The Svanti Festival: Victory over Death and the Renewal of the Ritual Cycle in Nepal

By Shrestha, Bal Gopal | Contributions to Nepalese Studies, July 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Svanti Festival: Victory over Death and the Renewal of the Ritual Cycle in Nepal


Shrestha, Bal Gopal, Contributions to Nepalese Studies


Introduction

Religious and ritual life in Newar society is highly guided by calendrical festivals. We can say that the Newars spend a good part of their time to organise and perform these festivals. They are highly organised when it comes to organising ritual activities. Not only in Kathmandu but also wherever the Newars have moved and settled, they managed to observe their regular feasts and festivals, rituals and traditions. Almost every month, they observe one or another festival, feast, fast or procession of gods and goddesses. As we know, almost each lunar mouth in Nepal contains one or another festival (nakhahcakhah). All year round, numerous festivals are celebrated, processions of deities are carried out and worship is performed, (1) Although all major and minor feasts and festivals are celebrated in every place in many ways similar the celebration of these feasts and festival in each place may vary. Moreover, there are many feasts and processions of gods and goddesses in each place, which can be called original to that place. One of the most common features of all Newar cities, towns and villages is that each of them has its specific annual festival and procession (jatra) of the most important deity of that particular place. The processions of different mother goddesses during Pahamacarhe in March or April and Indrajatra in August or September, and the processions of Rato Macchendranath in Patan and Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur are such annual festivals.

Besides observing fasts, feasts, festivals, organising processions of gods and goddesses, and making pilgrimages to religiously important places, another important feature of Newar society are the masked dances of various deities. In the Kathmandu Valley several masked dances are performed at different times of the year. Among them are the Devi dances, performed around the Yamya festival in Kathmandu. As we know most Newar socio-religious and ritual activities are taken care of by guthi. All these feasts and fasts, festivals and processions of gods and goddesses, rituals and traditions of the Kathmandu Valley are characteristic for Newar culture.

Scholars agree on the fact that most feasts, fasts, festivals and procession of gods and goddesses celebrated in present day Nepal date since the Malla period some of them even date from the Thakuri period and the Licchavi period. Analysing some names of festivals found in the Gopalarajavamsavali, the oldest chronicle of Nepal, and an inscription dated 1441 AD (NS 561), Sharma stresses that Newar festivals developed their present shape already during the reigns of Jayasthiti Malla (1382-95 AD) and Yaksa Malla (1428-1482 AD). (2) Even after the 1769 Gorkha conquest of Nepal, the Gorkha rulers accepted most of Newar culture as their court culture (Hoek 1990). This helped a great deal in continuation of Newar culture and its rituals in modern Nepal.

Depending on the nature of the celebrations, Newar festival rituals can be classified in various categories. For example, some festivals like Svanti (Tihar), Holi, the day of worshipping divine serpents (Nagapancami) and Mohani (Dasain) are celebrated by most Nepalese without ethnic or caste boundaries. These festivals can be considered national festivals. They are celebrated not only in Nepal, but also in India in a grand manner. Of course, celebrations of these festivals in Nepal are immensely different from the way they are celebrated in India. Inside Nepal too, each ethnic group may celebrate them in a distinct way and sometimes within one group, the way of celebration may vary from place to place and from family to family. (3) For the Newars, Mchani and Svanti are very important annual festivals (nakhah). For the Newars, Nagapancami and Holi are important, but not celebrated with any feasts, while the people in the Tarai and in India celebrate both these festivals in a grand manner.

Most other festivals can be considered as characteristic of the Newar, because during such festivals no other ethnic groups of Nepal directly participate.

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