As an agricultural country, Nepal’s many festivals are linked to its harvesting seasons. Tihar, the festival of lights, nestles amidst one of such festivities.
“This period of the year is a leisurely time for farmers, as harvesting and storing of grains are already wrapped up. Besides, it’s also the best season—it is neither hot nor cold,” Mukunda Raj Aryal, professor of Nepali history, culture and archeology told The Week.
Celebrated for five days, Tihar is also known as Yama Panchak —the five days of the lord of the netherworld, Yamaraj, the god of death. A few legends surround the festival—Yama’s being the most popular one. Even regarding Yama’s fable, a few interpretations can be found.
One legend has it that Yamaraj annually retires from his works and rests in his sister Yamuna’s house during these five days and receives tika from her on the very last day.
Religious associations and myths aside, the festival is also a gesture of respect and gratefulness to different animals and birds that help farmers to yield better crops. However, though festivals may have become more of formalities at present, their underlying meanings and reasons are worth reviewing.
“In ancient times, festivals were introduced by kings or state leaders to make the laymen understand certain events, or perform tasks and their importance in simpler ways,” observes Rosa Chitrakar, a culture researcher.
Starting on the thirteenth day of the waning moon in the month of Kartik, the first day of Tihar belongs to the Kaag (crow).
“Apart from worshipping the crow as the messengers of the death of god, the birds also play a vital role in keeping our environment clean by eating garbage,” observes culturist Aryal.
Worshiping crows for Nepalis is to revere Lord Yamaraj in a way to avoid bad news that crows may bring in the coming year.
The very next day is Kukur (dog) Tihar, observed by worshiping dogs and offering food to them. Believed to be the guards of Yamaraj’s gate, dogs are not only mentioned in Hindu mythologies but also in Greek epics, points out Aryal.
“To honor the dog means that the gatekeeper of death’s kingdom may ease the soul’s passage into the Netherworld to receive Yamaraj’s judgement,” writes Mary M. Anderson in her book “The Festivals of Nepal” about the particular story.
The third day is revered as Laxmi Puja, when the goddess of wealth Laxmi and cows are worshipped.
“If we analyze the context, cows have always been important for farmers. The gaut (urine), gobar (dung), milk, butter, and curd—the pancha gabya (five products) – from cows have always been indispensable commodities for people,” explains Aryal. “They are the source of wealth— the more the numbers of cows, greater the wealth.”
Laxmi Puja also marks the end of the accounting year for the Newar community.
This year, however, Kukur Tihar and Laxmi Puja have fallen on the same day.
Ox is the other animal that gets special attention during this festival. On the third day, Gobhardan Puja is observed by worshipping oxen and a small miniature mound is made out of gobar.
“Though tractors and vehicles have replaced oxen these days, the animals always played an important role in ancient times—from being cart pullers to tilling fields,” says Aryal.
Apart from helping with daily lives, oxen are also worshipped as they help cows breed. Aryal translated ‘go’ as cow and ‘bardhan’ to mean increasing the number of cattle.
“These traits are the signs of an agricultural society,” observes the professor.
The very same day, the Newar communities observe Mha Puja. And even while observing the rites of this particular event, the king of death and his messenger also are worshipped by Newars.
The five-day affair ends with Bhai Tika. On this day, sisters perform several rites wishing for their brothers’ long life at an auspicious time set aside by astrologers. Yamaraj being the lord of death, special request is made to him and is worshipped in the form of Bimiro (type of citrus fruit) along with his sister Yamuna and Chitragupta, the latter the clerk who records humans’ deeds.
For a year, death is thus delayed.
Though we may have given several names and outlined several reasons to celebrate these five days of Tihar, the festival surely provides us with an opportunity to rekindle our relationships and pay respect to Mother Nature in gratitude.
Tihar: An occasion for cleaning and hygiene
A lot of decoration and cleaning aside, Laxmi Puja sees a number of small rituals that are carried out to please the goddess of wealth. Folklores have it that Goddess Laxmi tours the earth during the night to inspect how she is being worshipped.
Rosa Chitrakar, culture researcher, points out that Nepalis, by nature, pay little attention to hygiene. The current scenario also proves the statement.
“We don’t hesitate to eat our favorite lunch, momo, near the place where garbage is being dumped,” states Chitrakar.
“Festivals have always reasons behind them,” Chitrakar adds, “For laymen in the old days, the festival also traditionally served as a day to clean up the house and maintain hygiene.
For this, houses were coated with a fresh mixture of gobar (cow dung) and rato mato (red clay). Gobar and gaut have always been held as sacred in Nepal and are often used to purify home and body.
“For farmers, the mixture of gaut and gobar has been the best pesticide for their farms,” points out Mukunda Raj Aryal, professor of culture. Cow dung works as insect repellent, observes Chitrakar.
In order to welcome the goddess of wealth, a pathway is made with the help of a mixture of cow dung and rato mato. The pathway from the main door to the puja room is treaded on by the goddess’s footsteps, which are imprinted by a mixture of rice flour and water.