Celebrated by the Newar community of Nepal on the fourth day of Tihar, or in particular, on the New Year’s day of the Nepal Sambat or Newar Calender, Mha Puja literally translates to making offering to one’s body. It is the worship of self, but what is the deeper essence in its several rituals and the entire celebration?
The Week finds out:
“Mha Puja is about worshipping your body in the sense that it provides for your existence, so you pray for a healthy being. Only then can you work in this physical world,” says Kesar Lall Shrestha, poet and writer who has extensively researched on culture and folklore.
However, according to Min Bahadur Shakya, scholar of Newar and Tibetan Buddhism, Mha Puja is about the purification of the body, mind and soul for enlightenment against ignorance and evils of the world.
“As it falls on the New Year day, Buddhist Newars also mark the Puja as an auspicious start to attain the 32 lakshanas or features of the Buddha through righteous conscience and good deeds,” Shakya adds.
Tejeshwor Babu Gwong, cultural expert from Bhaktapur, states that Mha Puja is about self-recognition and understanding.
“To worship your inner self means to respect the truth in you and your existence. If you don’t respect your worth, you can never live a blissful life,” says he.
He also says that Mha Puja and the festival of Tihar are observed during the autumn season “for a reason.”
“In autumn, Nature itself is in its well-wishing splendors, greeting us with ripe fruits and beautiful weather. So this is the time to begin afresh, share Nature’s bounty with loved ones and also make offerings to oneself.”
Gwong explains that there is cultural symbolism associated with every “sagun” or offerings made during the Puja, all of which have “emotional meanings and messages”.
He lists eight different saguns for Mha Puja: 1) Manda or Mandala; 2) Itaa or oil-soaked long wick; 3) Fruits; 4) Jajanka or holy threads; 5) Mari or sweets; 6) Dhau or yogurt; 7) Tika; and 8) Khen sagun.
Gwong adds that the lotus-shaped manda made within a circle symbolizes the universe or Earth which we are a part of. Lighting the itaa (oil-soaked wick) and dhup or incense sticks for the first Puja of mandala has a message to burn oneself but to stay bright and fragrant for others. It also represents self-enlightenment.
Fruits symbolize the blessings of the earth. Jajanka or the Pancharang threads suggests to oneself to have patience, concentration and not to cross the self’s limits. Sweets are offered so that one may attain sweetness and be good to all. Dhau or yogurt used during the Puja symbolizes full moon, and the blessing offered is “May you be able to light up the dark like the full moon.”
The tika is a blessing of radiance, not just for oneself but to be able to spread the glow amongst others as well. The Khen sagun comprises of Wo (lentil-based pancake), a small fried fish, buff meat, boiled egg, and aayla or local wine. Here, the wo represents the land or our foundation, the fish stands for oceans and aquatic life, the meat for wilderness, egg for the aerial life, and wine for the elixir of life.
The amalgamation of these elements symbolize ecological wholeness through which a man derives his energy source from Nature which he himself is a part of. The blessing that this sagun also offers, according to Gwong, is “May well wishes be with you everywhere – in water, wilderness, and air.”
All the rituals are performed by the nakin, or the eldest woman, in the family as family members sit in front of their respective mandalas made in a row. Two additional mandalas are made at the top and bottom of the row, the first one for Janmaraj (life-giving god) and the last for Yamaraj (life-taking god).
“The symbolism here reminds us of our lifecycle caught between two extremes, and that we’re mere mortals,” states Gwong and adds, “The teaching it offers is to remain humble and be careful of our conduct.”
For the final ritualistic performance, the nakin showers each family member three times with a handful of a mixture of pieces of fruits, sinha or vermillion powder, flowers, cooked paddy lumps, aakhye or hand milled rice, and taye or popped rice from a pathi or traditional measuring container.
“This ritual is performed to honor yourself for your hard work and your worth.”
Self-worship it maybe, but as the saying goes, love of oneself is not selfish but self-preservation. And Mha Puja is a celebration of all this; it’s a celebration of one’s being, of one’s existence and one that recognizes human worth, dignity, and prestige.
The interpretation of the rituals and the procedures of the Mha Puja may vary among the sub-groups of the Newar community, or from one place to another.