You’re Invited! A Guide to a Celebration of Dashain
As people come together to light their homes with candles and tealights, Diwali makes its entrance to many Hindu, Sikh, and Jain households. Whilst this is a well-known celebration, many do not know of another Hindu festival, Dashain. Here is a guide to a celebration of Dashain!
Photo Credit: Nepal Sanctuary Treks. This is what one would typically see during Dashain, as the green shoots in the Jamara, there is Tika that will be placed on loved ones' foreheads, and money and fruit used as gifts.
What is Dashain?
As the sound of luggage clatters before the door, the echoing sound of laughter travels through the house, accompanied by the bubbling of the food cooking, filling the air with the smell of beautiful spices, the peak of Nepal’s biggest festival is here, Dashain.
Like most of South Asia, Nepal works around the lunar calendar and thus the festival falls in September or October, starting from the Shukla Paksha (the bright lunar moon) of the month of Ashwin and ending on Purnima (the full moon).
Dashain brings the Nepalese diaspora far and wide to join the triumph of good over evil. Rooted in Hindu mythology, Dashain is widely celebrated by Nepalese Hindus. The story begins with Mahishasura (water buffalo demon) being born during a time when the Gods and demons were constantly fighting. Mahishasura began penance by praying to Brahma (the creator). Brahma appears before Mahishasura asking for a boon, a request that no God or man would be able to kill him—taking into the fact he believed no woman could ever kill him.
After granting this boon, Mahishasura began fighting against the Gods. Divine weapons—including those belonging to Lord Vishnu and Indra—were ineffective and Mahishasura became victorious, taking their place on the throne. The Gods had to come together, and they knew only a woman could kill Mahishasura. However, they realised there was no woman in the three worlds (Hell, Heaven and Earth) powerful enough to kill Mahishasura. Thus, Lord Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma created Durga.
The creation of Durga embodies her creators' collective energy, a derivative from the male divinities and the true source of their inner powers, thus greater than any of them. She is associated with motherhood, depicted riding a tiger and having 8 or 10 arms, each holding a special weapon of one of the gods who gave them to her for battle against Mahishasura.
Durga and Mahishasura engage in a fierce battle that raged on for nine days, and on the tenth day, she beheads Mahishasura, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.
Photo Credit: The Goddess Garden. This is an image of Durga depicted as a beautiful woman with several arms and weapons which were used to kill Mahishasura.
As one of Nepal’s biggest and most anticipated festivals, it is celebrated over the course of several days, and during that time, public buildings such as schools and government agencies are shut down to allow families to come together and commemorate Dashain truly.
Nepal is home to many distinct ethnic groups and whilst the celebration of Dashain is similar across those who follow Hinduism, they all have their unique way of celebrating. The Newar people [in particular] have a special way of celebrating Dashain, or in the Newari tongue, Mohani.
The Newar people, residing predominantly in the Kathmandu Valley Bhaktapur and Patan celebrate Dashain uniquely. The appearance of the Nava Durga Deity is the first thing that only Bhaktapurians celebrate throughout Mohani. The Newar people will visit the Nava Durga temples from the first day of Mohani till the date of Tika (Dashami), along with giving tributes to the Goddess Durga holding one of the most popular masked festivals dances in Nepal…the Navadurga dance.
The First Day - Ghatasthapana
Several households across Nepal begin the festivities by setting up the Kalash which is a holy vessel or pot, representing the Goddess Durga, often with her image embossed onto it. The vessel is used to sow Jamara which is typically made from maize or barley shoots. The sowing and growth take place in the Puja/Dahsian Ghar of the house, which is the sacred place dedicated to the Gods. According to Hindu thought, all that exists in the universe belongs to the Supreme Lord, and therefore understand the real owner of the house is the Lord.
The Seventh Day - Phulpati
During the first seven days, each household waits for the Jamara to grow. The Jamara is checked on by the oldest male in the household, using holy water and praying for it twice a day. The arrival of the seventh day is when the Jamara is grown, cultivated, and worshipped signifying the beginning of decorations and the closure of government buildings. Phulpati translates to ‘Flower Leaf’ and houses are beautifully decorated with various kinds of flowers and plants.
The Eighth Day - Maha Ashtami
Maha Ashtami [also called Kalarati] is the night that is dedicated to the memory of Durga slaying Mahishasura. Typically, twenty-five buffaloes are sacrificed in front of the Taleju Temple located in Bhaktapur Durar Square. The Newar people, after the signifying of the celebrations of day seven, hold gatherings and feasts such as Kuchhi Bhwey. Members of the family sit in a row and eat traditional Newari foods such as Poha (rice grains that have been soaked, dried, flattened and roasted); Bara (lentil patty); Choyla (spicy meat dish, typically buffalo) and sel roti (ring-shaped sweet rice bread).
Photo Credit: Inside Himalayas. Here is a typical plate of traditional Newari food. The Poha is in the centre with Bara on top along with potatoes, eggs, spinach etc.
Photo Credit: Kathmandu Post. Here is a plate of Sel Roti. This crunchy golden-brown halo is commonly made with four ingredients: uncooked rice grains, soaked and ground, chamal; clarified butter, ghiuand sugar, and oil for deep frying.
The auspicious celebration is accompanied by a kite season as family and friends come together to fly kites into the breezy sky. All of this is followed by the presence of the beautiful melodies of the flutes and the banging of the drums harmonising together, highlighting the artistry of Malashree Dhun (instrumental music heard solely during Dashain).
Photo Credit: Online Khabar. Here it is shown silhouettes of people flying their kites during Dashain, just imagine the melodies of the drums and flutes harmonising as well as the laughter of children as they enjoy their day.
The significance pertaining to the kites is one of many, as kites are flown by the Newar people to let their ancestors know that they are doing fine, and acts as a medium to allow all living beings on Earth to find a way to heaven. In other myths, the kite season acts as a message to Lord Indra [who is known as the God of rain] requesting the rain to stop to allow farmers to harvest their grains. After all, Mohani signifies the beginning of the harvest.
The Ninth Day - Maha Navami
On the ninth day, devotees will attend the temples of Kali and Durga and worship them. Animal sacrifices are made because, in Hindu mythology, Kali is one of the fiercest manifestations of Durga. Kali is often appearing in the form of rage anger and thirst for blood, therefore many people sacrifice animals to the Gods. In Newari households, animals such as chickens, goats, and buffalos are usually sacrificed.
The Tenth Day - Vijaya Dashami
Dashami is known as the day of blessings. In the Newar tongue, this day is called Chalan where the red and orange Tika—which is a red vermillion powder mixed with water/curd along with Mohni (black-coloured tika)—is placed on foreheads as blessings. The elders in each household will generally place Tika on the younger families' forehead to bless them with an abundance of life along with gifts of money. Also, the Jamara that was sown on the first day is used as decoration for the hair.
Photo Credit: Holidify. This is an image of the Tika and Jamara, which is used to bless family members and Jamara to decorate the hair.
The Fifteenth Day - Kojagrat Puja
The final day of Dashain marks the night of Kojagrat Puja. This brings the festivities to an end on a full moon night. Laxmi [the Goddess of wealth] is worshipped on the last day. There is a belief that the Goddess Laxmi will bless those who will be awake the whole night, hence Kojagrat also means someone ‘who is awake’. During this day family spend the night together playing cards as a way to stay awake and enjoy the last beautiful moments of Dashain.
Modern Day… Issues?
Whilst Dashain is a centuries-old tradition withstanding the test of time—and is highly important amongst the Nepalese Hindu community—the sacrificial killings of animals have sparked controversy. Petitions have called out the government for mass slaughter with many animals right activists groups challenging the status quo of this ancient ritual and calling for the use of pumpkins and coconuts as opposed to animals.
It is difficult to determine the future of this festival, as many households may begin to phase out the sacrificial killings as vegetarian and vegan diets continue to grow. However, the total government banning this ritual may cause uproar and claim the erasure of Nepalese Hindu culture.