaysia, and other countries for this festival. Kathmandu witnessed an exodus of 3 million people leaving the valley to celebrate this festival with their near and dear ones.
Dashain 2020. There was a fewer ‘exodus’ of migrant workers leaving Kathmandu to celebrate Hindus’ most important festival in Nepal due to COVID-19. However, the media and government have been advising citizens to avoid large gatherings or, better still, visit the elders considered vulnerable to the neuvo coronavirus a miss.