At all other times of the year, hotels in Kathmandu, Nepal, are planning some event or the other to attract guests; it could range from a special concert to a theme party to a culinary event. However, come Dashain, the biggest Nepali festival, and everything goes on hold. From the start of the 10 days of Dashain, the streets of Kathmandu begin to look desolate, with a large part of its denizens gone home to other parts of the country. Fact is, Kathmandu is where the action is, meaning Nepalis from all nooks and corners of Nepal live in Kathmandu for work and business, and while it’s their home for all practical purposes, their ancestral homes are somewhere else. And, fact is, the most important part of Dashain is the tradition of getting together with family in ancestral homes.
It’s a lovely custom, a beautiful part of Dashain culture, and hotels in Kathmandu expect this, and in fact, have accepted this. It would have been tough, anyway, to keep the staff working at full throttle during Dashain if business was as usual, since Dashain is a holiday that’s not going to be missed by anyone, including the staff of hotels in Kathmandu. Having said all this, let’s see what Dashain, Nepal’s biggest festival, is all about. Keep in mind that it’s a 10-day-long festival (pretty long by any standard, wouldn’t you agree?), and, keep in mind, also, that Nepal’s biggest festival involves a certain ritual that’s not so apt in this day and age; that is, animal sacrifice. There’s some hue and cry about cutting down on this aspect of Nepal’s biggest festival, but that’s easier said than done. A tradition that’s thousands of years old will certainly take some time to change, if at all.
Anyway, leaving this less-savory fact behind, let’s talk about pleasanter things about Nepal’s biggest festival, Dashain. It starts with Ghatasthapana (September 25, this year), when a handful of barley seeds are scattered on a bed of sand in a clay container in the puja room of every Hindu household in the land. The sand has been brought from nearby rivers the day before, and people make sure the barley seeds are of good quality; the barley, when it sprouts some days later, has to be really nice and yellow-green, since it is an essential part of the offering on the day of Vijaya Dashami, along with the tika (a mix of vermillion powder, rice, and curd) on the forehead of younger family members by their elders.
However, Vijaya Dashami is still far away, it’s after all the culmination of Dashain, falling on the tenth day. Let’s go one day at a time: On Ghatasthapana, along with the sowing of barley seeds, a lamp with a thick wick is also lighted, and is kept burning for the full 10 days of Dashain. The lighted lamp is kept covered by another clay vessel; the soot on this will be put on the forehead as a little dot below the red tika on Vijaya Dashami. One curious fact is that while all such preparations are done by womenfolk, it is a male family member who has to conduct the daily puja during the Dashain period. If you are in Nepal during Vijaya Dashami, also known as the day of Tika, you’ll see most people with tikas on their forehead, and jamara (the aforementioned barley sprouts) tucked behind their ears, including the staff of any hotel in Nepal you’re staying at.
The first nine days of Dashain are collectively called Navaratri (nava: nine; ratri: night). Lots of people, many of them youngsters, will be out in droves in the wee hours of the morning every day visiting all the temples dedicated to Goddess Durga and her manifestations. The air is full of festivity. Mealtimes on all 10 days are sumptuous feasts, and a variety of mutton dishes are the order of the day. Chiura (beaten rice) is preferred over boiled rice, which is the staple at other times. The seventh day is Fulpati, which is marked by jamara from Gorkha (original home of the Shah dynasty) carried into Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu Durbar Square) palace, the ancient seat of Nepal’s kings, on a palanquin borne by loin-clothed Brahmins, and escorted by a platoon of soldiers dressed in uniforms of bygone days and carrying bayoneted muskets.
Maha Asthami falls on the eighth day, and it’s the day mentioned before, the one that’s not in tune with 21st century sensitivities. Throughout the country, temple courtyards of Goddess Durga become red with the blood of thousands of buffaloes, goats, ducks, and pigeons—their heads severed with single chops of khukuris. There’s probably as much meat in homes on this day as there might be in some of the smaller hotels in Kathmandu! The night of this bloody day is known as Kal Ratri (black night).
The next day is Maha Nawami. In Kathmandu, this is the only day when the doors of the ancient Taleju temple at Hanuman Dhoka are opened for the public. Official sacrifices are also conducted on this day by the Nepal Army in the courtyard (kot) of the Hanuman Dhoka palace. If you are lucky enough to witness it, it’s something that will remain with you forever—the sight of buffalo heads being neatly sliced with the single stroke of long bladed khukuris wielded by sturdy army men. If that’s not drama enough, officers in full regalia stand in attendance with a military band going great guns all the while, not to mention, the loud boom of rounds fired from dozen of big guns.
Finally, it’s Vijaya Dashami, the day of Tika, and this is when you’ll find the streets of Kathmandu coming alive once again, what with families going from place to place to receive tika from elder relatives. It’s a time of hectic activity, since most Nepalis have lots of relatives, generally. Actually, because it’s not possible to make it everywhere on a single day, Dashain carries on for the next four days to allow for this. So, although Dashain is known as a 10-day festival, it really ends on the 15th day, which is always a full moon day and is known as Kojagrata Purnima. It’s the day for rest and rejuvenation from all that frenetic activity of Nepal’s biggest festival, Dashain. And now, again, hotels in Kathmandu go on full alert because the tourist season, too, has begun!