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10 Amazing Festivals in the Himalayas

The Himalayas are one of the most surreal places on Earth. The first thing that comes to our mind when we talk about the Himalayas are the snow-capped mountains, glacier lakes, and wildlife because for long it has been popularised that way. But beyond the landscapes, the Himalayas of Nepal also house unique and exotic culture and festivals, most of which is still alien to many. Hence, digging a little deeper will undoubtedly give a different perspective to the Himalayas. Who knows, you might even want to combine your next visit to Nepal with one of these festivals! Here are the 10 Most Popular Festivals of great significance celebrated in the Himalayas of Nepal.

Tiji

Tiji is a three-day masked dance festival celebrated annually with high significance in the last forbidden kingdom of Lo-Manthang. You would be fascinated to know that Tiji (as we commonly call it) is a slurred version of ‘Tenchi’ which again is just an abbreviation of the term ‘Tempa Chirim.’ People believe that a deity known as Dorjee Shunu was reborn in the kingdom of Lo to destruct the evil and sufferings created by demons on the earth. By performing several powerful dances and taking various forms, he single-handedly defeated the demons to restore peace in the country. Ever since, this masked festival of dances is celebrated to mark the victory of good over evil. These days, the grandeur of this colorful festival attracts hundreds of tourists from different parts of the world.

Tiji is celebrated between the 27th to 29th days of third Tibetan month (around mid/end of May). Before the main event, a ‘tsowo’ (the main dancer of the ceremony who embodies Dorjee Shunu) is selected from the monks of Lo Manthang’s Choede Monastery based on the superiority of rank and precedence. The one who qualifies have to receive Phurba empowerment from a high lama of Shakyapa clan, must be very well acquainted with the verses of the scriptures, has to know the complete rituals and practice the dance steps to lead the ceremony for the three days. The tsowo must undergo a recluse for three months in outright isolation in the monastery to prepare himself for Tiji. The only people who can accompany him are other Lamas who will be performing the masked dance festival disguised as different characters.
Throughout the main event days of three days, the religious assembly starts in the Thubchen monastery every morning.

The evening of Day 1: The festivity commences with a Thangka display of Guru Padmasambhava (said to be older than 400 years) in the square in front of Tasi Gephel palace in the city of Lomanthang. The monks in pointed red hats arrive, and the mask dances begin after chanting of prayers. It represents the summoning of the protective deities and preparing the soil where dancers perform.

The evening of Day 2: A new Thangka is displayed and a series of masked dances- Ngacham, Manle Dhakey Do, and Animal Dances depicting various characters are performed in the square. The dances of the second day are more aggressive, and the final dance ‘Dhakey’ depicts the slaying of the demon by piercing of straw effigy by tsowo with a dagger. People of the royal family must show their presence in specific events of the second day!

Final Event day: At first, there is an offering ceremony guided by tsowo. Then a procession is led by the monks/king and the people of Lo to Solang (a place outside the city walls), where the final exorcism is performed by Dorjee Shunu to establish peace by defeating the devil and evil forces from the world. The ultimate celebration takes place by offering prayers, exchanging khatas, the rejoicing sounds of songs and dance by gathering in the same courtyard!
Here is a video of Tiji festival by Ghumante.

Yartung

Yartung is perhaps the most famous festival in Mustang and Manang regions, and many trekkers try and coincide with their trek so that they can witness this festival. It is basically 4 days of debauchery and daredevilry. The main attractions of this festival are archery contest, horse riding and not to forget, lots of drinking! Yartung is celebrated just before the harvest is brought and right after the plantation ends. “Yar” means ‘monsoon’ and “Tung” means ‘end.’ So basically it means the end of monsoon. This is the time when the Himali people have more time than ever and decide to make the best use of this boring period. Yartung festival is also famous for the horse racing festival because of the incredible displays of horsemanship by the young lads. The racing of the horse happens bareback or saddled. One race requires the riders to pick a silk scarf from the ground while running on the horseback at full speed. Another competition tests the riders’ target skills as they have to throw stones at a target whilst on horseback at great speeds. The targets represent the evils and obstacles to a prosperous life they say. Archery competitions are also organized along with merrymaking and drinking excessively. It will definitely be a fun festival to witness. Yartung is celebrated on the full moon day of August every year.

Here are the predicted dates for the next four years (dates may not be 100% accurate, so it is wise to confirm when the festival nears). The given dates are the last days of the 4-day festival: 2019: 15 August, Thursday 2020: 3 August, Monday 2021: 22 August, Sunday. Having said that, different places celebrate Yartung on different dates. The one that is celebrated in the Muktinath region coincides with the Janai Purnima dates.

Mani Rimdu

This great festival is dedicated to the Lord of the Dance who closely resembles Avalokiteshvara, The Buddha of Compassion. While the Tengboche edition of this festival is now the most famous, it has its roots in a similar festival in Rongphu Monastery beyond Everest. Rongphu, in turn, received it from that great center of Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism- The Mindrolling Monastery in Central Tibet.
The festival lasts for around 19 days of which only the last three are open to the public. The entire festival can be broken down into creative and destructive parts. A word of caution about the word ‘destructive’ is due here. While we carnal beings see creation and destruction as mutually exclusive, diagonally opposite even, under Tibetan Buddhism this duality is seen as complementary. As such the word ‘destructive’ has no negative connotation as destruction is central to the existence of creation.
The creative part is set to coincide with the waxing moon and includes such events as a construction of the symbol of the universe (the colorful Sand Mandala), spiritual medicine (Mani Rilwu) and butter offerings (Torma). The monks also recite prayers for the well being of the universe during this period. The creative period comes to a climax during the full moon when the gate of the monastery is opened to the public to receive blessings (Wong). The next day is the most anticipated part of the festival. Various dances are performed on this day with each one more amazing than the other. Most of the performances symbolize the destruction of negative forces. There are also numerous comical interludes in between. The day after the masked dances, there is a fire ritual (Jinsak) in which evil is destroyed symbolically. The meticulously created mandala is also destroyed during this day.

The best places to experience Mani Rimdu are Tengboche Monastery (Khumbu, Everest Region), Chiwong Monastery (Solu, Everest Region) and Thame Monastery (Thame, Khumbu).

Dumji

Dumji is one of the most important festivals of the Sherpas and commemorates the birth of the legendary Guru Padmasambhava. While in the rest of the world the Guru’s birthday is celebrated in the tenth day of the sixth Tibetan month, here in Khumbu it is celebrated a month earlier and festivities begin on the first day of the fifth month. The first 6 days are usually preparative with the villagers going to the designated organizer’s homes to lend them a hand. The festival proper begins on the seventh day when the flagpole is hoisted in the monastery. In the following days, there are masked dances, fire rituals, changing of prayer flags around the village and most importantly the worship of Khumbila, the patron deity of the entire Khumbu region.

This festival is celebrated in the five communities of Phakding, Namche, Khumjung, Thame, and Pangboche, with the Namche and Khumjung editions deserving a special mention. Very few outsiders get to see this festival though as it happens in June-July when the monsoon is in full swing. However, if you want to see this amazing festival in 2019, July 9-12 is the time to go for the most happening four days of the festival.

Lha Phewa festival

Among the many 12 years festivals Nepal has, Lha Phewa (also spelled La Phewa) is the one that is celebrated by the Thakalis of the Thaksatsae region (collection of 100 villages). Lha Phewa in Thakali means “coming of the gods.” Another 12-year festival celebrated by the Thakalis is the Pomo Ama which is unique to the panch gaon (five villages), more specifically the Thini region. Lha Phewa is a big deal particularly in the Larjung, Kobang areas of Annapurna Circuit. The four Thakali clans who live here are Gauchan, Tulachan, Sherchan, and Bhattachan. And they all have a deity and a temple of their own. Every 12 years these deities are taken out from their temple (known as ‘Lakhang’ which means god’s house) and are worshipped. Each clan has a priest of their own who is in charge of taking care of their god. For the entire duration of the festival each priest dresses in the color of their clan. The Gauchan’s color is red, and the deity is Elephant, Tulachan’s color is green, and the deity is Water Monster, Sherchan’s color is white, and the deity is Lion, and finally Bhattachan’s color is black, and the deity is the yak.  Since they have to wait for 12 long years to finally be able to celebrate Lha Phewa, when it finally arrives they celebrate it with great vigor, and it lasts for 14 days. The last time this festival took place was in 2017, which means you will have to wait until 2029 for the next one. The festival generally falls on January.

Lha Phewa festival in Manang
Lha Phewa festival. Photo credit: Sojan Bhattachan

Badhe Festival

Badhe festival was a forgotten festival in Manang until 2004 when the people of Manang made serious efforts for its revival. Badhe festival is basically a performance art in which actors in costumes tell a story about two warring brothers. On the other side, it is a performance about the story of a Ghale king sending his army off to battle. There are two groups, and the narration begins with two brothers visiting a temple. The elder one gets offended when the smaller one enters the temple first. Then the fight begins. They wage a poetic war and one team berates another with traditional ballad songs called dohori. All this is done in a very witty way and role play is never forgotten. To boost the morale of their teams, both sides also display their war skills through role-playing. It is all done for the prosperity of their village and to keep away evil spirits and bad omen. Many years back when Bon religion was dominant, virgin girls were sacrificed during this festival. Later goats replaced human beings and they used to be killed not by slitting their throat but brutally by smashing their heads. The people would think of the goats as their enemies. The time when Bon must have been quite morbid.  It was only later when Buddhism prevailed the sacrifices stopped. Badhe festival is celebrated once every three years on the first day of the 10th month of Tibetan calendar. The last time it was celebrated was in the year 2013. Therefore the next festival is in 2016. Here are the predicted dates for the upcoming four festivals (the dates may not match 100%, so it is advised to confirm when the festival nears): 2019: 27 November, Wednesday 2022: 24 November, Thursday 2025: 21 November, Friday 2028: 17 November, Friday

Janai Purnima

Janai Purnima is a festival of the Hindus, which is celebrated on the full moon day of August. Hindus celebrate this festival by visiting temples and places associated with Lord Shiva and changing Janai. Janai is a white thread regarded as symbol of body, speech and mind, tied the by Hindu men around their chest after Bratabandha. Rest of the people (females and children) tie a sacred yellow thread around their wrist, later supposed to be tied to the tail of a cow in laxmi Puja, which is believed to help them cross River Bhaitarni after his/her death. Along with Pashupatinath temple (Kathmandu) and Kumbeshwor temple (Lalitpur), a lot of Hindus make a pilgrimage to several high altitude lakes of the Himalayas like Gosaikunda lake (Rasuwa), Paanch Pokhari (Sindhupalchowk), and Gokyo lake (Solukhumbu). These lakes, which are supposed to be closely related to lord Shiva, witness a lot of Hindu devotees who go to take a dip in the cold water to wash their sin away. The full moon of August is considered very auspicious by the Shamans as well. And, Gosaikunda is the most popular place to visit during this time of the year, as the local Shamans (Dhami/ Jhankri) from tamang community are also seen flocking here to perform their spiritual dancing and singing ritual on the full moon night. The exotic ritual dance followed by drums and sacred rituals on the full moon night is definitely a sight to see.
Here is a video of Janai Purnima observed in Paanch Pokhari by Ghumante.

Mitha

Mitha (Dhachang) festival is a Manang valley specific festival which is characterized by archery competition. This six days long festival is celebrated to welcome the spring season as the farmers get ready for cultivation season. What do they do then? They bow and arrow! And the young females cheer and throw juniper branches at the males who could hit the target. Imagine the number of girls after a bachelor that gets the most hits! The girls also prepare food and offer drinks to the contestants. The villagers also indulge themselves in singing and dancing. It is very similar to Toranla festival celebrated by the Thakali people in the Kali Gandaki valley. The festival is celebrated in April/May every year.

Losar

Losar is the New Year celebration of the mountain communities like Sherpa, Gurung, Thakali, etc. Rather than public festivities, this is a time of partying with the kin. This festival occurs sometime in Feb/March, the first day of the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. Although this festival is considered prominent in Tibetan Buddhism, history has it that its existence dates back even before the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet. Losar is a 15 days festivity and the first three days have the main celebrations. In Nepal, there are 3 types of Losar: Tamu Losar, Gyalpo losar and Sonam Losar. Losar is celebrated by visting stupas and monasteries, decorating rooftops with colorful prayer flags, singing and dancing in traditional costumes, and gathering with relatives for feasts.

Dhekap

It is as though the spirit of Michael Jackson enters the bodies of monks in various monasteries for they perform a masked dance during the Dhekep festival. On certain days during October/ November people gather in the courtyard of their local gompa and witness the ecstatic masked dance of the monks. It coincides with the Tihar festival of the Hindus.

 

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